Earlier this year we headed to the undisputed king of shore diving, the "B" of the "ABC" Islands-Bonaire. Bonaire inspires loyalty unlike any other island. The vast majority of dives alongs its western side are accessible from the shore. Many people will visit and never set foot on a boat. Hence, the reason folks love it so much. You can do your own thing, at your pace, whenever you feel like it.
We stayed at Buddy Dives. Nestled right between Captain Don's and the Sand Dollar, these 3 resorts cater to divers. They have their own fleet of rental trucks that you can load up for shore dives, have great dives right off their own shores and offer boat diving if you prefer the feel of aqua-marine under your feet. Our plan was to do a little boat diving and a little shore diving and get a good mix of what Bonaire had to offer.
After a red eye flight to Atlanta and a connection to Bonaire, we landed in the pouring rain. Desert island my flipper! It rained a ton while we were there (though never for too long) which lead to the rise of mosquitoes that all seemed to hone in on Tee as their primary target. A quick connection to Buddy's and our vacation was on.
Before you can do any diving on Bonaire, you need to sit in on a briefing about the marine park and do a check out dive off the resort. We arrived too late to dive that day so the afternoon was spent doing a little exploring. We were staying in 2 bedroom condos with a truck for every 4 people. The trucks are mini-king cabs that hold 4 nicely and 5 or 6 in a pinch. It was neat to have transportation so readily available. Most islands we travel to require a bus or cab ride to go anywhere and that gets old and expensive quick. Since our condos had kitchens, it was off to the grocery store to stock up on supplies. We also discovered the KFC down the road that had the best chicken strips. We would hit that a few times during the week.
After breakfast the next morning, we had our briefing and learned all about the marine park, the dos and don'ts and the drive-thru tank service. That's right, a drive-thru tank service. I will be honest, I had heard about this before and had grandiose ideas about pulling through and having tanks loaded and unloaded for you. That's not exactly how it worked. You drove up and there was a group of filled tanks and a spot to leave empties. You loaded and unloaded yourself; it reminded me of when we used to use Murray High's pool for classes, loading tanks in the van. You can take 2 tanks per person at a time so you could go out for a morning or afternoon adventure and not have to hurry back. After our tour we jumped off the pier for our check out dive. The shore diving set up was slick. You had a storage area for gear, loads of full tanks, rinse tanks and easy entries and exits. Upon descending you usually got to meet Charlie. Charlie is a 6 foot long tarpon that loves to sneak up behind you. I heard a few swears from night divers when their bubbles popped at the surface when Charlie snuck up from behind them. There was a sandy bottom about 10 feet deep right off the pier which extended about 30 yards until the drop off. There it was a steady slop to over 100 feet of depth.
You need to make a "check out" dive off the pier before you do any other diving. Just a quickie to make sure you have the right amount of weight and can remember what you forgot in 20 feet of water before going to 60 feet. I have become a big fan of the check out ever since one person in a Roatan group forgot to attach their BCD inflator hose to their reg. Not just "not attached to the BCD" but not attached to the reg at all, as in-still in their bag on the boat.
So we did our dive and then got ready for our first boat dive. Our package included 6 boat dives. I was curious to see how they would schedule these. 1 dive a day didn't seem to make sense and then it would throw a wrench into setting up your 2 shore dives. Instead they set up 2 dives a day for 3 days. You did either 2 tanks in the morning or 2 in the afternoon. Our first day was set for afternoon dives after we got done with our briefings and check out dive. They took us out to Klein Bonaire. Klein is a small island just off shore from the leeward side of Bonaire. Bonaire almost wraps around it. It's too far for shore diving so you do most of your boat dives out there. It was out here that I first noticed some of the hurricane damage.
Apparently Bonaire was hit pretty bad last year by some storms. The divemasters said a hurricane hit. How did I miss this? We had out trip planned well in advance. Normally I keep an eye to on the weather through the summer and fall, you know, to make the island is still there in the winter when we show up. I was also a bit upset that no one told me about it, namely our travel person who helped set it up. "Oh yea, you're going to love Bonaire," she said. "Great shore dives." She forgot to mention that possibly the best know dive and the best night dive, "The Town Pier" was gone. Like completely gone. Like wiped off the face of the water gone. This is THE famous Bonaire dive and they kept it a secret that it had been wiped out 5 months before!! Really the only other evidence was a few overturned coral head and barrel sponges. Actually quite a few barrel sponges were tipped over. There was also some damage that they had just finished repairing at Buddy's. We couldn't help but notice the brand new wood on most of the bigger pier. Well apparently that hurricane had a thing for piers since it took out Buddy's as well!
