Archive for December, 2009

18
Dec
09

Lembeh, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 2009

After a grueling 36 hour, 4 flight ordeal getting to Manado, North Sulawesi, we were picked up at the airport by Rob, the owner of Diver’s Lodge Lembeh. ([url]http://www.diverslodgelembeh.com[/url]) After arriving at the port of Bitung, about an hour’s drive along winding roads in traffic conditions you really wouldn’t want to drive in, we met Rob’s wife Linda, her sister Belgis and the rest of the family, and boarded a water taxi to the hotel on the island of Lembeh. The hotel is isolated from other hotels and houses, on the far end of the island. This makes for a longer boat trip to the dive sites, however by going past the harbour every day you see a lot of interesting things and photo opportunities abound.

The cottages at Diver’s Lodge are large, airy and comfortable. Each one has its own porch overlooking the water, with comfortable outdoor furniture and a drying rack. The room is tastefully decorated with silk throws and curtains, and contains a desk & chair as well as another table and chairs perfect for setting up camera gear. The large bathroom is fully tiled with a hot water shower. The toilet is manual flush (translation: there is no handle to flush — instead, you take a ladle of water and pour it in the toilet to flush it). It works well and is not an inconvenience. There is no AC in the rooms, only a ceiling fan, but there is also a breeze through the bottoms of the windows that are only screened. I was initially concerned about the lack of AC however I found the ceiling fan was more than enough to keep me cool at night. The geckos’ chirping at night and the birds singing in the morning just added to the ambiance.

The view from the front of our cottage:
Upon arrival, we assembled our dive gear and put it on the porch where the boat crew would pick it up. Dive gear stayed on the boat all week; baskets were available on the boat for smaller items such as computers, boots, masks, etc. Upon assembly every morning, camera gear was placed out on the porch where the crew would pick it up. After the last dive of the day, the crew would carry it back to the porch! This proved very convenient, as our cottage was the furthest away.

We had selected the unlimited diving package plus nitrox. My friend and I shared a boat, but we each had our own dive guides. There were two other crew on the boat. Having my own dive guide was at first odd, but I quickly realized that I really had it made! Andris was the best dive guide you could ask for. Nearly everything we asked for, he found. The first dive I wanted to see a hairy frogfish: there it was shortly after the dive started. Pygmy seahorses? Right this way. Blue ring octopus? Of course! By mid-week I was finding many creatures on my own, and I actually found a larger blue ring octopus (on my 500th lifetime dive, no less). The thing I found strange about Lembeh was that the creatures were basically out in the open on the sand. I was used to Caribbean diving where the frogfish and other creatures were on coral heads or sponges, but not here. It was odd at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Some sites had nice coral and sponges in the shallows, which made for picturesque safety stops.

At the hotel, we started the day with breakfast, which included eggs cooked any way you like, toast, crepes, fruit, cheese, tomatoes, rice, juice, coffee, tea, and spreads like peanut butter, nutella and jam. If you were still hungry after that, there were plenty of tasty baked goods and shrimp chips available 24/7 in the lounge, in huge sealed containers, just ready to be eaten.

Because we had an unlimited dive package, we stayed out on the boat all day; our hot lunch was packed when we boarded. Lunch consisted of fried noodles, rice, protein (either chicken, fish or eggs and sometimes tofu), vegetables and occasionally fritters. There was always a tasty sauce with the protein dish but it was never too spicy. However, there was plenty of hot sauce and soy sauce on board, if you so desired. Between dives, there was always fresh fruit, cookies or crackers, hot tea, coffee, pop and water. We were never hungry.

Every evening we would arrive to a special treat in our room, freshly baked that afternoon. If you’re not doing a night dive, the daily treats are available in the lounge every afternoon.

Dinner was usually at 7pm. We would arrive from our twilight/night dive after dinner had already started, showered quickly and were at the dinner table by 7:30. The food at dinner was very good. There was always chicken and fish, occasionally beef. Rice, vegetables, potatoes, sometimes some tasty vegetable fritters, and fruit for dessert.

We usually did 4 dives/day. The dive time was unlimited: come up whenever you’re done. A few times I stayed down longer than my guide but that was due to him being cold. I was toasty in my 7mm suit, however most others wore 3mm or 5mm suits. I only went into deco a couple of times, but cleared it quickly. There were no issues with that. Diving with a computer is necessary here, as you’ll get more bottom time that way. Some of the creatures were deeper, around 90ft, but others were quite shallow. You didn’t have to go deep if you didn’t want to: that was the advantage of having your own dive guide. Between dives we had a 1hr SI and at lunch we usually had a 2hr SI. This made it convenient to have a nap on one of the benches. The boats were wooden with two motors, with full cover and a modern toilet. The floors were covered in non-slip mats, and the tanks were held in racks. The crew would set up the dive gear between tanks and help you in and out of it. If you wanted to get some sun you could sit out on the bow of the boat. The covered boat proved useful for the first 4 days of the trip when it rained hard most afternoons. It was the beginning of the rainy season.

