Archive for the 'Bonaire' Category

Bonaire, Post Nine: The Reef

October 04th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

Here are images that show what it’s like to explore the reef system.  It is another planet than the one surface dwellers have experienced.  Life forms as strange as fiction are the norm; plant and animal shapes are sometimes reversed; seemingly dull colors erupt into flaming glory when you get closer or shine a light on them, and tiny fairyland animals inhabit innumerable crevices.  Every surface writhes with life, and countless eyes watch you move about, assessing you as a threat and a source of protein.  Some animals don’t need to see you; they can feel your heart beat directly through electric fields.  From Seussian landscapes, they consider their options, and your future.

A typically small school of yellow goatfish float placidly in shallow water; an initial phase stoplight parrotfish (red and white) feeds; soft coral sways in the current, and clouds of small fish conduct business as usual.

A sinister-looking stonefish sits on the bottom; they are almost invisible.  Although poisonous, they are gentle (to divers) creatures who only wish to be left alone, like most sea life.

A school of blue tang flow over the reef and around me.

My dive buddy floats placidly above the reef at 80 feet.  Every diver is a dirigible of sorts.

A squid hunts within 20 feet of the surface.  It’s transparent body made it almost invisible, so I used a flash to highlight it against the underside of the sea’s surface.  After I took this picture, it changed color from transparent to brownish-red, and then to violet, before jetting off faster than I could swim.

A small “green” sea turtle.  The shell is reddish, but seen up close in better light, the skin has a greenish color.

Scrunched up into its daytime hiding place, an octopus eyes me suspisciously.  It has the ability to take on almost any color, and even some textures.

Bluestriped grunts peer curiously into my mask.

A trumpetfish hunts amongst the soft corals, hanging vertically as they are wont to do, hoping to be taken for a frond of coral.

Tiny little fishies – larvae – inhabit an ear of coral.

Adult and juvenile spotted drum.

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Bonaire, Post Eight: Caves

October 03rd, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

It’s often said of Bonaire that there’s nothing to do there besides dive. I understand this sentiment, but I think it shows a lack of imagination. First of all, it’s a foreign country with its own ways and styles; it’s not a cruise ship island, and it’s not “disneyfied.” So there is a culture to be explored. Because so much of the island is undeveloped, there is a lot of forest to walk through; if you’re interested in birding, and in zoology generally, there is a lot going on here. Iguanas and skinks rustle through the grass; interesting insects buzz around (including lots of mosquitos), and birds not usually found in North America flitter about.

Bonaire has some serious relief – I think it’s highest point is about 800 feet; you can go rock climbing. Plus, there are caves everywhere. That’s right, caves. On a geological time scale, the island is dissolving like alka-seltzer. Bonaire has risen and fallen many times, as has the sea, leaving terraces that used to be shallow off-shore sandy bottom or reef.

The caves are a well-kept secret. Everyone knows about them, but they are not widely publicized. I think that this is because of the danger to tourists, and also because the delicate caves would be destroyed by too much unfettered exploration. There are a handful of people on the island that are cave specialists and can take tourists into the caves for a fee; ask at your hotel or look on the net.

I didn’t have much time to visit the caves, so I chose to explore what was within sight of daylight; I didn’t even have a flashlight. Sometimes, you just have to leave something juicy for the next trip! My buddy Jeff and I collected as much information as we could, and putting together scraps of info from here and there, managed to get ourselves in the region where the most accessible cave is located.

Go to the Carribbean club and park in the dirt lot across the street, which also services the offices of a unit of the Bonaire ecological services agency (I can’t recall if it’s the marine park or something else; it’s not visible from the street, although you will see signs). This is just inland (and uphill) of the oil slick leap dive site. If you walk into the bush at the back of this dirt lot, you will find a cement marker, the kind used around the island to denote something significant:

The marker is telling you about a cave revealed by a sinkhole – the collapsed roof of a large chamber in a cavern.

Steps lead down into the opening, which is about half an acre in size.  There are a lot of crevices to explore; some of them must lead deep into the island’s network of tunnels.  This one’s a good candidate:

But even without going deep into the earth, you can spend a good amount of time here.  A lot of what used to be deep within the earth is now lit by the sun; I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  Jeff is in this picture, and a few others as well.

