Archive for the 'Trip Reports' Category


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:


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. 🙂


Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras – April 2006

I really needed a dive trip to a hot & sunny region and one of my buddies was available, so we headed to Roatan since the Fantasy Island Beach Resort was cheap (under 1400 including tax for flight/hotel/food/drinks and 5 days of 3 tank diving with shore diving included). Direct flight from Toronto to Roatan, on Westjet. Westjet has lots of legroom, leather seats, and satellite tv screens in each seatback.

We drove down to Toronto from Ottawa on Friday evening, stopping at the Airport Hilton for a few hours sleep and free parking for the week. The flight down was very entertaining, as the flight crew was hilarious and made the trip seem short. Beautiful blue water greeted us as we flew over the island, and the blast of hot & humid air on stepping out of the plane was very welcome. Minivans picked us up and whisked us off to FIBR, where we a drink awaited us during checkin, which was fairly brief.

We almost didn’t find our room, since our key said 47 but the room was actually D-7. On the other hand, once we found our room we were happy, since it was just steps from the dive center and boats, and had a great view off the porch, with water just steps away. The rooms are basic, but clean and more than adequate. It’s a 3-star, so no frills.

We proceeded to do our first (shore) dive a couple of hours later, where we found numerous hermit crabs messing up the viz with their constant digging in the sand/silt, and found the airplane and wreck.

The next 5.5 days were filled with diving, eating and sleeping. Sigh. Colourful fish, expanses of blue water off the walls, and plenty of photographic subjects. See my gallery We did a shark dive with Waihuka Diving one afternoon, which was my first. It was great after the initial adrenaline rush. See the shark photos here: Yes, they are purple. My monitor’s colour was off, and I’ve since lost the originals to a hard drive crash. Topside photos:

The food was pretty good, 3-star food (not too much variety, but tasty nonetheless). The highlight was Friday’s lobster & seafood buffet: grilled lobster tails, shrimp, crab, conch & everything else seafood imaginable. Homemade blueberry & coffee icecream were great. Good selection of fresh fruit, which was also offered on board the boats post-dive.

Our DM, Darren was good, and we had some nice lengthy dives (last back on the boat; is the boat still there?) Shore dive got murkier throughout the week, like diving in fog, though not so bad on top of the wreck and on the starboard side. We never saw much of the plane, it was pretty silted up, although most of our shore dives were twilight/night dives anyway. Mary’s Place is vastly overrated, and our dive on it was like an Indy race, so much so that I nearly lost my breakfast in it. I ended up spotting tons of macro stuff on most dives which was great — got lots of photos. In most places, the shallows all had noticeable surge, which made photography challenging at times. Yes, lettuce coral IS razor sharp.

The boats were spacious, and fresh towels were supplied after each dive. DAN O2 kits were on every boat, and they were very safety-conscious.

I was wary of the biting bugs, but I must say that I came away with fewer bites than most places I have travelled. I sprayed unscented Sport Fishermens’ OFF (30% DEET) on my legs the first couple of days, and the only day I got bites was when I lay on the beach once for half an hour before lunch.

Overall, I had a great trip (hope my buddy did too), got the R & R that I really needed, and would recommend this place to anyone who wants a no-frills dive resort in a sunny destination.


Cozumel Feb 12-19, 2005

My first dive trip
I went to Cozumel Feb 12-19 with a group of 18 people, 14 of them divers, through a trip organized by the LDS. The hotel was supposed to be the 4-star Iberostar Cozumel, but we got ‘bumped’ to the 5-star Occidental Grand Cozumel.

The dive op was Dive Palancar and they’re located at the OGC, so this was somewhat better. They had lockers for the gear, basically crates like milk crates only double the size. They were locked in IKEA-like shelving units with your own lock or by renting one from the shop. These bins were OK, but with a lot of gear, it made the bins heavy & hard to carry when you had to get your gear out or put it back. Also, if you hung up your wetsuit on the fence (the only place to hang it) you risked having security pick it up if you didn’t put it away by 4:30, and then you couldn’t get it back until after 12PM the next day, when lost & found items were entered into the computer. And you had to go all the way to the front desk (all the way across the resort) to get it. This happened to 2 of us on our 2nd last day, and one of us (who didn’t have a spare wetsuit) didn’t end up diving on the last day because of it. Oddly enough, the water in the ocean felt cool, even though it was between 78 & 81 degrees. I was wearing a full 3mm suit except for the cenote dives & the last day’s dives, when I wore my full 7/5 suit, and I was glad I brought it. I’m used to the warmer water temps down there in April, when it warms up considerably.

The hotel is a moderately-sized property, not so sprawling that you can’t comfortably walk it, but not a beach-view room to be had, either. The rooms were large and had a huge bathroom with separate glassed-in shower and bathtub. Marble throughout, but that’s standard in many Mexican hotels (I’ve been to hotels in Cancun, Playa del Carmen & Akumal on many occasions before). As this was an all-inclusive, I wasn’t expecting much from the food, but it was very good, even in the buffet. There was always a big selection of items from soup, salads, main courses, to dessert. Oddly enough, smoked salmon was nearly always available at lunch & dinner (not an indigenous fish). There was an open-air pizza restaurant on the roof which had fewer selections but was OK for a change. I wasn’t that impressed by it. We also attended the Mexican specialty restaurant (there was also a Grill & a Mediterranean restaurant to choose from). It was very well presented, but I wasn’t completely impressed. Not enough cilantro or heat for me. Drinks, although all-inclusive, were not the greatest. I couldn’t get a decent margarita in Cozumel. They had no flavour (except for the Tequila), as if the hotel used a pre-mix and watered it down a lot. Also, while they served some slushy drinks like pina coladas and daquiries, they had no straws at this hotel! I actually had to ask for a spoon once, so I could eat my slushy drink! I can see that they don’t want people to litter the beach with straws, but if you serve slushy drinks in tall, skinny glasses, you should have straws. We managed to piss off our neighbours the first night we got to the hotel. It wasn’t even 9:30 PM when we got a knock on our door, asking us to be quiet, because they’d had a long day. Like we hadn’t! This was a bad sign, and we found that having a big group of people at this resort wasn’t the best thing, as even though we weren’t a particularly noisy bunch, the people at this resort seemed to like their peace & quiet more, and didn’t like our enthusiastic dive-talk. The hotel, while being close to the good dive sites, is very far from the town of San Miguel, and it cost us $15-$17 to get a cab each way. Not a good deal by any standard.