It really sunk in that I had made the right choice in resorts and dive packages when I saw divers from other resorts, up to 6 to a dive guide. If only I could always have a private dive guide, wherever I dove!

The week went by too quickly. However, I had seen all the popular creatures I wanted to see, and more! The big five to see were the: hairy frogfish, wonderpus octopus, mimic octopus, blue ring octopus and ambon scorpionfish. By the middle of the week we had already seen all of those! I finally saw clownfish; many types of them. Unfortunately I found out the hard way that they are not always cute little fish. I was taking photos of a pair of porcelain crabs in a huge anemone that contained a colony of clownfish when I felt something bite me. I looked away from my viewfinder and found a large black and white (panda) clownfish attacking me. It did not stop biting me and it actually drew blood! I’d been bitten by damselfish before, but never this hard. Who knew the cute little ‘nemos’ could also be nasty little buggers? From then on, whenever I saw clownfish swimming toward me, I would make a wide circle around them.

Vicious clownfish:

We also did a couple of dives right at the mouth of the Lembeh Strait, where it meets the ocean. There were soft corals and a ripping current. Andris and I had entered a few minutes before my friend and his guide, and we only had to endure swimming (and pulling on the rocks) against the current for about 5 minutes, after which we encountered an eddy and continued our dive, ending with a fast drift through the channel. I saw a sea snake and some napoleon wrasse, among other fish. It was a nice change from the muck diving and I had a chance to use my wide angle lens. At one point Andris pointed out a feature in the water above us that looked like a very long and thin horizontal whirlpool. Apparently this is a feature of the strong current in that area. The boat followed our bubbles and picked us up when we were done. My friend was not so lucky. He and his guide entered an area with very strong current and were not able to get out of that area so they aborted their dive.

My last dive in Lembeh was memorable in its own way. There was a remora circling Andris for a while but he manage to keep it away. Later the remora swam towards me, but I managed to stave it off with my camera. However, later on in the dive I felt something odd: some pressure and resistance on my thigh. I normally keep a horizontal attitude in the water, so I simply looked down at that spot. The remora had succeeded in attaching itself to me! It felt quite strange, and whenever I was finning, I could feel some resistance from the remora, even though it was finning too. Now I knew how the poor turtles, fish and sharks feel!

Lembeh was fantastic. I was very lucky to see creatures that many divers don’t see in a 2-week trip. Even so, I would someday like to return to the hospitality of Diver’s Lodge. Besides, there are still many more creatures that I haven’t seen or photographed! 😉

Here’s the link to the gallery:  http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/Tropica…96424067_vpM4Q

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18
Dec
09

Bonaire – March 2009

I recently returned from my fourth trip to Bonaire, and second time at Buddy Dive Resort.

I drove from Ottawa to Syracuse, then flew to Newark and caught the Continental red-eye direct to Bonaire. If I had flown from Ottawa it would have been $500 more. The flights down weren’t too bad; a couple of delays in Syracuse, but I spent the majority of the 7 hour layover at Newark in the President’s Club lounge. It was worth the $50 for a day pass, especially for the high-speed wireless internet and lockers. It was nice to be able to lock up my camera gear and wander the airport unencumbered. There wasn’t much food at the lounge: just cheeses and spreads, crackers, apples, chips and lots of cold and hot drinks plus free alcoholic beverages. Their furniture is much more comfortable too. I was so tired I didn’t bother drinking any alcohol, besides which I was planning to dive the next morning. They also had shower facilities, which I would have used if I was staying longer. It wasn’t noisy or crowded, and I would pay for a day pass again (until I get to Elite status, where access is free).

This time I travelled with 5 others, so we stayed in a 3br/3bath condo. The rooms were clean, the AC worked well and we all had enough closet space. We had one of the newly-decorated units with the dark rattan furniture. Four of us had DSLRs and one had a video setup so we added a second truck to our package, which worked out well. Buddy Dive staff had suggested a van for all 6 of us, but I’d seen the vans before and with all our gear and tanks it would have been a tight fit.

Buddy Dive Resort caters to divers, and this time was no exception. Drive-through tank pickup/drop off, free Nitrox upgrade, 24hr tank availability, and breakfast included.

On this trip, the dive briefing, while mercifully short, started with a hard sell from the photo shop. It dragged on for over half the briefing. The briefing ended with a walk around the resort to point out the tank locations and where the ‘secret key’ is held for off-hour tanks and gear storage.

The diving: Since I had something to compare it to, I will say that there was a difference from my last trip. Tropical storm Omar hit Bonaire hard in mid-October 2008. The reefs have a lot of damage, many overturned coral heads, and there is a lack of colourful encrusting sponges, since they were likely ripped/sandblasted off the coral heads during the storm surge. However, except for that lack of colourful sponges, the fish life is as abundant as before, and probably more so. There were larger schools of fish, and I actually saw large schools of jacks (bar and crevalle). I saw many more grouper on this trip, including a gigantic one that cruised past us on a dive, then settled under a coral head where we found him later on. I’ve never seen that large a grouper anywhere! Many octopus on this trip, at least one per day. There were fewer eels on this trip, of all sorts. I saw fewer turtles, maybe 5 the whole trip. Way fewer puffer/porcupine fish. I only saw 2 barracudas all week, which was odd. Fewer shrimp and tiny macro stuff, and no frogfish 😦 However, the tarpon were all over the place at the house reef, even during the day! There seemed to be fewer parrotfish in general, however we saw a couple of large midnight parrotfish and several large rainbow parrotfish throughout the week. Tons of scorpionfish, lizardfish (sand divers) and flounders. The southern sites had a fair amount of eagle rays. In general, the southern sites sustained less damage, especially the outer of the double reefs. The lush soft corals are still abundant on all sites. If you’ve never been to Bonaire, you likely won’t notice the damage; there is more fish life on Bonaire than most other Caribbean islands.