The next morning, the plan was to meet at 9am at the front entrance with all gear and tanks loaded where we would rally off to our first shore diving site, "Jefferson Davis." In someone's guide book it said to look for seahorses there so we were hot to trot to find some. Have you ever had a situation that afterwards you look back and say...Well that was obvious?
It looked innocent enough on our map. We get there and walk down to the shore. Only problem is there a small drop off (about 3 feet) that you will need to scramble down in order to get to the rocky/sandy 20 foot wide beach. **First Hindsight-it is our first shore dive on this trip, we have a bunch of new divers-we should have gone somewhere with an easier entry.
We're all excited to dive so damn the torpedos, we are going in! The "beach" is about 15 feet by 20 feet. That is the sandy part, there are rocks every where else. Some of our group decide to bring their gear down and put it together on the beach rather then put it together up top and hand it down. **Second Hindsight-15 people are not going to fit on this beach! Sand/waves/scuba gear means a bloody mess! Everyone should have set up on the top and then handed the gear down, put it on and headed straight into the water with out clogging up the beach.
Now we are ready to hit the water. Some are putting their fins on and walking in, some wading in and putting on gear in the water, some going by themselves and others waiting for buddies.**Third Hindsight-The waves are not that big but big enough to push you around. A few folks fall over and get tossed around in the sand/water. We should have found the clearest path out into the water, one person (the instructor leading the group maybe??) should have walked each person out and had them put their fins on oncethey were clear of the surf zone and in slightly deeper water.
Well, once we were in the water and out past the surf zone, it was all good. We actually had a great dive and getting out was easier (we were learning!!) When we got to the second site for the day (Andrea I or II, not sure which) we were a bit more prepared. Not quite the efficient band of brothers we would become but well on our way. Big thanks goes out to one of our group and Divemaster-Joe L. He was great in helping people in and out of the water all week long. We made it back to the resort in time for lunch and then 2 more dives out on the boat.
This was pretty much the drill each day. 4 dives and a night dive thrown in for good measure. I was way impressed at how the group did. The first dive not with standing, we became pros at shore diving. I was sure that after a day or 2 of all this diving, people would start sitting a few out. Nope, not until Thursday afternoon did we lose the first person. We did a few more boat dives around Klein Bonaire as well as Windsock and Karpata.
Karpata is a great dive more toward the north of the island. It is interesting to note that the diving toward the south has a flatter entry and longer swim out to the reef. As you go north, the entry becomes a bit steeper (i.e.-Jefferson Davis) with the reef right off shore. There are a few dives towards the north that have stairs down to the water (1000 Steps is the obvious one) and Karpata is one of the best. The reef slopes down a bit steeper here. Not quite a sheer wall but getting pretty close to it.
The other shore dives we were down at the south end (we learned our lesson.) Easier entries became our motto. We dove The Lake, Alice in Wonderland, Aquarius, Invisibles, White Slave, Red Beryl and of course a few dives on the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. I loved the idea of being able to shore dive a wreck. Normally we get to dive 1 or 2 wrecks during a week if there any to be had. I could do a week of nothing but wrecks (that would be called Truk Lagoon and some day I'll get there.) Having the Hooker so easily accessible was great but I was a little bummed to only get to dive it twice. We were diving so many other spots, we didn't have time to head back for another dive. Plus since it was on the deeper side (sand at 110'), it had to be a morning dive. The wreck is lying on its side with the keel facing the beach. It was odd to swim to. You are about 40' deep and slowly sloping down. Out in the distance you notice a line stretched across horizontally in front of you. As you get closer you realize it is the edge of the side of the ship. As you cross over the side of the ship, you can peer over the edge and see the rest of it. You see the super structure amidships and can look into the hold. Since the ship is tipped over on its side, swimming over the edge turns the wreck into a giant cavern. The superstructure is easy to penetrate with lots of doors, windows and openings. It is a bit disorienting since everything is sideways.
My only real complaint (after the mosquitoes) was that most of the dives were the same. There are no walls, ledges, overhangs or swim-throughs. You had a sloping bottom on every dive without much variation. Having said that, we did see more fish life then you normally see at other Caribbean islands. My only other bit of advice is to watch out around the White Slave huts. DO NOT drive your truck up onto the rocks. It will take 5-7 people to help push you out.
Let's go diving!