Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles,
week and two weekends of May 20 – 29, 2005, Paul
Anderson and I (Bob Laney) went scuba
diving in the beautiful tropical waters off Bonaire. The reefs there are on the top of many
professional guide lists of the best places in the world to dive, including for
shore diving and diversity of wildlife.
This island is only about 90 miles
north of South America, in the far southeast corner of the Caribbean Sea, near
the sister islands of Aruba and Curacao – thus their nickname
the ABC islands. Our flight took us from
Atlanta, to Montego
mon, to Kralendijk, the capital town of Bonaire. [Travel note: Atlanta
– Hartsfield is the worst airport from which I have ever boarded a plane; try
to avoid it in the future.]
at the Sand Dollar Resort, which is actually a collection of condos owned by
persons all over the world and rented back to travelers, mostly scuba divers,
through a local real estate agency. It is on the western shore about half-way
north to south, on the north edge of Kralendijk. The
view looked out over the bay to several more islands to the west. The shore had the typical Caribbean
features of little sand, coral cobble beaches, volcanic rock, old coral cliffs
and beautiful warm, clear blue waters.
Most of the
signs are in Dutch with a few in Spanish and English. The natives speak and study as separate
subjects in school Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamentu. The last one is the native creole language
that is a combination of Spanish, French, Dutch and older native African
dialects. The businesses accept money in
Dutch guilders, American dollars and Visa cards. I have a knack for languages, so by the end
of the week I could recognize many local words by their European language derivation,
which helped me to remember them. I
could carry on a simple conversation with the local workers using parts of
several languages. Since most tourists don’t
make an effort to immerse themselves in the native culture, the locals were
pleasantly surprised by my linguistic spirit of adventure. They were happy to talk with me and teach me
main island is about as big as Wilkes
County and shaped like a
kidney. The convex side is to the
windward and faces the wide-open Atlantic Ocean. It is rugged and weather-beaten with rough,
rocky beaches, heavy waves and currents.
The “rocky” is actually sometimes volcanic rock, and sometimes old coral
reefs that were under water eons ago and are now a few feet above the water. Such shores are astoundingly inhospitable, with
sharp edges that are actually dangerous to traverse. One slip and fall could cut up a person. Barefoot walking would reduce a person’s feet
to bloody hamburger in seconds. No
diving is available on this side of the island, except for the large Lac
Bay. It is the ocean side of an estuarine mangrove
swamp, which is a nursery for many kinds of fresh water and salt water aquatic
life. World class wind surfers come here
to practice and compete in the warm, shallow, clear waters.
is thinly populated, with several thousand persons in Kralendijk and a few
thousand more scatted in smaller villages and remote outposts. The island is semi-desert, covered with
cactus, thorn bushes, sand, bare dirt, volcanic rock and old coral. It has a few hills about 1,000 feet
high. There is little farming, mostly
vegetable gardens and goats. The island
has a wild population of wandering goats and burros. One major feature at the south end is natural
salt pans. These are flat places where
the salty ocean water blows or splashes onto the land, stays and dries into
salt, which is then harvested and sold world-wide. The only significant colonial, military and
commercial activity in the island’s history, dating back to soon after Columbus
came to the Caribbean, was caused by Spain,
France and most
recently Holland battling each
other to get their hands on and work the salt pans. Today the stark white, conical salt piles can
be seen for miles and are an icon of the island. They can be plainly seen in photos taken from
space satellites at Google Earth.
Most of the architecture is
distinctly Dutch. Look in a history book
with pictures of old Amsterdam and
that is what the nicer, bigger buildings look like. Like most third world countries, the native
huts are cobbled together from any kind of available junk. The location has one major effect on the buildings. Being located not far from the equator, it is
hot and the climate varies little between seasons. For climatological reasons that I do not
understand, despite being surrounded by sea water, there is almost no
rain. Thus, many buildings have only a
couple walls to break the occasional hard wind, and several sides are open from
floor to ceiling to breezes for cooling. Or, all walls may be three feet high with
several more feet of space up to the roof for the same reason. Some walls have openings for doors and
windows with no actual door or window there – just the space. Despite the blasting hot tropical sun only a
few feet away outside, and no air conditioning or fans inside, the cool breezy
shade was perfectly comfortable. If I
may step up on my soapbox for a moment, as I have preached to my acquaintances
for decades, we do not have to have electrical appliances to obtain comfort, in
almost any environment, if we design our structures in harmony with the
There was a native Arawak
population when Europeans arrived, but they were soon wiped out. Most of the natives are now the descendents
of black slaves imported from Africa by European entrepreneurs. The major enterprise today, besides salt, is scuba
divers. The black natives have preserved
a more direct cultural and pure genetic connection to their ancestors than in
the USA. Most of the women have distinctly long legs,
slender hips and a lyrical way of walking that is very calm and smooth. They tote loads on their heads like the
pictures in National Geographic. All the
black natives carry themselves with a pride and calmness that is somewhat regal. They dress conservatively, with mostly long sleeved
shirts and pants or blouses and skirts, despite the heat.
