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.

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.

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


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