As usual, I like to observe fish behaviour, and there was a lot of it. Cleaning stations were abundant, nuclear hunting (where various fish species join an eel and go hunting) occurred late every afternoon, as did daily fish courtship rituals. On two night dives, I got to watch an octopus go about its evening hunt, changing shape and colour, extending its tentacles like an umbrella over a coral head and flushing out prey. It was amazing and very rewarding to watch.

underwater photos:  http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/Tropical-Diving/Bonaire-March-2009/7636644_vCotz#493732920_QX978

18
Dec
09

Bahamas August 2008

Spent a week with some friends aboard one of Blackbeard’s Cruises boats in the Bahamas, the Pirate’s Lady. Had some camera and strobe cord issues, so I didn’t get to shoot about a third of the time, and when I did, it was with either one or no strobes 😦

Blackbeard’s was described to me as summer camp on  a boat, and I suppose that’s a good way of describing it. There was no privacy except behind your curtained bed nook. My nook was in the kitchen area so it was noisy early in the morning and sometimes late at night. We started running out of food near the end of the cruise. You could only dive air, and it took forever to refill tanks (only 1 tank to a diver!). We weren’t allowed to go into deco but when you’re diving air and you dive a deep wreck the first dive of the day, you only get 10 minutes bottom time, which sucked. I can readily say that I will not go back. It wasn’t particularly cheap either; I’d rather go back to Roatan for the price.

Photos are here: http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/Tropical-Diving/Bahamas-August-2008/5913890_brMSZ#367968118_UdyTm

18
Dec
09

Bonaire Mar 29-Apr 6 2008

This being my third trip to Bonaire in just over a year, a lot has stayed the same so I won’t repeat myself. Things that did change on this trip: 1. the viz was worse than previous trips (but still much better than here); 2. the water temps were a degree or two cooler than this time last year (still warmer than here, but I’m glad I had a 3mm vest for layering); 3. on a good note, the marine life seems to have bounced back somewhat (I saw several large groupers, compared to one small one in 2 previous trips; 4 octopuses, compared to none on both previous trips; and some new species I hadn’t seen before).

Highlights of this trip included the 4 octopuses, the baby and adult squid squadrons, the tiny, well-camouflaged frogfish, the banded puffer, the flame box crab, the 1/4 inch long sun anemone shrimp and the pair of yellowhead jawfish on my last dive of the week. We dove all of my favourite sites (Oil Slick, Karpata, 1000 Steps, Bari Reef), as well as Buddy’s Reef, Witches Hut, Hilma Hooker, Alice in Wonderland, Invisibles, Jeannie’s Glory, and Tori’s Reef (actually not the reef, but the shallows to the left of the entrance – thanks to a tip from SB). The shallows at Tori’s Reef is where I found an octopus den with two sleeping octopuses in it, a very cool find.

Besides the diving, the other thing I look forward to on Bonaire is the dining. Being a Dutch island, there are Indonesian influences as well as South American influences because of its proximity to the mainland. I don’t normally eat lunch on these trips, so after an early buffet breakfast and maybe a mid-afternoon granola bar, I’m starving by the time we go out to dinner.

On our first night, we ate at Warung Louise, an Indonesian restaurant, which was very good with some nicely spicy flavours. The fish I had was perfectly cooked and very well presented. The service was very good but that could be because we showed up late and ended up being the only customers remaining!

La Plazita Limena is always a favourite and did not disappoint. It’s a Peruvian restaurant that has both traditional and continental food, including seafood, chicken, beef and lamb. On weekdays, they serve complementary freshly-baked mini-baguettes that come with a side of very garlicky butter which is really good, especially after a long day of diving. On the weekend, they serve complentary tiny dishes of halved boiled potato with a slice of hard-boiled egg, covered with a cream cheese sauce made with aji yellow chile pepper and a sprinkle of cilantro; a traditional Peruvian starter which was also very good. I had to have my usual ceviche appetizer (cubed raw fish marinated in lime juice, with cilantro, onion, corn and a small amount of some type of fresh chile pepper). During another visit I tried the tiradito de pescado appetizer, as the menu said it was ‘spicy’. It is almost the same as ceviche, though the fish is in strips, not cubes, there are no onions, and there is a lot of some kind of very hot pepper in it. It was very similar to habanero (it had a very similar heat level and fruitiness). Whatever it was, it was very good and really hit the spot for me (I need my spicy food fix, as well as my fresh seafood fix). The fresh fish and shrimp dishes were always good and perfectly cooked; I tried several different dishes, some spicy, some not. Grilled or fried, it was always good. This restaurant is so good I’ll return to it again next trip at least once. Here, you can rest assured that if the menu says spicy, it really is! Note that service can be a little slow since they appear to lack enough wait staff. But heck, I’m on vacation; no worries.