The entire north end of the island
is the Washington - Slagbaai National Park, which preserves a few of the
remaining colonial-era buildings, the highest mountains, some of the very few
and very small natural fresh water springs (actually mud pits) and most of the
flamingoes. It includes Playa Chiquita,
an exquisitely beautiful little beach with rare white, thick soft sand,
turquoise blue Caribbean waters, large waves and black volcanic
rock cliff boundaries. But like a coral
snake, the beauty is dangerous: the beach is remote, hot, isolated and squeezed
between dry desert, sharp cliff rocks and dangerous heavy sea currents.
The concave side of the island is
to the leeward - away from the wind.
This side is where the reefs, and thus the scuba and snorkeling action,
are found. It faces to the west, and the
curve further protects the small, satellite island Klein (meaning “small”) Bonaire,
which itself is another national park. All
the dive sites are part of an underwater national preserve with strict rules
for access. A local orientation by a
licensed dive service is required before entry.
The entire smaller island, like most of the main island, looks like
pictures of New Mexico or inland Australia:
sun baked rock, cactus and thorny scrub brush. There is just about nothing of agricultural,
commercial or recreational value on the land.
The town of Kralendijk is
pretty dull, too. Even the snorkeling is
not too good, since the reefs are a little deeper than a person can easily see
or access by surface a dive.
The wind surfing and scuba diving on
Bonaire are world class.
International championship wind surfing competitions are regularly held
here. For my first scuba trip after my
training dives in Key Largo, FL,
last fall, Paul wanted my experience to be
exciting but enjoyable. It is common for
beginning scuba divers to fade away and quit the sport because of the difficulty
in finding dive sites which match their taste and ability. Some get in over their head and are scared
off. Others are bored. Bonaire causes none of
those reactions – it is an underwater paradise.
The dive sites are named and numbered for the entire length of the leeward
side of the island. There are a total of
about 75 sites. Most are coral reefs, while
a few are sunken ships. Each one is
labeled based on some point of interest, like “Hilma Hooker” is named for a sunken
ship; “1,000 steps” refers to the means of access; and “Alice in Wonderland” refers
to the phantasmagoric coral growth The dive
site right in front of our lodge, Bari Reef # 27, is among the better dives
sites in the world for diversity and quantity of coral and fish life. Of course, it is all riotously colorful and
right in the diver’s face.
The air temperature was in the high
80’s, but it felt much hotter in the sun due to
the closeness to the equator (greater radiation exposure), often
lack of breeze and high humidity. The
water temperature stays in the low to mid 80’s, which is as warm as the YMCA
pool and quite comfortable. Most divers
wore some combination of nylon or neoprene wet suits for protection, but
apparently it was mostly out of habit. The
temperature made it was feasible to dive with no exposure suit, and some of our
fellow divers did so.
Since the ocean animals did not
evolve with human divers among them, then they do not have the instinct to run and
hide when a person comes by. Unlike on
the land, where almost every wild animal you encounter will hide the instant it
sees you, on the reefs, the fish, corals, rays, eels, sponges, crabs, lobster
and squid wander around in a profusion of inter-connected and inter-dependent
life cycles: eating, swimming, hiding, cleaning, hunting, disguising, sleeping
and commuting. Yes, some fish commute in
long schools from eating places to sleeping places on different parts of the
reef. It’s like having a marine zoo and
a biology lab operating in front of you, but oblivious to you.
had a sneaky agenda of calmly, quietly but insistently making me grow as a
diver. Twice each day over six days he
would mention casually that we would be going to some new site, and by the way,
we will be going to, say, 100 feet deep, even though I had never been deeper
than, say, 60 feet. Or we will be going
at night, even though I had only dived in day time. Or we will be navigating our own dive
profile from shore with no guide, even though I had only dived in the Florida
Keys with a guide from a boat.
