Diving Trip Report
Though I had no intention of planning another dive trip so soon, within weeks of returning from whale watching and diving in Loreto (February 2004), some dive buddies began to murmur about organizing a trip to Bonaire. Reluctant to commit, my friends wooed me with pizza, beer and photos of frog fish and sea horses, but it wasn’t until they mentioned the wild donkeys that I finally gave in.
Larry and I traveled loosely with several dive friends and acquaintances, arriving a week before the rest of the group. Below is an overview of our diving experience in a sort of steam-of-consciousness order. Simply put, the diving was fantastic (despite a few set backs) and Bonaire topside turned out to be a naturalist’s paradise and nearly as much fun as diving. Topside fun is described on a separate page.
Bonaire underwater is basically one big reef circumnavigating the island (with a few double reefs in there to shake things up); another reef surrounds the little island of Kleine Bonaire. The idea of distinct dive sites is a little silly in light of this, though it does make sense to mark those areas that have easy access to the water and a shorter swim to the drop off. In most spots, a sandy/limestone bottom in 20 feet of water drops off precipitously 50-200 feet offshore; there, the slope descends steeply to 130 feet and is packed with overlapping corals, sponges and algae gardens. The shallow areas are mostly inhabited by isolated coral heads, gorgonians and occasional groves of garden eels.
Having dived in the Bahamas a few times, most of the fish species were familiar, but we’d never seen them in such diversity on one reef, in such abundance, or so friendly. Fish that elsewhere warily eye divers from a distance were completely unperturbed by our presence and freely went about their lives, glancing in a friendly way in our direction. Trumpetfish were everywhere as were garish parrotfish madly attacking the coral. Swimming over the reefs of Bonaire was like watching the video edition of Reef Creatures Behavior. Damselfish fiercely defended gardens of algae, roving bands of brilliant purple tangs, surgeonfish and doctorfish devoured algae, creolefish and jacks gaped and quivered over cleaning stations, morays hunted in concourse with hogfish, and trumpetfish shadowed every species that crossed their paths. All around us the reef bustled with the day to day business of its inhabitants. Out in the blue, schools of brilliant bogas (feederfish) flashed in the shafts of sunlight and swam this way and that in brilliant confusion.
The cleaning stations were especially interesting. Once keyed into their presence, I discovered a cleaning station about every 20 feet on the reef, evidenced by the fish hanging vertical in the water column waiting for a cleaner or the juvenile hogfish hovering expectantly for a client. Creole wrasse seemed to especially enjoy the treatment, but we also watched a two foot jack persistently courting a hogfish, its body flushed dark and its mouth yawning in bliss. The damselfish gardens were also impressive, situated on dead coral throughout the reef. The bands of tangs, etc. harassed them periodically, scores of purple bodies moving as one over the reef and accompanied by parrotfish and hunting trumpetfish.
Much as I love the little stuff, I’m never really satisfied until I
see something a little bigger. Surprisingly, sharks are rare in Bonaire
and nighttime terrors are brought by tarpon. No other big
appeared to be present (bigger than a grouper, that is). But the
tarpon were awesome—-bright, silver fish, four to five feet long with
the size of silver dollars and eyes the size of oranges. Their
upturned mouths and fixed, expressionless eyes were eery, and in the
beam of our dive lights they turned into fierce hunters (though I never actually saw a kill). About once a day we saw them on day dives either hovering in the deep blue or swimming over the reef. Once, we ventured to the Wild Side of Bonaire (due to the wind shifting directions). After a grueling 300 yard trek across sand flats and a wide shallow (ankle to thigh deep) inlet in full scuba gear, we gratefully waded into the ocean, trying to avoid the black urchins that inhabited every nook and cranny of the rocks. After a long swim over a shallow limestone reef, the bottom dropped off into an interesting topography of ridges and valleys covered in sea fans and soft corals. All in all, it was a far more interesting habitat visually than most of what we saw on the other side. Very soon we also came across a school of fifteen tarpon hovering against the reef. Much calmer than the solitary animals we’d seen on the other side, these stately fish allowed us to come quite close, never losing their cool. As we moved with them up the slope, big bubbles of air escaped from their air bladders as they equalized. It was an absolute thrill to swim along behind and among these silver giants.
After our initial contact with the tarpons, Larry spied a spotted eagle ray gliding over the bottom of the reef. A few minutes later, a huge green sea turtle with a ramora or sharksucker in tow swam up the slope toward the shallows. We also had a few moments with a very nonchalant and utterly ludicrous looking hogfish. Larry got some superb video of him which makes me giggle every time I see it.
After a few more minutes among the tarpon, we had to call the dive and headed back to the top of the reef among the hovering black durgons. During the long swim to shore we were entertained by redlipped blennies hiding out among the hole-pocked limestone. This was probably our most spectacular dive--the Wild Side is definately worth a visit. We wound up there only because Bonaire’s famous trade winds weren’t blowing most of the time we were there. Not being a fan of wind generally, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of incessant wind, even if it was always blowing from the opposite side of the island. With temperatures in the 80s every day, however, I came to be extremely grateful for it.
