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Bonaire

5/20/2005

SHOW ME WHERE THIS IS

Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, Caribbean

 

            Over the 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 Bay, Jamaica, 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.]

 

            We stayed 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 more words. 

 

            Bonaire’s 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.

 

            The island 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 elements. 

 

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. 

 

Paul 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 on time. 

 

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 again!

 

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.  



Click here to see a video from the Bonaire trip!

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