The diving: As we were a large group, we got our own boat. It was a decent-sized boat (but I’m no boat expert), and the DMs and crew largely remained the same. We visited all the requisite sites, and I must say that I found the shallow dives much more interesting than the deeper wall dives. While we saw a fair amount of turtles on the wall dives, the more interesting creatures (varieties of fish, eels & octopus) were on the shallow dives. I don’t have my logbook with me so I can’t name particular sites at this time. Some afternoons after we did our two dives some of us wanted to dive some more but our boat was not available. We ended up with some pretty crappy boats sometimes, with groups of other divers. I remember the group who lit up cigarettes before they even had their BC’s off! That boat was bad too, as we entered by what side of the boat we were on. As our group exited, our side of the boat was leaning so far over that we could have just slid off the side into the water, no giant stride necessary! Regardless, most of our reef dives were very nice, and we got to see all the varieties of fish we’d ever wished for. We also dove the C-53 wreck one morning(the Felipe Xicotencatl – a former minesweeper), that was an interesting dive. We did a night dive on the Tuesday which was great. We started the dive just when it began to get dark, and saw all the creatures coming out for their nocturnal events. Among them were huge lobsters & crabs, and even a scorpionfish.

I took my Olympus C-4000 digital camera with me on all dives after the first day, when I leak-tested my new (used, bought on eBay) PT-010 housing. It turned out to be a great UW system, even without a strobe.

In the middle of the week, I had planned to do a couple of guided dives in cenotes on the mainland. I managed to convince one of the other guys in our group to go, and so we boarded the ferry to Playa del Carmen to meet the guide at the ferry dock. We were transported to their shop (Protec), signed the requisite waivers, and were off. We dove the Chaac-Mol and Taj Mahal cenotes. These were cavern tours, geared toward OW-certified divers, run by cave-certified divers. Not that I wanted to go diving in one of those with just anyone. I did some research and went with a company that seemed to know its stuff. I wanted to see what it was like to dive in a cavern, since I’m planning to do the Cavern/Intro to Cave course in the future. So this was just an intro for me. And before you all dis me for this, there was a briefing before the dive, rule of thirds was explained, and there was a permanent line in sight the whole time. Plus, I made sure I brought my 3 lights with me. As for the dives, they were great. It’s awesome when you’re in the cavern and the light show from the cenote opening lights up around you. The stalactites & stalagmites are a sight to be seen, and there are fossils all around. The clarity of the water is incredible, some of my photos look like they were taken above-water. The haloclines are cool, they make everything around you look like a watercolour painting. Some of the haloclines in Taj Mahal were so strong you couldn’t see much for a while except the blur of lights (and buddy’s yellow fins — see, they DO serve a purpose). I could see why sticking with the permanent cavern line was really important: there were many openings off to the sides and below you that were very tempting to just look into, but I played it safe. I can see how one can get carried away in those caverns quite easily, especially when taking photographs. Each entrance to the cave system was marked with a sign: Peligro – No Pase with a picture of a skull & crossbones. Obviously we didn’t go past those. I made sure to watch my air consumption carefully and did not get distracted by taking too many photographs.

On our last dive day on the reefs, we had Palancar Dive’s videographer come along for our 2 morning dives. She shot all of us on our dives and put together a really beautiful DVD for us. I finally got a copy of it this past weekend, and it’s a nice memory of our dives that I can share with my non-diving friends and family. I managed to get photos of pretty much everything I wanted throughout the week (toadfish, octopus, eagle ray, eels, angelfish, cenotes) and a lot of them turned out very well, considering that it was my first crack at underwater photography. Thanks to tips from Tom F, Art & to my dive buddy John, who found many of my subjects. And to Photoshop, which helped take some of the blue out of the ocean pics.

Photos from the trip can be found here:

Now the things I didn’t like so much: I resolve not to get any more connecting flights from Ottawa to Toronto & back. I’d rather drive it than wait hours or overnight for the connecting flight. Next time I go on a diving holiday, I’m not paying 2K for a 5-star AI hotel. Put me in a clean room with a safe, AC and/or ceiling fan, a good lock on the door & space to dry dive gear and I’ll be happy. A location in town or closer to town would be better, too. Oh yeah, and a 5-star hotel should not have so many biting bugs (they weren’t mosquitoes) that you come back from your trip looking like you just came back from shooting a season on Survivor. And the straw thing, of course.

Overall, I’m really glad I went on this trip, as most of my diving is done in the St. Lawrence where the fish are various shades of brown, the water is murky green, and visibility never gets close to 100 feet. On my trip to Cozumel, I saw some awesome marine life, began my venture into UW photography, and did my cenote dives. I got in 16 dives that week, and I’m already beginning to plan my next tropical diving vacation. Until then, there’s no place to dive like home…

August 2019
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