On our third full day diving, however, we returned to the Sand Dollar to rinse our gear in the biggest, hardest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen (see topside trip report for more details). For the rest of our vacation, the wind blew inshore onto the west side of the island. On top of bringing daily thunder and lightening and more than a little rain, it made dive entries a little tricky. The sharp limestone and brain coral is easily enough avoided in calm seas with good visibility, but picking our way through the holes and boulders in 2-3 foot surf proved trying. We each fell once (thankfully in full body suits), but we struggled on many dives. Choosing dive sites became more about acceptable entries and avoiding murky waters from runoff than where we wanted to dive. The Helma Hooker proved to be the most difficult entry/exit and we’re lucky that Larry’s video camera survived the crashing surf and jagged rocks.
The weather also diminished the visibility, so we never really saw the 100+’ of clear, blue Caribbean water that was promised. The vis was anywhere from 20 feet to 70 feet with the northern dive sites (Karpata and 1000 Steps) having the clearest water. I’m sure that the vis reduced the number of big critters we saw; during the whole trip we saw ten sea turtles (which was great), but most of them were in the first five days of diving before the wind shifted.
Speaking of turtles, this was definately a highlight. As far as I could tell, all ten were green turtles, most young ones about three to four feet long. Except when we accidentally awakened them from a nap, they were very mellow and allowed us to swim alongside them for long distances, pausing now and again in a seemingly gallant manner to let us catch up. There is nothing like gazing into the ancient eyes of a sea turtle looking back... and then to stop and watch them slowly, effortlessly paddle away into the deep blue and their mysterious lives.
Spotted eagle rays were also huge excitement for me. I saw my first at about 60 fsw as it was winging its way over the top of the reef. I hailed Larry, grabbed the video camera and threw every bit of energy I had into catching up. Being 30 or 40 feet below it, I had to swam parallel to it to avoid ascending too quickly, slowly loosing depth until I was at the same level and behind it. Watching the video I can’t believe I ever caught up! I charged through the water, grateful both for the view and for the break when the ray slowed and dropped to skim over a sandy bottom. With the last bit of strength I had, I nearly drew even with it and shot some great video before stopping and deciding I should look for my dive buddy. Luckily, Larry had followed behind and just off the reef.
Rays are such elegent animals, and the spots of these eagle rays were gorgeous like perfect dappled sunlight. The eagle ray’s movements are ludicrously miniscule next to the speed at which they move--hardly a twitch of their wings and all hope of catching up with a wary ray is lost. We say four rays in all, each one a thrill.
Most of our diving was from shore, though not for lack of opportunities aboard boats. For a modest fee, we could have done all our diving with our dive shop right there at the hotel; I suppose our independant natures kept us on the road. We did take a boat for two dives on Klein Bonaire (the little island offshore) which has spectacular reefs and the best chance of seeing sea horses and frog fish. The wind prevented us from diving the best sites, so we saw neither creature, but did have two pleasant dives on the east side of the island. We also pondered diving in Washington-Slaagbai National Park (more chance for big critters), but the rains closed the roads.
We did several night dives on Bari Reef just in front of our hotel. Several tarpon have become accustomed to divers and hunt in their lights. They say that fish become blinded and freeze up in the dive lights, so the tarpon take advantage of them. I didn’t see any fish freezing, but the tarpon definately hung close at hand and pursued many fish by our lights. I never saw a kill, but others in our party saw them catch a big blue tang. It is pretty eerie to look up from some interesting wildlife on the edge of the reef to find a three foot silver tarpon hovering a foot away, patiently waiting for the light to shine on more interesting subjects.
On one particularly fruitful dive we watching a large spotted moray in the open, hunting in tandem with a hogfish. Parrotfish slept in crevasses, and beautiful blue soapfish perused the reef. As we drifted up the reef in search of tarpon, a solitary reef squid appeared. Afraid of scaring it away, I held still, but it approached us. For several moments we slowly drifted closer until he/she was in touching distance. I took some photos and then, very slowly, offered my finger in front of the curly tentacles. As I slowly moved it closer, he drew gently back so we stayed an inch apart, but he did not flee. Then, I again moved my finger closer and, this time, he allowed a breif touch, finger to tentacle. I stared into his eye, wondering what was running through his mind, and why he stayed there to interact. The three of us were probably together for about five minutes until Larry and I slowly drifted away and let the squid carry on with his nocturnal life. This encounter was the highlight of the diving for me.
That about wraps up the underwater story. The Sand Dollar resort was great--we stayed in a studio apartment on the bottom floor of the hotel, right near the dock and the dive shop, so it was very handy. The front yard area has concrete paths, lawn chairs, and barbeques, and a rock wall for sitting and gazing out at the ocean or for sunbathing iguanas. The dive shop--Bonaire Dive and Adventure--was efficient and helpful and could arrange most of the topside activities including limestone caves, bird watching, and mangrove/ocean kayaking. The naturalist on staff is a knowledgeable and helpful fellow with a passion for birds and an eagerness to share the wonders of Bonaire above and below water--a great resource to have nearby. A big concrete building had pegs to store our gear, tanks were available from 8:30 to 5:00, and lockers were available to keep tanks on hand for night dives.
There is much more detail I could add--(I'm thinking of snake eels,
swimming iguanas, and mating squid)--but I've stalled posting this trip
report long enough.
Please read the topside trip report for more details of the vacation and check out the underwater gallery for photos.
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Diving in the Islas de Revillagigedos (Socorros) 2001)
Diving in the Sea of Cortez (2001)
Diving in Bimini, Bahamas
Diving in the Sea of Cortez (2004)
Diving in Cay Sal, Bahamas
Diving in the Islas de Revillagigedos (Socorros) 2006