Another favourite is El Fogon Latino, a Columbian restaurant about a 5 minute drive from the big church in Kralendijk. This time I started with the fish soup. It was very, very good. Lots of fish chunks, potatoes, corn and lots of cilantro with a bit of a bite, in a clear broth. It was so good I’ve been searching for recipes online so I can duplicate it back home (as well as all of the Peruvian recipes; but I digress). The seafood here was also perfectly prepared. The nice thing about El Fogon Latino is that the prices are around half of what you pay for the same thing in town. The menu is small, but they have everything you’d want, all fresh and good. If you need more spice in your food (the food here is not really spicy), they provide a few freshly prepared condiments, one of which is a very spicy onion, vinegar and hot chile pepper mix. Both this restaurant and the Peruvian restaurant have my favourite ‘local’ beer available, Polar (it’s from Venezuela; similar to Corona, but better).

We also ate at The Lion’s Den. The food there was OK, but the fish was over-cooked. Their advertised ‘best key lime pie on the island’ was so-so. Too much crust and not enough flavour. The good thing about this place is that they appear to serve dinner until at least 10:30pm, which is nice if you like to do your night dive before dinner and everything else is closed.

The other restaurant we ate at, Cactus Blue, was similar in experience to my first Bonaire visit: the drinks were good and strong (I had a great margarita), and their key lime pie is awesome! However, just as last time, their main courses were pretty bland. Even their ceviche appetizer, which I had tried and really enjoyed last year, has changed. It used to have a bite to it, but this time it tasted oddly sweet and the seafood was very sparse. I thought maybe my previous visit’s experience was a fluke, but this latest visit reiterated my opinion about this place: go for drinks and key lime pie, but skip the rest.

This trip we stayed at Buddy Dive. It’s similar to Captain Don’s Habitat in that the dive shop staff is very good, but the hotel staff is mediocre at best. This appears to be the case at most dive resorts where I’ve stayed. I chose Buddy’s this time because I was tired of having to wait at the airport to pick up and drop off the rental truck. Buddy’s package includes pickup and drop-off, which was convenient, plus they have their own fleet of rental trucks. We ended up paying for an extra night upon arrival at 5:30am, since our room would not be ready until the afternoon, but because of that we got a nice apartment on the top (2nd) floor in a building on the southern edge of the resort. It had a great view of the water and a nice wide balcony with pegs and hangers for gear. The slight downside was that only the bedroom was air conditioned, and there was a huge space under the door which seemed to be an invitation for all the mosquitos to come visit me during the night. I was completely bitten up the first couple of nights until I bought a can of insect fogger the third day and got rid of most the little buggers! The one thing that struck me as odd about the unit was that there were no ceiling fans (and the ceilings were high and vaulted); most tropical places have ceiling fans and I tend to use them. The included breakfast buffet was pretty similar to what you would get at any dive resort: made-to-order omelettes, pancakes or french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast, cereal, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, fruit, sweet rolls, coffee, tea, juices. Nothing special, but good enough to provide sustenance for a day’s diving.

The rental truck and unlimited shore diving was included in the weekly rate at Buddy’s. Our truck was nearly brand new, which was a nice change from the rust bucket from my first trip. The drive-through tank pickup/dropoff was convenient; you could easily get your air or nitrox (free nitrox upgrade at Buddy’s for nitrox certified divers). The camera rinse tanks were always full and clean so it was convenient to use between the two morning and two afternoon dives and before the night dive. They were out of Nitrox tanks one time but we only had to wait 10 minutes. The fills weren’t always the best; they varied between 2600 and 3000. The nitrox analyzer is hooked up to a pressure guage so you can check your mix and your pressure at the same time, but hot tanks often = low fill once you hit the water. The mix varied between 31and 33%.

On this trip I carried my housed DSLR with 2 strobes on all but the first day’s shore dives. I must admit that by the middle of the week, it felt like I was carrying an anchor with me on entries and exits. Because of the extra load, we didn’t attempt any of the far southern sites, since the wind was very strong and there was more surf. I got a bit bruised up on a couple of exits, but wearing my fullsuit prevented any scrapes or gashes. I got stung by a stray jellyfish tentacle on the second day; it wrapped itself around my regulator mouthpiece so I had lovely raised red welts around my mouth and chin for the rest of the week. Of course, I had forgotten to bring vinegar in the truck with me. I got stung on the face a few more times that week, but nothing as bad. There were noticeably fewer eels on this trip, however I saw a greater variety of species. The brown chromis were prolific, both juvenile and adult. Spotted drums on every dive. The usual suspects everywhere: parrotfish, trumpetfish, trunkfish, wrasse, blennies, angelfish, snappers, grunts, puffers, damselfish.

