The week of August 11 through 18, 2012, Paul Anderson and Dave Smith led our intrepid group of Wilkes County scuba divers to Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean Sea. Also on the trip were Joan McCord and me, Bob Laney. I car pooled us to Charlotte. We flew direct on InselAir from Charlotte, NC, to Curacao; then we took a puddle hopper flight to Flamingo Airport in Kralendijk, Bonaire. Dave and Paul had been to Bonaire about five times each and provided our directions without us having to hire a professional guide. It was my second trip to the island, and my fifth trip to the Caribbean (counting Key Largo twice). It was Joan’s first dive trip beyond Blue Stone quarry in piedmont North Carolina.
The airport luggage handling was so rough that my carefully padded camera was beat asunder. The battery cover was loose and the internal memory card was outside its slot. Also one of my two night dive flashlights had the power switch knocked on, which wasted the batteries, melted the lens and burned out the now ruined flashlight. Most dangerously, my dive knife was banged out of its case on the shoulder strap of my dive vest (buoyancy compensator or BC). When I opened my luggage, the knife blade was resting against the BC air bladder. I fully expected to get in the water with air pouring out of my split BC, but fortunately it was not punctured.
Dave coordinated our airplane tickets. At the Flamingo airport he rented our dive tank rack equipped 4-door Mazda pickup truck from Total Car Rental. We schlepped our voluminous load of dive and travel gear into the truck. Dave drove through Kralendijk on the first night on the island to our residence that Dave reserved. We stayed at the Den Laman Condominiums on the ocean front, the west side of the island, just north of town and adjacent to the south of the Sand Dollar Resort. The next morning Dave drove us to the local grocery store and we stocked up on alimentary provisions for the week. The tropical fruits and European cheeses were scrumptious.
Unlike most dive operations around the world, Bonaire is famous for its shore diving, which means that we could load our truck and drive to any of many dozens of dive sites around the island. Then we could dive when and where we wanted, without being tied to the schedule restrictions and costs of a guide and a boat. But being self-supported, we had to know what we were doing and how to do it. Conveniently, our dive tank supplier was Bonaire Dive and Adventure, whose shop is located at the Den Laman resort. Even better, BDA has a secondary dive tank storage bin at the Den Laman dock. We could literally grab our tanks from adjacent to the sea, test the tank volume (and for Dave diving Nitrox, test the oxygen content), gear up, and jump in the water at the Bari Reef.
Despite its international fame, many aspects of Bonaire travel is a third world experience. Both the Curacao and Flamingo airports have almost no signs explaining where to go or what to do, when flights are scheduled or where are the departure gates. At one station in Curacao, a girl sat at a small table with no sign and she said nothing when passengers walked past. A few knowledgeable travelers gave her $2 and got an entry license. Others went on by uninformed. For those without the license, they got stopped at the next security station, had to break out of line and rush back to get a license. The Flamingo parking lot provides vehicle passes that expire in literally 5 minutes. If a driver does not get in or out past the security gate on time, then he is locked in or out, and there is no explanation what to do our how to fix the problem.
One of the dive sites is Bari Reef, located off the dock at Den Laman Condominiums. All of the dive sites are in a protected marine park, Stinapa National Parks Foundation. Access to the park requires a dive guide orientation and a checkout dive. Our first morning we got the BDA orientation and bought our park passes, which are plastic tokens that must be clipped to our BC’s. Then we geared up and jumped off the Den Laman dock onto the reef. This trip in general, and this dive in particular, was Joan’s first ocean dive. She did perfectly well, on this and all her subsequent dives, following Paul’s lead and always keeping safe by his guidance. The air temperature was about 85 degrees, the water was Caribbean clear and about 84 degrees, and the fish on the reef were colorful and abundant.
For good measure, we dove the Bari reef again that afternoon for our second dive of the day.