Here you can see the trees and sun with stalactites framing the view!

This is not an area to be taken lightly; there are innumerable opportunities for spine-damaging injuries.  Flip-flops are probably not a good idea.  If you’re really going to explore, long pants and gloves, and of course multiple light sources and a nice long reel, would be important, as would be notifying someone where you’re going and when you intend to be back.  The only thing worse than lying injured and helpless in a cave would be knowing that nobody knew where you were.

One odd thing about this cave: it was hot down there.  Most caves are cooler than surface ambient temperatures; this one was definitely hot and stuffy.  So in addition to the other things, a lot of water is necessary if you go inside.  But as you can see, you dont need to go in to see neat cave sights – I didn’t have a flashlight and never went further than sunlight could penetrate.


Bonaire is riddles with caves, but most are inaccessible and of course some are under water.  Wandering around in the woods north-west of the Caribbean club, we found this one, which would be easy to miss.  Buried deep in the brush and accessed only by an unremarkable dirt road no different than dozens of others, you come across this:

What’s that?  You don’t see it?  Well, it’s that dark shadow in the bushes on the right side of the picture.  Hidden in the brush, surrounded by the sound of furiously escaping lizards, is a yawning hole – another collapsed chamber, perhaps 40 feet deep.

This one’s pretty hard to get in to; you’d need to take unsafe chances climbing down the trees that are growing at the bottom, and your best bet would be to rappel down.  Due to the thorny, dense underbrush, access is non-trivial.  I’m not sure what you’d anchor to, because the trees have shallow root systems and mostly are just bushes.  I think you’d need to hammer a piton into the coral limestone., which is brittle and perhaps unreliable.  Chafing gear and perhaps surface support would be necessary.

A final note for the prospective spelunker: The caves are uncharted, deserted, dangerous, hot, filled with sharp coral and there is no doubt that it is dangerous to explore them.  Take precautions, hire a guide, or consider exploring just the entrances, which is plenty exciting.

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Bonaire, Post Seven: Eels and Parrotfish

September 29th, 2011 | Category: animals,Bonaire,scuba,Travel

Most of the time, eels are pretty hard to find. This chain moray is trying not to be seen.

This reticulated moray shows its bad dentition.

A goldentail moray undulates amongst the reef.

Here’s one I had never seen before: a goldspotted eel.  These active animals don’t seem to stop moving, and have the ability to disappear into the reef like a drop of water hitting a paper towel.

Parrotfish are very common, but they also don’t stop moving (in the daytime, anyway).  They are fun to watch because they are amazingly colored, they are very active, and they’re not that frightened of divers.  You can watch them feed on algae, and often see them shit out the sand that they generate (see my other posts on this topic).  As parrotfish mature, they change appearance so radically that they are hardly recognizable as the same fish.  All of the images below are stoplight parrotfish (although different individuals).

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Bonaire, Post Six: Lionfish

September 28th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

The lionfish is native to Indonesia, from where it was imported to the US decades ago as an aquarium fish.  Someone released it, and it spread like wildfire starting with Florida.  Now it is all over the Caribbean.  It can eat up to 90% of the native fish larvae in reefs it inhabits and has no known natural predators in this hemisphere; that’s a recipe for disaster.  In addition, those beautiful spines deliver very painful stings to anyone who disturbs them.  Awesome, no?

They are gorgeous creatures, but they must be killed.  They are the only animal you’re allowed to hunt in Bonaire, but to get permission to do so, you have to take a class and use only the spear guns sold by the Bonaire wildlife management people.  Next time I go, this might be a cool thing to do; I could have taken down a dozen of them.  I’ve never killed anything under water but this is a noble cause, albeit perhaps a phyrric one.


Bonaire, Post Five: The Wreck of the Hilma Hooker

September 27th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

There is one publicly accessible wreck dive on Bonaire – the Hilma Hooker.  We were told a fascinating story about this wreck: that it was used for drug smuggling, and was impounded by authorities on Bonaire a fter its crew of three (for a ship of this size, incredible!) anchored it in the wrong place because they were having “technical difficulties.” Soon, it sank under mysterious circumstances, and after some hand-wringing, it was decided to leave it there and prep it for divers.  So it looks like an intentionally sunk artificial reef, but it’s a little more than that.