While I like taking the red-eye from Newark (cheap, direct to Bonaire and decent luggage allowance), on the last 2 trips I didn’t get any sleep, which really sucked. The bonus is you get to dive on the morning you arrive, so you get 6 full dive days plus an early morning dive on the 7th day. Can’t beat that.

underwater photos:  http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/gallery…79179657_d65gF

topside photos: http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/gallery…79704416_escmU

18
Dec
09

Bonaire – Sept 23-30 2007

The last week of September, I treated myself to a belated summer vacation to Bonaire; I have to say that my second trip was just as good at the first. I had recently been downsized after a takeover at the company where I worked, so I took the opportunity to go on vacation before I started looking for a  new job.  I ended up with a really bad case of PBD (post-Bonaire depression) this time; Bonaire is very addictive!

This time I took the Continental red-eye out of Newark. I drove there from Ontario, Canada in only 7.25 hrs, got a room at the Airport Ramada where I showered and changed then caught the shuttle to the airport. The room rate included free parking for up to 2 weeks and free airport shuttle. The Continental self-check-in was very fast and easy, though I had to rearrange some of my gear between bags as their scale said one of my bags was 51.5 pounds. Going through security was about 2 minutes, but then I found out that all the duty free shops were closed (it was around 9:45 when I got past security). I only found a magazine shop and a Starbucks open in the terminal. Tried to sleep a bit at the gate, but not much luck. The flight was uneventful, but again, I wasn’t able to sleep much. Arrived a bit early in Bonaire, but still had to wait for the truck rental place (AB) to open at 5AM. Got my truck, went to my hotel, only to find that my room wasn’t available after all, so I tried to sleep in my truck. At breakfast I finally got my room key, cleaned up and changed, and felt much better. I already had my marine park tag from my previous trip in April, so all I needed to do was fill out a form for the dive shop, get a couple of lead weights and I was good to go. It is so nice to walk out on the dock and see all the parrotfish in the shallows before you even get in the water…

I was really tired the first day, so I only managed to do 3 dives. I didn’t trust myself to put my camera and strobe together without flooding them, so I took no photos that day. Of course, that was the only day I found a pipefish and a chain moray :-( I took the opportunity of being camera-less to do a giant stride entry off the rocks at Oil Slick Leap. It’s always a little unnerving the first time you do it. It’s only around a 7 foot drop, but it looks a lot higher.

The next 5 days were filled with a lot of diving (4 dives/day), and some really cool finds. I had planned to do some dives searching the coral rubble for yellowhead jawfish, mantis shrimp, and tiny crabs. Well, it paid off. I managed to find 2 mantis shrimp, several yellowhead jawfish, many tiny crabs and a live conch. On the reefs I found many juvenile trunkfish, squid, a seahorse, frogfish, as well as all of the usual fish and creatures.

This time of year (Sept), there was no wind and I took advantage of this to dive some of the usually more difficult sites. Rick, the instructor at the hotel, took me to Cai, Lighthouse and Nukove. Cai was the best, as we saw some rather large green morays, turtles and a squadron of about 20 eagle rays. At Lighthouse there was a bit of surf and a current reversal mid-dive, but nothing too bad. Nukove was a rather long drive, but the huge boulder coral was something I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera on any of those dives, so no photos :-(

I dove my favourite reefs: Oil Slick, 1000 Steps, Karpata and Bari Reef, as well as some new favourites: Small Wall and Black Durgon Reef. I was a little disappointed to see that some of the lushness of the soft coral was missing in some of the northern sites, presumably due to storm surge, and the lack of staghorn and elkhorn coral at some of the sites that had very healthy stands of it on my previous trip was disturbing.

There were some negatives at the hotel that would made me reconsider returning to that particular hotel. The main reason was having the gas line in my truck cut overnight. Luckily the owner fixed it, but it ruined my day’s dive plans and caused a gas spill at the gas station (where I discovered the cut line). It’s unfortunate that this happened, as I enjoyed staying at the small hotel and meeting guests from all parts of the world. There were some minor annoyances such as like having to lug tanks up and down two flights of stairs to dive the house reef, and the lack of an in-room safe and on-site security. That being said, those things didn’t stop me from having a great trip. I was on vacation, after all.

Breakfast was included at the hotel. I didn’t usually eat lunch, however I brought a bunch of granola bars for snacks which helped ease between-dive hunger. I also bought some nice gouda cheese and crackers for between-dive snacks. One day after a guided dive we went to the Rose Inn to get some local food. I got the fried fish with rice & beans, salad, funchi and a black bean cake. It was all very good, plentiful and cheap. We ate dinner at La Plazita Limena (2x), City Cafe, Salsa, Bobbe Jan’s and El Fogon Latino. La Plazita Limena was very good, although on our last night (Saturday) when we returned they were severely understaffed and very busy; our appetizer arrived at the same time as the entrees, and we didn’t get any of their bread and garlic butter. I’d recommend going there during the week. City Cafe was also very good, but their service was terrible and they were out of their advertised special key lime pie :-(. Salsa had great service and great food, though a bit pricey. We got take-away from Bobbe Jan’s: it was really good and plentiful. El Fogon Latino also had great food, at about half the price of the more touristy places. Highly recommended.