We had some equipment issues. For starters, my truck seat belt would not fasten. A day or so later, Dave got if fixed by taking the truck back to the rental agency and getting a replacement vehicle. Then, on our first dive, my alternate air source and BC inflator leaked air. It was not life threatening, but still a little dangerous, because I could run out of air too early for the dive profile. Again, Dave got it fixed the next day by driving to two different dive shops with which he was personally familiar and found a dive mechanic who could adjust the valve. While at the second shop with my BC, the mechanic said she needed to see my regulator to match the parts. Dave was a trooper and drove in a mad dash back to Den Laman, retrieved my regulator and brought it to the shop.
Several days later Joan’s computer went haywire during a dive. She and Paul left the dive earlier than Dave and me. Paul got the BDA mechanic to replace her computer with a depth gauge, air pressure gauge and compass. Joan dove the rest of the trip with this back-up equipment. Upon returning to North Carolina, the Blue Dolphin dive shop sent her computer back to the manufacturer to be replaced. Late in the trip Paul’s secondary air source developed a leak. He just put up with it and kept diving. Upon returning home, he learned that he had forgotten to have his equipment serviced this year, and took it to Blue Dolphin for a belated annual service.
For our next day’s morning trip, we drove to the Alice in Wonderland dive site on the southwest side of the island, between the airport and the salt pier. We geared up for a morning dive and waded into the water. Paul took lots of footage with his underwater video camera. Dave took voluminous numbers of photos. Joan and I followed their lead around the reef. At the end of the dive, I got impatient with the other divers’ lack of progress towards the shore and dove under Paul to get ahead of him. I kicked hard to pass him, and immediately got a hard cramp in my right calf. I could not stretch it out. I kept sinking and yanking on my right foot, to no avail. For the rest of the way into the shore, I could not use my right fin. I got what I deserved for breaking one of the seminal rules of diving: remain calm and smooth, rather than making sudden and impatient moves.
Each day we took a shore interval between dives, and went back to the condo to eat a delicious sandwich, fruit and chips lunch, including some great Dutch Gouda cheese.
That afternoon we drove north towards the Washington-Slagbai National Park and dove off the northwest shore at Oil Slick. Unlike the sloped beach at Alice in Wonderland, this water entry required climbing down some long, steep, stainless steel stairs, or an even longer giant stride off a small cliff. I went down the stairs. Paul and Joan bravely did the giant stride. Paul and Joan were very efficient with their weights (less is better) – they got down to something like six pounds each. Dave was at about 12 pounds. Due to my colder nature, I was wearing more neoprene rubber insulation in my suit, which takes more weight to pull it under the water. Plus I had gained about 15 pounds in the last several years, with a prominent beer belly, which took more weight to dunk that buoyant fat. My first couple dives were at 18 pounds, which is ridiculously inefficient. More weight means more gear to schlepp around on the shore and more inertia underwater.
By the time we got to Oil Slick, I was down to 14 pounds of weights. But at that low weight, I could hardly submerge. I could not get down by simply emptying my BC of air. My only solution was to do a head-first surface dive and kick down hard. That move then made me submerge too fast, and my ears would not equalize, which is painful. I had to then partially re-ascend, and keep bouncing around in the water column, to get down and get equalized. As I worked down deeper, my neoprene compressed under the water pressure, making me naturally sink. Eventually everything worked out. I got a photograph of a queen parrotfish. For the fourth dive in a row, Paul lead our profile, and brought us back exactly to the marker buoy, just off shore from the stairs. That is great navigation.
Most dives started with a surface swim of about 75 yards from the shore to the reef site marker buoy. Sometimes the swim was a little work, with wind-blown spray, bobbing in the swells, bright sun and hard effort from our legs. Whoever got to the buoy first hung on until the other divers arrived. Then we usually submerged as a group. Once underwater, we entered a cool, blue, pleasant world. Except for the occasional problem with an ear not equalizing, it was reassuring and comforting to sink down in the warm water onto the vibrant, colorful, well-populated reef. Descending onto the reef and drifting over it in the slight current felt like flying. We were entering a new neighborhood with many familiar faces. Most reefs had parrotfish, chromis, sergeant majors, brain coral and other tropical denizens. Then Paul or Dave would ease into the current and off our little band would go, taking photos and exploring crevices for unique wildlife.