It’s a large vessel – a bulk cargo carrier, perhaps 250 feet long.  It sits on the bottom at about 100 feet, almost capsized, on its starboard side.  There’s not much growth on it, but it is fun enough, and sits right next to a great reef extending upwards from 90 feet to the shallows.  This means that instead of wasting your time rising up through the water column, you can leave the wreck after, say, using up a third of your gas, and spend a nice relaxing long time exploring the reef as you outgas nitrogen.  My dive was a little over an hour, but I had enough gas for half again that long – so you can dive a long time here even though it’s initially deep.  There is so much stuff in the shallows, it’s fantastic.  But then, all of Bonaire is like that!  no need to go deep, for the most part.

A big tarpon wanders by.

The view from within the amidships hold.

Seeing a large vessel materialize out of the gloom is always a little creepy.  There’s something atavistically frightening about the thing looming towards you.

Rising up the adjacent reef wall, the upturned hull is just barely visible.

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Bonaire, Post Four: Tiny Things

September 26th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

Since these pictures are all of tiny things, let me remind you that you can click on them to get a larger image.

One of my favorite things is to find cleaning stations and submit myself for a thorough treatment.  If I’m lucky, a cleaner shrimp will pick over my fingers.  In my experience, only shrimp will do this to people, although if you’re a fish, you get service from all kinds of tiny fish as well as shrimp.

Here is a Peterson’s shrimp, which is mostly invisible and so tiny you’d miss it entirely if not for its neon blue stripes.  There’s some physical comedy in the jaunty way these guys will hop onto your finger like a Navajo brave hopping onto the back of a wild pony.  They’ll comb over the crevices in your skin, picking off little flakes and debriding cuts and scrapes with unbelievable precision.  They never hurt you.

These little guys usually live within the protective tentacles of a corkscrew anemone, which mirrors the shrimp’s mostly transparent body, but has white highlights that seem to hover like a cloud of zebra-striped marshmallows.  I love how the Peterson shrimp’s eyes bobble about and pop frantically in and out as it cleans them in the shrimp equivalent of blinking.

Here’s a close-up of a corkscrew anemone, without the shrimp.  They are really super-transparent.

Check out this tiny little secretary blenny, maybe 5 millimeters high and only a few centimeters long.  It was popping in and out of its hole to grab its even tinier plankton prey.  It looks like a character from the Simpsons.

Here is a bouncy little boxfish juvenile, which swims in any direction it chooses seemingly without moving any part of its body, like a perfectly hovering  and nimble dirigible.

I love the furious “expression” on this fish’s face (a type of damselfish, I think).  He’s about an inch long, and fast.

The prime paradox of coral reefs is that although they’re huge, they’re made by tiny animals.  Check out the polyps on this one (sounds kind of filthy!).  They look like, and pretty much are, little anemones with special capabilities.

Another coral paradox is how the machine-like regularity of identical polyps gives rise to sinuous, organically non-linear patterns and sensuously curved surfaces.

Christmas-tree worms like to live in coral heads.

These tube sponges look like something Dr. Suess would have drawn.  A number of different species of sponge have this long, tube-like form.  They aren’t small, but since they provide such a convenient place to live, small things live inside of them.

The last thing I have to show you today is this lettuce sea slug, a beautiful creature saddled with an ungraceful name.


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Bonaire, post three: Around Bonaire, Topside

September 25th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,Travel

Here are a few pictures from around the island.  Bonaire is a Dutch posession, so that language is spoken here, along with Spanish and Papiemento, which is a patois.

Here are the Cargill salt works down south.  The salt piles look like pyramids!  You’ll see this as you approach the salt pier.

Instead of squirrels, Bonarie has lizards, I think mostly iguanas and skinks.

While in a surface interval at the north end, I saw the Island’s classic pink Flamingos in the abandoned Salina Frans salt pan at the fishing village beyond the BOPEC oil transshipment facility:


Bonaire, Post Two: Bonaire’s Iguanas

September 20th, 2011 | Category: animals,Bonaire,scuba

Iguanas are the local equivalent of squirrels, and they can make minor pests of themselves at restaurants.