Again, no issues with theft on this trip. While parked at dive sites, I always left my t-shirt, board shorts, Lexan water bottle, cheap sunglasses and Old Navy flip-flops in plain sight in the truck, with windows rolled down and doors unlocked.

I have to say the weather on this trip was great, but very hot and humid, more so than my last trip in April because the usual tradewinds were non-existent. We had one afternoon downpour, but it stopped in about 20 minutes and didn’t ease the humidity at all. If you don’t like high heat & humidity, don’t go this time of year; go during months when it’s windy, when it feels cooler. Of course, having the ocean very close to go cool off is a real bonus this time of year. The sea was like glass the first 3-4 days I was there, with little to no surge. By the end of the week there was a little breeze which added to the surge a bit, making photography in the shallows just a little tougher. I missed the annual coral spawning by a couple of days, but I did notice the visibility was down a bit as the week went on, presumably because of the coral spawning. It didn’t bother me much as I only shot macro and close-ups on this trip.

I met some really nice people on this trip; it reminded me why I used to enjoy travelling alone. Solo diving in Bonaire was easy for me, so going during the slow season didn’t bother me; I rather enjoyed being able to do my own thing underwater.

Photos:

underwater: http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/gallery/3590623

topside: http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/gallery/3668206

18
Dec
09

Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles – April 1-8 2007

By chance we ended up in Bonaire this year instead of Roatan (my first trip, my buddy’s second). Getting there was not so much fun as we had to catch a charter flight to Curacao, then fly DAE to Bonaire. Our DAE flight was delayed by 45 minutes. When we finally got to Bonaire and picked up our truck, returned it for one with a better clutch and got to our hotel (Capt. Don’s Habitat), it was around 4PM. We walked over to the dive shop and confirmed the the time of the next day’s marine park briefing and went out to dinner. Next morning after the briefing, we dove the house reef. I took my empty housing for a swim and was amazed at all the things we saw during that dive. We brought a single newbie diver out with us and he seemed to have a great time, as we pointed out many creatures. After that dive, we loaded up our truck with more Nitrox tanks and drove north to our next dive location. That began our week of shore diving on Bonaire. We normally did 4 dives/day (2 AM, 2 PM), but on two days we did 5 dives, the last one being a night dive. We found all of the dive sites were good, but preferred the northern sites because of their ‘lushness’ and diversity. We didn’t get around to diving the far north sites in Washington Slagbaai Park, nor the Town Pier or Salt Pier. So many dive sites, so little time! Our truck (which I named RPOC for rusty piece of crap) was an older Toyota Hilux double cap pickup. We had heard it was best to leave the truck unlocked with windows rolled down without any visible valuables. We left our towels, clothes, sunglasses, sandals & water bottles in plain sight and sometimes I left other stuff in the glove box with no issues. We even left our truck unlocked all night in the parking lot of our hotel. The only time we locked it was when we went out for dinner and parked ‘downtown’.

The island:
After your plane lands you realize that all those trees you saw from the air are actually cacti. There are some trees on Bonaire, for instance Divi Divi trees, but mostly there are various cacti and thorn bushes. The island is flat in the centre and south regions and gets a bit hilly in the north with a peak in the park that goes up to just over 1000 feet. The tallest artificial site on the island is usually the set of oil storage tanks, however there were 2 cruise ships docked the week we were there and they literally dwarfed everything else on the island. There are wild donkeys roaming the northern areas, and wild goats, various iguanas and lizards are plentiful. Flamingos like to nest in the salt flats and can be found in the northern part of the island as well. Dogs roam around town, and our resort had its share of cats. The roads are fairly good in town, however some of the two-way roads in the north and south areas only accomodate one vehicle by width, so someone always has to pull over to let the other go by. The east or windward side has a lot of ironshore and the surfing there would be good if you could get in & out without killing yourself. The waves there were huge as we saw on our last day when we drove around the island. Windsurfing on the windward side in Lac Bay is popular, and kiteboarding is the new popular sport in the south-eastern part of the island. We toured around the island in our truck on the last day, driving up to the entrance to Washington Slagbaai Park to snap a few photos, spending some time looking at huge waves breaking on the windward shore, and touring around the southern tip of the island by the lighthouse and beyond. There is not much shopping on the island, and the t-shirt selection is a bit sparse.

