Bonaire: Relaxing Diving and more than you thought topside

Ask any scuba diver about Bonaire and the first thing you’ll hear is “The diving is great!” We have never found any divers that come back disappointed from Bonaire. This is place divers go to relax. There is no pressure to get up at 0 dark o’clock and get on a boat. You get up when you want and either hop in your dive truck go for dive. Or you can grab your gear and just stride off the resort dock for a dive anytime. The reef in front of the well known resorts at Sand Dollar, Cap’t Don’s, Buddy Dive, etc. is as rich and diverse as any and many divers could be happy just diving this reef for the whole stay.

BACKGROUND

We had great assistance preparing for our journey through World of Diving Diving Vacations. The team at World of Diving is great at determining what kind of accommodation you would like and fitting it with your budget and expectations for diving. We love working with them. On this trip, we asked for something clean and decent but at a great price. We were traveling with friends and hoped to make it an inexpensive vacation. We were given a couple of choices and chose the Sand Dollar Condominiums for the price, the quiet and the full sized kitchen which we hoped to put to good use.

The island of Bonaire is a small, boomerang shaped island north of Venezuela in the Leeward Antilles. It is part of the ABC island chain consisting of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. We found the locals, who speak a mash-up of English, Dutch, Spanish and something called Papiamento, to be efficient, pleasant people without the “warm fuzziness” we’ve experienced in other cultures. Most of the people we encountered did their job and did it well.

Bonaire can be very economical, too. You are not paying for boat dives (and even those are about half price of other dive venues) and you can get a condo and cook your own meals. We also found that gas (which you need only a little of) and many food products were somewhat reasonably priced when compared to many other island destinations. There is a grand new Dutch supermarket, Van Den Tweel, on the island. We called it the IKEA of supermarkets. It is well stocked, clean and more efficient than most US markets. The US dollar is the main currency. If you want to be served food, there plenty of restaurants from small and native to gourmet dining.

Originally part of the Netherlands Antilles, the island is known throughout the world as one of the best diving destinations to be found. Boasting over 75 dive sites, mainly shore dives, most of the dives are easy to get to – you just throw your gear in the back of your little truck, toss in a few tanks and away you go. Not all of the dives are easy to dive, however – there are dives for every skill level.

But we went to Bonaire to dive. After a grueling, complete headache of a day flying United, we landed in the pre-dawn, barely lit island and set off to get our “little truck.” The dive trucks on Bonaire are 4-doors, seating up to 5 people comfortably. Once we had all our luggage and dive gear safely stowed in the pickup truck, we set off for the Sand Dollar Condominiums.

The Sand Dollar

The Sand Dollar is a mid priced condominium style resort. They are somewhat unique in that all rooms have ocean views. They are mostly private condos that are rented to travelers when the owners are not using them. This means that you will find differences between the units. Regular visitors usually find one they like and keep coming back. In a relaxed island Sand Dollar is a relaxed resort. The new manager was very attentive to issues and is working to upgrade the service even more. The units were comfortable and have full kitchens. Many condos, not only at the Sand Dollar but elsewhere, only have air conditioning units in the bedrooms and count on breeze in the other areas. If there is air conditioning in the living rooms it is usually an extra charge to turn it on. Electricity is very expensive on the island and one AC running all day can sap any profits from a room.

Breakfast was included and we really liked the friendly owners and food at Eddy’s, the restaurant onsite that provides breakfast. They are also open for lunches and dinners. The owners have interesting stories of how they got to running a restaurant in Bonaire.

Since our trip numerous changes have taken place at the Sand Dollar. The have stopped using the Bonaire Dive and Adventure because of issues noted below. They have teamed up with Dive Friends. However this means there is no longer a dive pier at the Sand Dollar. The only entrance is a beach entrance.

DIVING:

karpata, bonaireAll of the numerous shore dives are basically entrance points to the ring reef that runs along the shore. In the south it splits into a double reef. There are dives that will satisfy most divers. However, divers not used to shore dives should be careful. Especially on windy days some of the sites can be dangerous.

Much has already been written already about the dive sites on Bonaire. Rather than reinvent the wheel, what we will say about the dives is that, although easy to get to, the dives accommodate all levels. For instance, when we were there, un-seasonal winds had kicked up around the island. We were told to avoid the highly recommended Karpata site as a result. We drove out to the site, keeping our expectations low. When we arrived, we found that there were indeed small swells rolling over the concrete platform which served as the point of entry. Since we dive a site in the Pacific Northwest with an often hairy, rolling wave entrance/exit, Salt Creek in the Straights of San Juan de Fuca, we decided to have a go. The dive proved excellent with abundant sealife and depths up to 100′. The exit had even more wind and waves but a kind German man just happened to be there to assist us in getting onto the concrete block. It was as if he was waiting for us.

