During the week and two weekends of September 29 through October 8, 2017, my buddy Paul Anderson and I went scuba diving on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, which is adjacent to Aruba and Curacao and just north of the Venezuelan coast. We were diving with David Smith and his wife Hilda who snorkeled each day. When Paul and I returned home, David and Hilda stayed another week and were joined by others of their family members for more diving. This was about my third trip to the island and 75th dive; it was about Paul’s seventh visit to the island and 275th dive; and about David’s twelfth trip to the island and 275th dive.
Bonaire is a typical Caribbean island in that it has a hot tropical climate, mostly sun, the occasional soft and warm rain, warm and clear ocean water, near constant trade winds which are cooling and make the heat tolerable, with lots of fresh tropical fruit and local fish to eat. In addition, the island is part of the Netherlands Antilles, meaning it is a Dutch protuberate, so many of the buildings are Dutch architecture, and the main language and street signs are Dutch. The stores have excellent European cheeses, including gouda [pronounced “how-dah,” not “goo-dah”]. The main form of money is USA dollars; and everybody we met spoke at least rudimentary English. But a lot of the islanders also speak Spanish, so I got to practice that language and occasionally I sorted out miscommunications problems. I was proud of myself for asking our maid in Spanish how to operate our European made dishwasher and then using her answer to make it work.
Bonaire is famous in the scuba diving family for shore diving. Unlike most world-wide dive operations, no boat or guide is needed to get to the sites. We rented a pickup truck, which are provided with air tank racks in the back, loaded our gear several times a day and drove to one of the approximately 85 marked sites. The main road which circles the outer edge of the island runs along the shore. We could park by the road, assemble our gear and walk into the ocean. The swim out to the reef or sunken ship was usually less than 100 yards. Then we would dive.
For those of you keeping score at home, in case you may want to go yourself, we stayed at the Den Laman Condo’s at the north edge of the main town Kralendijk at the traffic circle. [If you are interested, I can show you the circle on Google Earth.] Our air tank supplier was Friends of Bonaire Diving. The sites we dived were: Bari Reef, Something Special, Margate Bay, Salt Pier, The Invisibles, Andrea 1, Hilma Hooker, Bari Reef again, Oil Slick and finally Bari Reef. All these sites were day light dives on coral reefs except Salt Pier, which is a pier that carries commercially harvested salt from the Bonaire salt pans to waiting ships for international trade; and Hilma Hooker which is a sunken ship that used to be a marijuana running boat; and the last Bari Reef trip which was a night dive. We went to Bari Reef so often because it was right off the pier behind our condo.
Being in the Caribbean, the activities are on “island time,” meaning casual logistics. The small island is mostly desert and outside of the several small towns is covered by cactus and thorn trees; and occupied by wild goats, donkeys, lizards and tropical birds. The capital of Kralendijk is proud of its complex heritage of Amerinds [pre-historic aboriginal natives], Dutch, English and Spanish influences. In addition to all those languages, many of the natives speak a pidgin language called Papiamento. On prior trips I had learned some Papiamento, but by the time of this trip I had forgotten most of it and I did not have a chance to practice it again. Interestingly, water around Bonaire is a giant marine sanctuary, the first one in the world. Dozens of square miles of ocean are protected from commercial fishing or any kind of marine harvesting. Also, parts of the island are sea turtle sanctuaries, so some beaches in some seasons are off limits to tourists. There are no plastic grocery bags on the island, because when they blow in the water they look like jelly fish, which the turtles eat and choke to death.
At several different times we all three divers got to be a “ranger” by helping someone with an outdoor problem. One time one of David’s fins came off and we all immediately began searching for it, mostly by looking down. Then Paul spotted it floating towards the surface. I grabbed it just before it went out of reach. Another time I committed the cardinal sin of forgetting to turn on my air tank. Then I walked about chest deep into the ocean. The rough bottom and moderate waves knocked me off my feet. I could not breathe and due to my heavy gear I could not stand back up. As I floundered I called for help and Paul immediately, calmly, told me to blow into my vest to give myself flotation and keep my head above water, which I did. Then he waded over and turned on my tank. The final time was when we were circling the Hilma Hooker ship wreck at about 75 feet depth and I was floating well above Paul and David. Paul could not see me so he immediately looked all the way around, horizontally and down below, for 365 degrees. No Bob. Then he heard my underwater air horn, and assumed I was stuck on something under the ship, so he started to swim back down. I raced downward into David’s line of sight, who alerted Paul, and all was well.
An issue David and I had the whole week was our goggles fogging. Apparently newer goggles have to be broken in to make them less prone to fog. We both had new goggles. We tried our own spit, which worked occasionally. We also tried multiple commercial liquids, including one called “Spit” and another called “Frog Spit;” and several others including the ubiquitous “Sea Gold.” They each worked occasionally. None of them worked all the time. In the end David switched back to an older goggle, but I had only brought one with me so I could not switch. I got good at removing my goggles under the ocean and swishing them around in sea water to clear them, but then the residual salty water would irritate my eyes.