The room and resort:
We were originally supposed to be booked into Buddy Dive Resort but they sold out over the weekend we booked so we ended up at Capt. Don’s Habitat. We got the only thing left, an Oasis Cottage. These cottages have no view, but they are conveniently located right beside the parking lot which proved great for the shore diving we did. We ended up with a 2br/2bathroom so it was convenient except for the concrete slab of a bed in one of the rooms. I swear the mattress was so hard you would be more comfortable on the floor. First day I found a huge cockroach in the bathroom, but later there were only the little geckoes on the ceiling, which was fine since they eat bugs. The cottage itself was very spacious with the two rooms each with its own bathroom, a full kitchen with gas stove & oven (no microwave), dishes, glasses, toaster, fridge and freezer with 5 ice cube trays (very handy), table & chairs. Couch and 2 comfy chairs, TV (never used), as well as the wrap-around porch with full dining table and chairs outside. Clothes lines on both porches for hanging wet dive gear — though I found hanging my wetsuit in the bathroom on the clothes drying rack dried it out by morning much better than leaving it outside. It rained a couple of nights in a row early in the week, which left large puddles in the morning but didn’t affect the temperature or the sunshine. When we checked in, the staff failed to mention they needed an additional cc imprint for eating at the restaurant which proved a little annoying, and we never received any beach/dive towel service even though other guests did (we brought our own anyway).

Dive shop:
At first glance appeared to be well-run, however they ran out of nitrox tanks on several occasions near the end of the week which caused us to have to wait, thereby getting hot fills that cooled down to 2700 psi. They claimed the lack of tanks was because tanks were getting stolen, however we noticed a large group of divers in one truck (6 of them) who took out 12 tanks at once, which obviously lowered the number of nitrox tanks available for other divers. We brought our own O2 analyzer with us which helped alleviate the lineup at the nitrox station every morning. The marine park briefing was pretty short, as most of their emphasis was on “diving freedom”: that you could do boat dives for 90 minutes as long as you exited with 500psi. Not that we cared, as we were exclusively doing shore dives on this trip. They gave no information on shore diving except from their dock and I didn’t see a copy of Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy in their shop, so we were glad we had a borrowed copy to use. On day 1, my alternate second stage hose blew an o-ring. I hadn’t brought any o-rings with me, but they fixed it in a couple of minutes at no charge, which was nice. The next day, my SPG started fizzing at the connection to the hose, and they replaced that o-ring as soon as I dug out my wrench set since they had lost their wrench in that size. The nice thing was that they basically let us do what we wanted without any hassle and no-one on the island blinked twice at our long hoses nor my bp/w setup. Tank o-rings were consistently leaky (sometimes tank valve o-rings too), but this seems pretty standard in the caribbean and I got used to it after a while. There are dive lockers available down at the shore dive dock, just a small staircase away from the dive shop. Bring your own lock, as the ones sold at the shop are tiny suitcase-type locks. We didn’t use the locker very often but it was nice to have. There are several rinse tanks as well as a camera tank and showers at the dive dock. The dive dock is separate from the boat dock, and the house reef is accessible via giant stride (a bit shallow, though) as well as a solid staircase for entry/exit.

Diving:
The diving was, in a word, spectacular. Who knew you could have so many fish in one place? The reefs were very healthy compared to the some places I’ve been. There were so many trumpetfish, banded coral shrimp and arrow crabs that we just ignored them after a couple of dives. Some of the trumpetfish were so large that they were thicker-bodied than the gorgonians in which they were trying to camouflage themselves. During our first night dive, the shrimp and arrow crabs were out in even more number than the daytime, it was incredible. Even the bristle worms put on a show at night on our house reef. I took several photos and then realized they were all over the reef, in all sizes from 1 to 8 inches long. The greater soapfish that slept under the coral heads all day were very active at night, trying to eat my photo subjects and being generally pushy. I enjoyed the crunching sound of the parrotfish eating coral all around me on all the daytime dives. Filefish were all over the place, very large ones too. Juveniles of all sorts were abundant and could be found everywhere, some hiding shyly in the gorgonians or amidst the branches of the staghorn coral. Cleaning stations were plentiful and had many customers, including a skittish tiger grouper, many creole wrasse, and a spotted moray with a banded coral shrimp on its head. Every dive had masses of brown chromis, juvenile and full-grown. All types of cleaner gobies were plentiful. We managed to find many lettuce-leaf sea slugs in all sorts of colours from violet to green. Larger red-lipped gobies were plentiful, as were tiny hermit crabs. Spotted moray eels were abundant as well as golden tail morays, sharp tail eels and a couple of chain morays. We were on the lookout for sea horses and octopi, but unfortunately didn’t find any. My find of the week was an orange longlure frogfish. It really paid off to study the books in my Reef Set. We saw some interesting behaviour in what we called a ‘gang of fish’: a selection of different species travelling in a group with heads pointed downward. There were a couple of large trumpets, large filefish, a grouper and others, and they appeared to be so intently focused at some task that they didn’t mind me being very close to them, snapping photos. I found out when I got home and read my fish behaviour book that this is called nuclear feeding, and that they were accompanying either an eel or an octopus (doh!), on a cooperative hunt. The eel or octopus moves inside the coral head to flush out the intended target, while the accompanying fish cover all the exits. They do this, going from coral head to coral head, hunting their prey. On one dive we saw an eagle ray hunting in the shallow sand flats, which was interesting to watch. On the dive site called Cliff (a wall dive), we saw a massive fish ball encircled by a huge barracuda. Of course I didn’t have my wide angle lens with me on that dive! On one dive at Oil Slick Leap we saw a small turtle that was munching so intently on its lunch in a crevice that as it moved further in, it got stuck inside some twisted coral until it finally wriggled free and swam away. Our last dive at 1000 steps (actually only 76 steps), we ended the dive in the shallows with a large squadron of squid. I had a bit of a surprise during one dive when I was trying to focus my macro lens on a different-looking shrimp in a corkscrew anemone, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving. I shifted my focus and noticed an eel had emerged right next to my face. It must have been comical to watch because I yelled and backed away immediately, and of course now I have a blurry shot of a snapping shrimp