The Oil Slick Reef had a steel ladder for entry and exit, or you can choose to drop off a short ledge. Diving the Hilma Hooker wreck is relatively easy when no wind is present. This same wind mentioned above made the entrance and exit slightly more difficult but definitely doable. Other sites involved an easy don gear and walk in and dive kind of entrance. At every depth, each site boasted abundant and diverse life. We definitely recommend night diving in Bonaire. The reef comes alive in sharp contrast to the calm present during the day. Eels, tarpon, octopus and other predators slithered and zipped wherever we looked.

PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

Octopus night diving in Bonaire. Photo by Chaela SumnerChaela was thrilled with the half-day underwater photography course she took with Tim Peters at Fish-Eye Photo School For Underwater Photography. Tim showed her several “set it and forget it” settings on her camera and emphasized the rule of thumb in undersea photography – never more than 6′ away from your subject.  He taught her how to angle the flash to minimize backscatter. The course was a definite winner. Her ratio of keepers shot way up. ….

TOPSIDE IS FUN TOO:

We were pleasantly surprised by the land-side of Bonaire also. Before we embarking on our journey for Bonaire, we heard comments like, “it’s a dive destination and you will not be distracted by  land” and “…it’s a desert, don’t expect much.”  Thus, we set off with high hopes high for the diving and low for our time out of the water. We were delighted to find that both exceeded our expectations. Not only was there enough to keep us busy on no-dive days, there is plenty for non-diving partners and family to enjoy. Beyond the usual shopping, dining and the beaches, activities include kayak trips in the mangroves, road trips to find the wild donkeys, flamingos and parrots, hiking in the national park, guided cave trips, historical sites including the slave housing and more. Bonaire is also a strong draw for wind surfers – something we did not realize until we met with the tourist board. Known as “one of the finest windsurfing destinations” in the world, it appeals to windsurfers of every level. Those who prefer kinder conditions will be as pleased as those who are seeking an adrenaline rush challenge. Bonaire’s award-winning and champion windsurf professionals are among the best in the sport. The “go to” place for windsurfing is Lac Bay.

The Crime Question?

Theft from diver’s vehicle’s is something that everyone warns you about, but we wanted to get the real story. The warnings from travel agents, website and locals is strong. They all say “do not leave anything you want to keep in the truck and always leave the windows down.” The latter caution is suppose to make sure you don’t have to pay for broken windows.

If this is such an issue, we wanted to ask the obvious question: “Are they doing anything about it” We asked a lot locals about this question; from restaurant staff to the Tourist Board. Some answers were diplomatic smoke. But here the general consensus revealed two …. First, the problem was over stated. It may be that some believe it better to exaggerate the problem and prevent most thefts than to give the real stats and risk more thefts from lack of caution. Secondly, over the years there has been lip service given to resolving the theft problem. One  would think that on a small island it would be easy to know all the criminals. The bottom line from the locals is this: The related the theft issue to what you would expect from pickpockets in any major tourist destination. It is not as rampant as the warnings, but what there is not going away. It is entrenched in the current culture and they not going to reduce it any more.

Pollution management project:

During our trip it was hard to miss the construction and associated detours. To help maintain the water quality, the government is installing a full sewage system throughout the main city of Kralendijk. It is progressing slowly and thus is not too disruptive. We asked when the tourist board director when it would be done. The answer was simply “yes.” And we understood that it was on island time.

Buddy Dive has coral restoration project which we were able to tour. They gave us an extensive briefing and later we dived the reef to have a look at the tree-like structure in the coral nursery. The project is still in it infancy but is very successful.

Dive Operators

Many dive operators are associated with a resort. However we did pick up on the chatter about a move away from this model. Some resort dive operators told us that have plans to move away from their resort so that can serve more dives that are staying at smaller venues. They also noted that being with a resort gives the impression that they can only serve divers staying at that resort. There is some convenience that comes using the dive operator at your resort, especially if you plan to  dive often on the resort reef. But is not necessary and you may find that off-resort operators can provide a better service. We did.

We used the Bonaire Dive and Adventure (BDA) which is next to the Sand Dollar condominiums. I say current because the new manager of the Sand Dollar told us that they will be dropping this operator, build their own dock and using Dive Friends . André Nahr the owner of BDA used to be the king of Bonnier in terms of dive operators. However after losing it all in a hurricane and then rebuilding their service has declined. The faculties at BDA are fine and the dock is very nice, so we were not overly disappointed. But Andre was very grumpy at times and off putting. We heard stories that if divers drifted over from the Buddy Dive resort next door, he would turn them away and not allow them to exit on his dock. On the contrary Buddy Dive was welcoming to all divers.

Most of the dive shops are small with few products. However we were impressed with the small but well stocked dive shop at Bruce Bowker’s Carib Inn. Not only did the shop have a full line of products, they are a regulator service station. The staff here was the most knowledgeable and friendly of the shops we toured.

Summary

There is no doubt you will love the diving in Bonaire, but this is also a place you can take non-diving friends and have fun when not diving. An inexpensive, economical choice, boasting some of the best diving around, you will not be disappointed by a dive trip to Bonaire.