The next morning’s dive was our only boat trip, to Klein Bonaire, the smaller island protected in Bonaire’s western bay. “Klein” is Dutch for “small.” We went to Carl’s Hill dive site, where we were looking for some tiny, rare, sea horses. Our guide Jerry Ligon is one of the best naturalists on the island, but we got skunked on that score. He carried a large slate (a plastic tablet on which to write messages) and pointed out many interesting plants and animals.
Our afternoon dive was to the famous 1000 Steps site on the northwest coast. It is so named for the something like 75 stone steps from the road down a cliff face to the shore. As in all our dives, Joan was a trooper who did everything that the guys did. Dave and Paul led the dive and took much video footage and many photos.
Wednesday was our iron man day – we squeezed in 3 dives. Amazingly, we met another group who bragged about their 5 dives per day for 5 days. No way would I put myself under that kind of stress and court that sort of invitation to get the bends. We started in the morning with a shore dive at Invisibles. On the road to the dive site we saw much wildlife, including iguanas, lizards, wild burros, feral goats, cactus, thorn trees and volcanic desert. The dive was a fairly deep one to 78 feet for about an hour.
Our early afternoon dive was purposefully shallow and simple, on the Bari Reef off our home dock. We went to about 50 feet for 45 minutes. Right off the shore at the adjacent collapsed dock we saw our first manta ray winging serenely past; and we saw our biggest barracuda to date. At Paul’s suggestion I led the dive and did the navigation.
Then our third dive of the day was a night dive – spooky! Some of us felt a little trepidation at the prospect, but once in the water and acclimated to the dark, we enjoyed it. This was another fairly short dive at Bari Reef. We saw the same big tarpon using out lights for hunting bait fish that Paul and I had seen on our night dive at the same reef seven years earlier. A really cool aspect of a night dive is that once we turned off our lights, where out fins swirled in the water, we could see glowing spots, which were bio-luminescence from dinoflagellates.
The next morning was our deepest dive – 100 feet to the sandy bottom on the Hilma Hooker ship wreck. The deeper you go then the less bottom time you have due to nitrogen loading in the blood. Paul led this dive perfectly and brought us back to the buoy right on time. We saw some big tarpon and barracuda.
Our next afternoon dive was to the shore just north of town at Something Special. Dave led this trip and we saw plenty of colorful wildlife. The local legend is that this site was named by a young couple who “christened” the site by having intercourse while scuba diving!
As on most of my outdoor trips, I worked on my patina to condition my skin to the sun, wind, water and salt. Most days were blazing hot, sunny and windy. My regimen was to rinse off often in fresh water but to avoid soap, so as to keep from stripping my skin of natural oils. It worked fine and I finished the trip in good shape, despite never using sunscreen. The things that hurt were my nose and toes. Due to nearly constant diving for a week, I developed a blister on the bottom of my nose from rubbing the face mask; and on the tops of my toes from rubbing the fins.
The rule is not to dive on the day before a plane trip, to allow off gassing of nitrogen and avoid a danger of the bends on the flight. So, on our last full day on the island, we took a break from scuba and drove around the island. That afternoon my three companions went snorkeling between the docks. I stayed out of the water altogether to rest my blisters.
The back deck of our condo faced over the ocean to the west. Most nights we saw some kind of sunset. One evening when the sun was setting through a clear sky with no clouds, for the first time in my life, I saw the green flash. On rare occasions, when the sun sets over the ocean, in the literal last one second as the top tip of the sun dips below the horizon, there can be a brilliant emerald glow. There it was!