In all we logged 23 dives, all except a couple in the 1 hour range. Most of our dives with the exception of one of the double reef dives and the Hilma Hooker were a maximum of 55-60 feet, since we didn’t find much more to see any deeper, and a lot of nice things were in the shallows. My favourite sites were Oil Slick Leap, Karpata and 1000 Steps, thought all the sites had many things to see.

Food:
Breakfast buffet was included at our hotel. It was OK but not much selection, and it didn’t change from day to day. The french toast was consistently good, but the coffee was full of grounds on a couple of days. I was looking for a bit more variety and was slightly disappointed, but did not go hungry at all. One thing to note: you couldn’t leave the table unattended because the seagulls would swoop down and steal your food.
Lunches we either skipped or ate fruit and/or sandwiches with fixings bought at the Cultimara grocery store.

Dinners we ate out:
-Zeezicht was OK, but small portions for the price.
-Capt. Don’s BBQ buffet was OK but nothing really special. Most of the salads were gone when we arrived after our night dive, and they didn’t get replenished which was a little annoying. Their mahi-mahi was good as was the chicken and ribs and corn on the cob.
-The Rib Factory was a bit rushed as we’d done a late night dive and arrived just before 10, but the enchiladas were OK as were the ribs.
-It Rains Fishes was great for the price: they always serve hot brown crusty bread with a nice garlic spread to start. The soup comes in a huge bowl/bucket (garlic soup was great, fish soup was OK). Their mains are large, so you will not go hungry. Cucumber salad and rice are served as sides with most of the main courses. We ate there twice. This place serves and stays open late; good to know.
-Papaya Moon satisfied my desire for some spicy food. I had their margarita (ok), and fish tacos with avocado sauce; not spicy but homemade hot sauce on the side was a great addition. Hot apple pie with brandy caramel topping on a sizzling fajita plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream was a great end to the meal.
-Cactus Blue had an excellent ceviche appetizer — the fish, calamari and other seafood just melted in your mouth, and the spice was just right for me. Awesome! However, their Lime & Ginger shrimp was a bit disappointing — I didn’t taste any ginger, rather it was more of a mango taste. Not bad, but not what I expected either. My friend sampled their new thin crust Jambalaya pizza and commented that the crust was a bit different from what he expected.
-Polar beer from Venezuela was a fine accompaniment to most meals.
Some restaurants are closed Sundays, others on Mondays and still others are only open on weekends, so it’s worth verifying whether your chosen restaurant is open before going.

So this is my opinion of Bonaire: great diving, good food, very nice laid-back atmosphere. Next time I’ll go for 2 weeks and stay at a different hotel, maybe even book a few boat dives for Klein Bonaire sites.

Underwater photos: http://scubagirl.smugmug.com/Tropical-Diving/Bonaire-April-2007-underwater/2698752_fuPqw#144080878_Dfgwo

18
Dec
09

North Florida, November 2006

My journey to the dark side (cave diving)

Where to begin? I had taken a cenote cavern diving tour in Mexico in February 2005 and liked what I saw, but as a relatively new diver I knew my skills were not yet what they should be for cave diving. So I dove a lot, hung around with more experienced divers, changed my gear configuration, learned a few new skills and then headed down to North Florida on Nov 11th to begin my NSS-CDS Cavern and Basic Cave courses.
Each course was 2 days long and consisted of many skills that had to be achieved to progress to the next level. Cavern taught us how to place line, follow line blind without losing it, and how to communicate as a team. It became clear that this was a very different type of diving than what I was used to. We ended the cavern course by doing a cave dive which was nice because it didn’t involve any OOA or lights out drills on the way out. This would change soon.

I won’t go into details of the Basic Cave course, except to say that it changed the way I view diving, and how I view myself as a diver. It gave me a new respect for cave divers and technical divers. There is no room for error when you’re hundreds of feet away from the surface, surrounded by solid rock. There’s nothing like doing a lost line drill: pitch black, groping around for the gold line, feeling the flow wash over you, hoping you’re moving toward the line and not away from it. There’s nothing like the disorientation that makes you feel like you’re swimming around in circles during a lights out air share drill, and finally feeling a line arrow and knowing you have indeed moved some distance.

I realized partway through the Basic Cave course that my skills had a long way to go if I wanted to continue this path through the dark side, and I was sure at one point that I was going to fail. But by this time I also realized that whether I passed or not, I would have learned a great deal from this course, and that passing or failing didn’t matter. The caves would always be there, and I would be back.

Thanks to everyone who helped me train for this course (you know who you are), and thanks to Ralph D for running a tough, eye-opening, informative, but also fun course.

And yes, I’m now a (Basic) Cave Diver. 🙂




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