Another issue I had was my big, fat belly. I was carrying about 30 extra, useless pounds. This weight created multiple dumb problems: (1) I could hardly zip into my tight wet suit; (2) the fat is buoyant so to descend in the water I had to carry about 10 extra pounds of lead weights in my vest; (3) the body weight combined with the lead weights made me heavier, which meant that I had more inertia, so I had to burn more energy (and air) to move underwater; and finally (4) the extra weight made me top heavy, so when entering or exiting the water at the shore I could hardly keep my balance. This big belly has got to go!
On our one night dive we saw a huge tarpon flash by us several times; he was using our flashlight beams to hunt smaller fish. Once when we turned off our lights then we waved our hands in the water and saw the bioluminescence glowing! Another time without lights we could see the full moon glowing overhead and it was bright enough to see the bottom and sort-of navigate.
The thing I liked best about this trip was the relaxation. I got into the habit of going to bed around dusk and waking up before dawn. I saw more sunrises this week than I had in several years. My breathing issue, which I have written about in earlier articles, is probably due to a combination of physical exertion and stress induced anxiety. This trip it never appeared. I think the main reason things were so relaxed for me is that I am big on logistics, and I get concerned that the group stay on schedule, does not get lost, does not drown and so on. This trip was wonderful because David and Paul were our guides. They planned each activity and led all the routes underwater. I was content to fin along most of the time behind David and in front of Paul.
A typical day went like this. Wake up before dawn, sit up in bed and check emails and text messages. Watch the sun rise over the sea. Make a breakfast of granola cereal and milk, raisins, bananas and peanut butter on toast. Walk out on the deck to check the ocean for wind and wave conditions (usually mild). Paul would lead us in a yoga session. Then lounge around the condo and read magazines about backpacking and guns. About 9 a.m. meet the other divers at the equipment storage building and load up the rental truck. Go around the corner to the air station and check out tanks for the morning dive. Pick a dive site and drive there. Park by the road and assemble our gear. We could see the clear, light blue Caribbean water and hear the wind blowing in the brush. The sounds of metal air tanks clanking, fastex buckles clicking and Velcro tabs ripping open and closed were prevalent. We would rinse our masks and add defogger lotion or spit. Checking air connections and pressure were critical. We could feel the hot tropical sun beating down on our skin, and the trade winds cooling us off.
Then it was ocean entry time. This transition from land to sea, and at the end of the dive back to land, were often the hardest part of the trip. With about 75 pounds of gear on our backs, long, floppy fins on our feet, waves pushing us around, sandy water blocking our view of the bottom, and usually a sea floor covered with big, sharp and loose rolling rocks or broken pieces of coral, it was murder trying to keep our balance and move forward. At most sites we would swim on the surface on our backs to save tank air about 50 to 100 yards to the buoy marking the dive starting spot. We would finish putting on our masks and regulators, then descend to the bottom. The float downwards was slow, calming and usually with a view of bright corals and colorful fish. I would cinch up tighter all my straps and buckles which was comforting. David or Paul would check the current, take a compass reading, note the depth on their computer and then start moving north or south along the reef against the slight current. David investigated the reef in minute detail, took photographs and navigated. Paul sometimes borrowed my camera to take pictures and did navigation. I tagged along. By the end of the trip I was doing back up navigation, for practice and to assure myself where we were.
As we went along, we all monitored our residual tank air, remaining bottom time according to our computer and time elapsed. After about 20 minutes David or Paul would check with me on my air, because I always used it the fastest and would be the first to run low. When I had a little over half my air remaining we would return along the reef, with the current, back to the buoy tethered to the bottom. We usually returned to the shore underwater, to look for any more interesting creatures and to off-gas built up nitrogen like a safety stop. Then we had to run the gauntlet of another water exit, straining to keep our top heavy balance in the rough footing. Back at the truck everything was done in reverse – shucking heavy gear, removing tanks from vests, putting on dry clothes and chatting about the dive.
Many times Paul and I would wait near the truck while David and Hilda went snorkeling nearby. Then it was off in the truck back to the condo to unload our gear, rinse out the saltwater in the big fresh water tanks provided by the dive outfitters, and hang the gear up to dry in the storage building. Next we would go up to the condos to have a lunch of bread, cheeses, tomatoes, luncheon meat, bananas or other fresh fruit. Sometimes we would be bad boys and pop a beer. Then some more power lounging and reading. Most afternoons we went on a second dive. In the evening sometimes Hilda and David cooked supper in their condo and graciously invited me and Paul to join them. Other times we went out to local restaurants. The one I liked best was Mi Banana. It was hidden in a native part of town and well of the tourist trail. Usually the staff spoke rudimentary English and I spoke rudimentary Spanish, so between us we could communicate our orders and have friendly conversations. Fresh local grilled fish with fried plantains were my favorite.
Then evenings were a little more reading and bedtime not long after dark. During this week, like all my outdoor trips, I worked on my skin patina. I stayed plenty clean by constant dunking in sea water, showers at the condo, and exposure to the wind and sun. But I did not use soap or shampoo. So my skin stayed sleek and healthy and did not get dried out, wind burned or sun burned. Towards the end of the week I think Paul adopted my regimen But boy, you should have seen my hair! It had so much body that it stood nearly straight out all around.
At the end of the week Paul and I flew home. Several of David’s and Hilda’s family joined them for another week of diving and snorkeling. A good time was had by all!