Paul and his new friend.

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Bonaire, Post One: Buddy dive and the first pictures

September 19th, 2011 | Category: Bonaire,scuba,Travel

I’m staying at “Buddy Dive” in Bonaire.  Hearing that they were renovating, I asked for one of the new rooms.  It’s very nice – a little suite with a kitchenette, not luxurious but more than adequate, modern, and attractive.  There are small markets north and south of here where you can get basic supplies for meals, and there is a restaurant at Buddy Dive, and many more only minutes away.

Speaking of food and basic supplies, here are a few notes:

  • The Chinese market just north of buddy dive is better than the “Hato” market to the south; you can get basic supplies to make your own meals, if you wish, and save a little on the expensive island food prices.
  • Island prices are significantly higher than in the US.  I noticed that batteries in the Chinese market were pretty reasonable compared to prices in the resort dive shop.
  • For convenience, I ate the breakfast provided in the buddy dive package deal, which also included the rental truck and unlimited nitrox.  I usually made my own lunch with supermarket supplies, and ate dinner out.
  • Restaurants: I had three superb experiences: Mona Lisa, La Barca (Italian), It Rains Fishes.  In all three places, the service and food were truly memorable.  La Barca was inexpensive to boot, and the quality was no less than the others.
  • There was one stand-out terrible experience, at a place called Zee Zicht (Sea View in Dutch).  Zee Zicht is in a building upon the street in Kralendijk, and across the street there is a dock bar named Karel’s that is simply an extension of Zee Zicht; you can order the same food there and sit right on the water watching the sun set.  However, your good times will end there, because the food was absolutely the worst thing I have ever been served in a restaurant.  I have only refused food a handful of times in my life, and this was one of them.  We ordered a seafood soup that tasted precisely like boiled seawater – the juice left over at the bottom of the pot after you steam clams.  It was inedible, but the restaurant would not refund our money, saying that it was simply our taste, and not the soup, that was to blame.  I couldn’t believe my ears.  The other food we had there, conch fritters, had no identifiable conch meat, and the remaining food was grade B at best, using what seemed like frozen fish.  On top of all this, the prices were as high as anything else I’d experienced.  Check trip advisor – it’s not just me.

Here is buddy dive.  The property ends at the large house on the right.  It’s wonderful to get off the airplane and be here within a few minutes, and set eyes upon the azure crystal water teeming with fish.  the resort has a small but reasonably stocked dive shop, with minimal supplies only.  They can only perform basic repairs; they send other things out to Kralendijk where there are specialized dealers.  There is a reasonable-quality restaurant with a pool bar.  It’s OK, but it would be a shame to not expand your horizons if you stay here.  But you get to sit right next to the water, so the view is great.  The same can be said of Captain Don’s habitat – the resort next door – which has slightly better food.

In the evening, we sit in the restaurant and eat dinner while watching the sun set and planning a night dive.  Last night we had a special treat – Ned and Anna DeLoach, of DeLoach fish & creature ID reference book fame, gave a colloquium  In fact, this week at Buddy Dive, they’re leading dives, snorkels, and signing books – something they have done for the last several years, and worth planning a trip around.  They are the nicest, most genuine people you’d care to meet, and utterly without ego.

Some of my friends stayed at “Deep Blue View,” a B&B run by Ester and Menno, a Dutch couple.  DBV is not next to the water, but it’s only 10 minutes away(and has a pool too).  It’s high in the hills, with a spectacular view.  Shaded hammocks provide a nice place to rest while napping after a dive.  There are only five rooms, and it is very private and secluded.  The opportunity to hang out with Ester & Menno cannot be overvalued, as they are a wealth of local information, dive training, good cooking, and general good company to boot.  Plus, they have a great dive boat, should you need to use this service.  Next time, I will seriously consider staying there.

Now all of that tropical stuff topside is great, but this is why divers come here:

These guys look dour and tearful, like the velvet paintings of children with big eyes:

A parrotfish has just zoomed by, shitting sand (they do that because they are eating coral; it’s how most of the sand is formed in the caribbean):