BONAIRE - May, 2014

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

There's always a temptation when writing these reports, especially to a place we've been before and know well, to do a cut-and-paste from previous reports, especially if the trips were fairly similar. My non-diving father's always telling, "Who would know?" Well, the discerning diver for one. But there's always something different with every trip even to places you know quite well and that was certainly the case with our latest trip to Bonaire May 17-24.

We had a very "compact" group this year of only four divers: Britt Evans, Nancy Boucha, Pat O'Brien, and me. That has advantages but it also posed some challenges. One of the things I've always loved about going to Bonaire and specifically diving with our friends at Buddy Dive (and they really are that - we are usually greeted with "Welcome home") is that Dive Operations Manager Augusto Montbrun not only looks out for our group in general but we're also able to schedule a boat that's only for ourselves.

But with a small group this year, as well as Buddy Dive being somewhat short-staffed due to some people leaving and others on vacation, Augusto had let me know ahead of time he didn't think we'd be able to get a boat to ourselves. So we'd need to sign up each day for the following days dives, which is the common procedure at Buddy.

But even there - and this again underscores one of the advantages of booking with a group instead of doing things on your own - they would check with me each day about which dives we wanted to do the next day and when the sign-up board for today was wiped clean and the dives for tomorrow were listed, they would add our names to the top of the list for whichever boat we had decided on. So even though we didn't have our "own" boat, we certainly were given some special treatment.

Another change this year was the wind. Bonaire is known for having a prevailing trade wind that comes out of the northeast, especially this time of the year but it was unseasonably strong this year and had been that way for quite some time. This definitely affects water conditions making the surface much more choppy, adding surge to the shallows at some sites (and making a few sites undivable), and lowering the visibility a bit (we generally had 50-60 feet - still not bad - rather than the usual 80-100).

But the increased wind (many times 20-30mph) had an upside too: it blew the bugs away. Bonaire has seen an increase in their resident mosquito population over the last few years and the stronger winds keep the mosquitoes grounded. It also made for slightly cooler days as well so weather-wise and bug-wise, it was actually very pleasant.

Cool temps and strong winds also meant cooler water. Normally this time of the year we'd expect water temps of 82-ish. On my gauge, they were more like 78-ish. That's a difference you can definitely feel. I usually dive Bonaire in a Pinnacle 1.5mm Shadow (with a Tilos 1mm neoprene hood) but decided that I was getting cold towards the end of the dive. So I opted instead to switch to my 3mm Pinnacle Breaker with the Tilos hood and that was just dandy. I had to add a couple of pounds of weight but that was no big deal as I was still only diving with 10 pounds of lead.

But it brings up a packing pointer when you're prepping for your next trip. While I'm a big fan of only bringing what you'll need and actually use, I think you also need to plan on contingencies. For tropical trips, I always wear my 1mm. I can't remember that last time I wore the 3mm. But I still bring it along each time because it's easy to pack, doesn't take up much room or add weight, and . . . you never know. And so I was quite happy to have had that as an option this time and while part of my reptilian brain was saying, "Be a man and tough it out," the more practical side of my brain was saying, "Yeah, but you're an old man and you don't HAVE to tough it out." Comfort wins out over ego.

As I mentioned previously, we stayed at Buddy Dive Resort as we have for the past ten or so years. Once again, we stayed on the Lion's Den (north) side of the property and once again got assigned 701/702 as our 2-bedroom apartment. I happen to like those rooms for a number of reasons: slightly quieter than the Buddy side, the rooms are fully air-conditioned (not just the bedroom), good access to both the dive area and the breakfast area, parking is only steps away from the front door, and - specifically in those two rooms - the Wi-Fi signal (which is still free at Buddys) is quite strong and you can easily be on-line inside your room. That's not necessarily the case with every room combo at Buddys. And while everyone may not feel the need for Wi-Fi while on vacation, I post pictures daily to my SmugMug account (which hopefully you look at) so for me, it's a big convenience not to have to leave the room to post.

Another great aspect of staying at Buddys is their standard "Drive & Dive" package. This means each room gets a shared vehicle, usually a 4-passenger pickup. Not all resorts on Bonaire do this. Many have rental cars available but for an extra charge. Having the car not only allows you to do shore dives other than the resort's house reef (although Buddys Reef is an excellent dive) but it also makes it easier to go to the supermarket if you need some food or snacks, to go out to dinner, or to just take a tour of the island if you want to search for resident flamingoes, donkeys, or goats (all of which we found).