Or I can lead the navigation and worry about getting back to shore where
we are parked.
While making our pre-trip plans, I
had numerous excuses why I could only do simple dives, with no such
challenges. After all, I had just got my license and was a rank
beginner. Many of these underwater goals are close to the limit for
recreational divers. How could I do that? When I would list my
limitations to Paul, he would patiently say “Well, we’ll see.” During the
trip, he ignored my fears and just made me do it. In hindsight, I see
that my fears were uniformly unfounded. As long as I did what Paul said,
who has been on over 160 dives, then there was no problem. The biggest
obstacle I have seen in other persons beginning diving, or rock climbing, or
any other out-of-the-ordinary sport, is overcoming this innate fear of doing
something new and exotic. When we follow an experienced friend,
things are almost always well within our abilities.
A 100 foot deep dive for a neophyte
is considered to be somewhat of a big deal. That depth is close to the limit
for recreational divers. Most Florida
Keys dives are no more than 35 feet. Almost every dive we did on Bonaire
went to 60 – 80 feet. So, when Paul got me down the final 20 feet on our
deepest dive, there was no noticeable difference. The sensation of increased pressure is reverse
exponential – that is, the most pressure is felt just below the surface. The deeper you go, the less difference each
increment feels. But I did not know
that. On my first deep dive, I expected
to feel some kind of crushing pressure.
I was on edge and hyper-alert to my instruments when I first got to the
lowest part of the dive profile. But then I started playing around and
did not worry so much. When I got to the sand at 100 feet I kind of
goofed around to show off.
Another simplifying factor is that
most deep dives go somewhat straight up and down, like following a boat
anchor. So in a way, a deep dive may
actually be simpler, due to less time and less navigation wending around the
reefs as in a shallow dive.
Of course, there is a reason that
there is a limit to diving depth. The greater
the depth, then the faster you use air, the more you build up nitrogen in your
blood and the closer you come to developing other dangerous bodily
conditions. Like flying an airplane in
the dark, it is critical to monitor your instruments and leave for the surface
Navigation includes the
responsibilities to determine the roughness of the beach at the access site, the
size of the waves, the water temperature and the compass angle to the marker buoy. Then the leader descends slowly to avoid ear
pressure and pain from too fast depth change, marks the depth of the buoy
anchor (like checking the altitude at a trail intersection when hiking in the
mountains), determines the direction and amount of current and decides which
direction to cruise the reef. Then the
leader monitors total depth, air consumption, elapsed time, watches the gauges for
nitrogen loading, watches his buddy for signs of trouble and makes sure he is being
watched. Eventually the leader will decide
when to turn the dive, determine the return route profile, find the buoy anchor
[which is usually so covered in algae that it is totally camouflaged], ascend
slowly to avoid nitrogen coming out of solution and forming dangerous bubbles in
the blood called the “bends” and return to the beach access.
Much of the data for the diving
decisions comes from the dive computer.
Above ground, when you are trying to look up historical data or predict
the parameters for future dives, the computer can be maddeningly
confusing. The few buttons can be pushed
in about 40 different combinations and sequences, none of which are
particularly intuitive. Fortunately,
when it counts most, the computer is idiot proof. Under water, while your life depends on it,
the computer mostly ignores the operator.
It only recognizes about 3 choices of buttons, and then in a few seconds
it defaults back to the main screen with the current depth, elapsed time and
“nitrogen loading” time, that is, how much longer you can safely remain at that
depth. As you move around, the computer
constantly updates the display with what you are have done, what you are doing
and what you can do.
Depending on many factors, the typical
reef dive profile is a three dimensional, downward curving, right triangle with
a tail off one angle. [Say what…?] That is, proceed straight from the beach to
the buoy, while following the bottom to descend slowly. Find the buoy anchor and mark the depth, say
25 feet. Then find the reef and proceed
more or less straight away from the beach.
Descend fairly early in the dive to the lowest point of the dive, say 70
feet, usually at the sand bottom. Check
the current and go 90 degrees right or left against the current. That way, you are not mislead by the ease of
movement, and your return home with the current will be easier than against the
current. Go slowly and investigate
everything. Keep your buoyancy neutral
so as not to ascend too fast and get the bends; and not to descend too fast and
bump the reef, which is dangerous due to many sharp and poisonous objects, besides
being illegal in most places where the reefs are protected nature preserves. The typical foray along the reef near the
bottom is several hundred yards.
After starting with about 3,000
pounds of air, when the consumption reaches the half way point with a 500 pound
reserve, or about 1,750 pounds [3,000 - 500 = 2,500 / 2 = 1,250; 3,000 - 1,250 = 1,750], then turn the
dive. Proceed at about a 45 degree angle
to the main line of the reef, going slowly
back uphill and along the reef, with the current, back towards the bottom of
the buoy. The ascension should be slow
and thus prevent the need for a decompression stop. When you get back to the prior marked depth,
say 25 feet, and if you are lucky, you will be near the buoy anchor. If you can’t find it, then slowly ascend to
the surface and look for it. Depending
on the total elapsed time and air consumption, if there is enough of both left,
then you may descend again and keep playing around in the shallow water. Finally, you follow the reverse of your
original compass heading from the buoy back to the beach exit point.
There is a rule of thumb that if
the diver is doing anything strenuous or in a hurry, if something is happening
to you of any sort, other than calmly looking around, then he should re-assess
the situation, calm down and slow down.
If there is a real problem, then he should fix it immediately, rather
than let the problem escalate and multiply.
Underwater diving is mostly Zen.
You should be so “into” the environment as not to be conscious of
yourself. But, despite that mantra,
after doing all the above work, including schlepping around the beach and the
ocean with about 80 pounds of gear, at the end of the dive he is often
exhausted. The work of getting ready
for, into and out of the water for scuba diving is quite strenuous, due to the weight,
many hoses and fittings to connect and check and the constant monitoring of things.
While on the island, I experienced
an emotional roller coaster cycle, twice daily.
It would start with apprehension and mild fear about what I was getting
into that may be new and difficult on the next dive. That would be followed by nervous energy to
get in the water and get on with it. Paul
several times called me “you fast thing” [that is his strongest epithet] since
I would be sitting on the rental truck tailgate, nervously ready to go, while
he still had 10 minutes of hooking up thingamajigs to do. Of course, he was held up by handling his
complicated underwater camera. Then in
the water, I would feel miniature roller coasters of concern that I was doing
all the necessary skills, mixed with the thrills of what I was seeing and
doing. Upon returning to land, I would
be on an adrenaline high for a couple hours, proud of what I had accomplished
and excited by what I had seen. Then Paul
would mention the next dive, slightly more difficult ….and make me apprehensive
Some of the more interesting things
we saw included, on our second night dive, a large tarpon, about 4 feet long
and brilliantly silver reflective colored.
It used our dive lights to hunt by.
It cruised by us and around us for about 20 minutes. I touched it once. It ate several smaller fish right in front of
our faces. Once coming back to shore on
a dive boat we saw flying fish going about 25 miles per hour for about 5
seconds at a time in the air above the water.
Another time as we approached a dive buoy, we were investigated by a
large barracuda. On one reef at the
south end of the island, we found the same school of commuting fish that Paul
had seen there several years before. My
favorite sighting, which we did many times on every dive and I consider it to
be the signature Bonaire fish, was the iridescent turquoise, green, yellow,
pink and blue coral feeder, the stoplight parrotfish. It was always biting the coral to eat the
tiny polyps inside.
It was not until after I had
returned home for several days, had time to absorb all we had done and re-read
some of the complex manuals dealing with our technical equipment that I started
to feel like I understood what the sport is about, and how to read and
interpret the data from the dive computer.
I felt good about how much I had accomplished in a short time. Paul offered
that my diving capabilities had progressed strongly and I was ready to dive practically
anywhere in the Caribbean. He is a great teacher.
Paul got many beautiful underwater
scenes, and a few land shots, on video.
He made a DVD movie with classical guitar music accompaniment. Parts of it are as good as a National
Geographic TV show. If any of the BRO
readers want to see the DVD, just call me or Paul.
to see a video from the Bonaire trip!