By the way, if you stay at Buddy, try to get one of the white pickups because they're newer than the green ones. We got a white one that not only ran well, but also the A/C was really good (we checked that out before we accepted the car) and it even had a working radio!!!

And that brings us to another myth (IMHO) about Bonaire, that you car WILL get broken into and that anything of value inside WILL get stolen. Not in my book. I'm not saying it doesn't happen to others but the reality is that our car had a radio in it and if car theft was so rampant on Bonaire, don't you think the people at Buddys would be smart enough to order cars WITHOUT radios rather than to have them stolen all the time? So, while I wouldn't suggest leaving wads of cash taped to your rental car to test my theory, we didn't experience this ourselves nor did we hear of anyone else experiencing it.

Now I will add the caveat that a friend of mine suffered a major theft a few years ago (at Buddys no less) when the room was broken into and all of her camera gear was removed. On top of that, the thieves hit on Friday evening not only while they were out to dinner but (presumably) because they were leaving the next day and when you're on an early-morning flight, you don't have much time to raise a stink or file a police report. So it pays to be cautious but the point of all of this is that I read in places sometimes about rampant theft on Bonaire and I can simply say that I haven't experienced it even once in all the times I've been diving there.

Back to diving . . .

We enhance the standard package, which only includes 6 boat dives. While Bonaire is certainly World Headquarters of Shore Diving, I have found over the years that, as our clientele ages, the enthusiasm for shore dives (cheaper) over boat dives (easier) shifts in favor of boats. So we tend to build extra boat dives into our group trips and for this one, we had 12. That meant a morning 2-tank boat dive every day M-F, plus two afternoon boat dives Tuesday & Thursday. We rounded all that out with late afternoon dusk dives on Buddys Reef (easy access since it's right off of the boat dock) and did do one "travel" shore dive to Larry's Lair.

The other advantage of boat diving is that it really brings Klein Bonaire into play. Klein is the small island that's about one mile off of big Bonaire and which is not at all accessible as a shore dive. The only way over is by boat. And there are some simply excellent sites there. So by increasing the number of boat dives, you increase the number of chances you have to visit Klein. This doesn't mean you can't still do shore-accessible sites as a boat dive (Thousand Steps immediately comes to mind), but it does mean you open up another 26 (????) sites to your diving possibilities. (More on the Klein spots in a bit.)

One dive we didn't do this year was the Salt Pier. I have raved about this dive for years as it's really spectacular. For the past five or six years, however, they're required it to be a guided dive which means you need to fork over $35 to "rent" a guide for a dive that doesn't need one. This is all allegedly in the name of heightened security post-9/11 and it's never really set well with me personally as it seems like gouging.

So I was very excited this year to have heard through the grapevine that they had dropped the guide requirement. But when we got to Bonaire, we were told that the guide requirement was still in effect. In the end it didn't matter because a ship came in to the Salt Pier (it's the working pier for loading up all the Bonaire salt that gets processed and sent all over the world) and the rule has always been that if there's a ship at the pier, you can't dive there (which makes sense). So it was out regardless.

A new dive for us was Gerry's Reef which is on the west side of Klein, directly facing Buddys which means it's a really short run. The mooring is slightly offshore, so instead of going down the line, you hope the butt end of the boat is pointing at the island (which is usually was) and you drop down directly on the wall. This area could also be named Sponge City. Lots of varieties of sponges including many tube sponges, soft corals up in the shallows, a few juvy Spotted Drums (they seemed to be at every dive site this year), and just a very pretty and pleasant dive.

We also dove some old favorites including Knife, Carl's Hill, and Forest. I think Forest is my personal fav because it's not only a pretty dive, but it's got two resident French Angelfish who go gaga over watermelon (which they always have on the Buddy boats for a between-dive snack). Don't get me wrong, the dive at Forest is really lovely as it gets its name from the "forest" of Yellow-Polyp Black Coral trees that used to flourish there (a few are still around) but the highlight for me is always the end of the dive when you simply wave a piece of watermelon and these two Frenchies make a beeline for you like you've just shown them the most amazing thing in the world. And they will come in a chow down and eat it down to the rind and then will come back for more.

Best of all, it makes for great photos ops. You simply face towards the camera, hold the watermelon near your face, here come the Angels, and we end up with a nice picture of you and a very colorful French Angel. But I almost didn't get to experience it this time.

As I was suiting up, the zipper on the back of the 3mm jumpsuit got stuck about halfway up. Not just stuck, but REALLY stuck. No biggee, I thought. I'll just dive with it halfway down and deal with it later. But as we started the dive, I realized something was wrong because my camera stopped focusing. Somehow the auto-focus had gotten disabled and there was no way I could shoot the Angels this way. Since we hadn't gone far, I figured I'd go back to the boat, solve the problem, jump back in, and catch up with the group.

There was no way I wanted to open up my camera to fix the autofocus problem while I still was wearing a dripping wetsuit. That's a recipe for disaster and although I'm a firm believer in "It's not IF you flood you camera but WHEN you flood your camera," I didn't want the wetsuit to be the cause of the flood. So getting out of the suit was crucial.

Getting back to the boat was easy. It was getting out of my wetsuit that proved hard, almost impossible.

But because the zipper was stuck halfway (the nylon backing had gotten caught in the zipper threads), I couldn't get my arms out. So I had to have the deckhand peel the top down but that made it into a straightjacket with my arms pinned in. He was then able to peel down a little more to where I could finally get one arm free, then we peeled the other arm free, and then I was able to peel the entire wetsuit down and off so it ended up inside out. It was at this point we could see how really jammed the zipper was and after a few more minutes of maneuvering and tugging, we were able to get it unstuck.

Once freed from my neoprene prison, I was able to dry off, fix the autofocus issue (a switch on the lens had slipped to MANUAL), reassemble the camera, get back into my wetsuit (this time being very careful with the zipper), clamber back into my dive gear, and jump back in the water just in time to see the group coming back to the mooring area which allowed me to get my watermelon-eating French Angelfish shots. Whew!!!! (See?? I really DO work hard on these vacations.)

Overall Bonaire has always presented us with good diving and great memories and this trip was certainly no different. There definitely seemed to be a lot more Queen and French Angels than I've seen in the past, the River of Fish was running nightly northward past Buddy Dive (you've got to check out the 2013 video if you haven't seen it already), we had a couple of seahorses, two turtles, a fabulous frogfish at Carl's Hill, plenty of Trumpetfish, Bar Jacks, Yellowtail, Damselfish of various species, tons of coral-crunching Parrotfish, a fair number of Spanish Hogfish, lots of Soldierfish, plenty of eels including a Chain Moray on the house reef and a newly-dead Spotted Moray on one of the dives, lots of Arrow Crabs, and hundreds of Anemone/Pederson/Harlequin Shrimp. You'll see these and others if you check out the 100-image slide show that I've got up on my SmugMug page (www.kenkurtis.smugmug.com).

One dive we did daily that we really enjoyed was a late afternoon dive on Buddys Reef. Not only is it an easy entry since you simply go down the stairs at the resort's dock, but it also gives you a chance to dive the same place over and over and observe changes that happen on a daily basis that you might not otherwise notice. So often on trips like this, the focus seems to be on diving as many spots as possible and not repeating anything but by diving areas multiple times, you start to notice things that might otherwise escape you because now you start picking up on what's unusual. That's how we spotted the Chain Moray on one of our dives.

And while the diving is very good and enjoyable, no report on Bonaire would be complete without mentioning the eating too. I mean, you've got to fuel up between dives, right?

Bonaire seems to have an inordinate amount of good restaurants. Our deal at Buddy included breakfast daily which is a really complete and extensive buffet with fresh fruits, eggs-to-order, breakfast meats, coffee/tea/juice, and just about anything you'd want. For lunches, we usually ate in our rooms having stocked up at the Van der Tweel supermarket on the day we arrived. But for dinner, we went out each evening.

New to us this year was It's Raining Fish which was very upscale and a little pricey but really good. We also settled in at Patagonia, also in a very nice setting, and featuring Argentinean beef and a very nice wine list. We hit up old favorite Pasa Bon Pizza (with their yummy lasagna), and made two trips back to The Ribs Factory. We didn't make it over to Capriccio or Bistro de Paris this year and were also surprised to discover that City Cafe right by the Town Pier had closed in November and the place was pretty much gutted. And right before we left L.A. I got a note from my buddy Hagen who cooks the best burgers on the island at Cactus Blue on the Beach (at Atlantis dive site - also the kite-boarding HQ) telling me he'd be in Holland the week we were there so no Hagenburgers for us.

But the point is that you can eat very well in Bonaire. And while many times the increased activity on a dive trip over "normal" life might cause you to lose a few pounds, if you're not careful in Bonaire, it's easy to gain weight.

So once again we had a great time and we will definitely be planning on going back, most likely again in May of 2105. It's never too early to reserve your spot and start thinking about all the great dives (and meals) that you can experience in that wonderful outpost known as Bonaire.


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