I’m not so much with the words when it comes to describing the beautiful underwater environment here, so I’ve done my best to condense down an unwieldy amount of video into something that is hopefully borderline watchable. We saw a lot of cool things under the sea this past week. Part of what made things even more amazing on this trip is that on five of our seven dives we were on our own and got to find things without the aid of a divemaster, and without having to share them with a big dive group, so each moment with a fish or turtle was just for us and lasted as long as we wanted to hang out and the animals were willing to have us there. Bonaire will be high on the list of places to return to for future trips.
Yesterday was a rest day from diving, and our only adventures were finding a food truck that serves awesome tuna and then driving around the northern part of the island. That wasn’t quite enough material for a standalone journal entry, but now everyone is caught up, so we can move on to today and the boat trip of many barfings.
The west side of Bonaire is calm, and you can wade in from the beach and dive on the reef. The east side is definitely not calm – there is a lagoon where some of the best windsurfers in the world practice daily, and waves crash into the rocks and throw spray fifteen feet into the air, so wading in from the beach is not going to end well for anyone. The upside of diving on the “wild side” of Bonaire is that the sea critters are bigger; you can see sharks, rays, and other things that aren’t found in abundance elsewhere. So we booked a boat trip, and then watched in fear as crazy winds blew constantly for the 48 hours prior to our dive. We showed up at 7:30 this morning expecting the trip to be cancelled, only to find two Dutch guys loading tanks onto a zodiak. When we asked them about water conditions, they ominously replied “it’s going to be rough, but don’t worry.”
After a briefing the boat slowly and carefully maneuvered through breakers that were 8-10 feet tall, getting us to the edge of the reef in a wet-but-alive state. The first dive was good but short – there were some newly-certified divers that blew through their air, forcing us to come up after 40 minutes instead of the hour scheduled. Animals sighted underwater included rays and sea turtles. Where things got interesting, however, was after surfacing while waiting for pickup. While the two Dutch guys scrambled to get people and gear back on the boat, a few of the divers started getting queasy in the huge swells and began chumming the waters. Sea sickness sucks, but it’s even worse when you’re floating in waves that are reminiscent of the end of The Perfect Storm and simultaneously you’re trying not to get smashed by gear and a twenty foot long boat. Luckily neither Audrey nor I got sick, but the mountainous waves and erupting passengers made for a memorable re-entry.
After hanging out in the calm shallows between dives we did a second dive (minus two seasick passengers who stayed behind), and this time the two novice divers were sent up early so that the rest of us could enjoy a longer dive. Sea turtles were everywhere – the dive site was named “Turtle City” – and that’s always fun since they’re such graceful and wise-looking animals. A giant spotted lobster was also roaming the reef, which was my first time seeing one out in the open. Prior to the dive the dive master had requested that each of us give him a hand sign when half of our air was gone, so forty minutes into the dive I let him know I was down to half a tank, and to my horror he then made the signal to end the dive and head towards the surface. I assumed I had screwed up signals and done “out of air” instead of “half a tank” since we were again ending the dive so early, and I ascended in a bubble net of shame. Luckily, when we got to the surface it turned out another diver had run out of air, so I was pardoned of the crime of gross hand signal negligence.
Tomorrow is our last day of diving since it’s unsafe to dive for 24 hours prior to flying. Given that Bonaire is just a two-hop flight from LA (LA-Houston-Bonaire), and that I have a gazillion frequent flyer miles, it’s probably a safe bet we’ll be back here again at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Being able to walk into the ocean from the shore with a scuba tank, and then being able to see underwater life that exceeds any aquarium, and being able to do so whenever you feel like it, is a ridiculously excellent way to dive. The morning dive was off of the hotel beach, and the afternoon dive was at the loading pier for the Cargill Salt Works. Everything from eels to stone fish to sea turtles to barracuda to groupers made appearances, along with the ten gazillion other fish that are out here.
I also pulled the big camera out of the bag and grabbed a few shots of the local iguanas that come begging at the hotel during mealtimes, then made Audrey drive me around looking for flamingos as the sun was going down. I stood near a lagoon waiting for one of the birds to pull his head out from underwater while she made friends with some of the island’s donkeys. Then we came home and ate seafood and chocolate, ’cause that’s how we roll.
We’ll see how the rest of the week goes, but the first day in Bonaire was a damn good one, even if the airline left our luggage in Curacao.
The reason people fly nearly to Venezuela in order to spend time on a speck of an island is that you can walk into the ocean, swim out a hundred feet from the shore, and be diving in some of the most pristine reef in the world. Today Audrey and I put that proposition to the test, and it’s true – we strapped on tanks, waded out a bit, and then dropped down to a reef that was more interesting than almost anywhere I’ve ever dived before. Well played, Bonaire.
In addition to the underwater adventures, above ground we discovered that our super-fancy lodging is a great spot for finding hermit crabs and iguanas. Two of the latter showed up to breakfast, both of them big but one of them jumbo-sized and apparently unafraid of people – he would lounge under someone’s table, probably looking for scraps, until the resort owner would chase him off with a stick. Parrots were hanging out in the trees in front of the resort, flamingos were doing their thing in the salt flats on the south side of the island, and after stopping for a drink at a place with a sign out front asking people to shut the doors so that the donkeys wouldn’t walk in and eat the plants, we passed about five of the big guys trudging down the road after the sun went down.
The big camera hasn’t left the bag very often on this trip, but like Hugh Hefner I’m under no illusion that this journal’s audience is here for the articles, so hopefully there should be a few photos attached to the upcoming journal entries. This island is a pretty awesome place.
Given the lack of interesting journal material lately, Audrey suggested that the cheese-eating beggar cat at lunch yesterday merited a mention. Of more interest may be the fact that I decided to explore a couple of the random dirt roads running off of the island’s (single) main road. Given the awesome power and traction of the rental Suzuki this was a slightly dicey affair, but our first foray led us to a field filled with giant red hermit crabs, dozens of butterflies, and a baby goat that screamed like a human. After leaving the screaming goat, the adjoining beach had a few footprints on it but was otherwise far less trafficked than the named beaches.
After exploring another random side road we finally found a beach with waters calm enough for snorkeling – in a bit of irony, after a few days of searching the island for places that were calm enough to allow snorkeling, this was literally the closest possible beach to our rental. It was the healthiest coral I’ve seen so far, the fishes were numerous enough to make it interesting, and visibility was a solid 10-15 feet so I didn’t have to worry about snagging my man parts on unseen rocks.
Today is a transit day – the ferry schedule forced us to arrive at the airport more than three hours early, and we’ve got three hops in tiny planes from BVI to St. Maarten to Curacao to Bonaire. After that we’ve got a week of shore diving in the world’s premier shore diving location. The big camera may not see much action on this trip, but I’m hoping the GoPro gets plenty of use making a few more fish videos.
I suspect the “water was too rough for snorkeling, hung out with friends” posts might be getting a bit stale, so just know that yesterday was more of the same. The only new addition was Kalyan’s dance moves at dinner, something none of us was fully prepared for, and none of us will easily forget. Hopefully it won’t be another fifteen years until this group gets together again.
The water was too rough for snorkeling again yesterday, so Kalyan and I headed down to the Rockefeller’s posh resort to check out the beach there. After being told by security that we could access the public beach but “not use any of the amenities or interact with the guests” we hung out for a bit at Little Dix Bay. It’s probably for the best that Audrey has cut me off from making any more wisecracks about the naming of that particular body of water.
In the afternoon I took the ferry to pick the girl up from the airport, and after our return we met up with everyone for dinner. Banick had been on a boat trip during the day and invited a couple that was also on the trip to dinner, one of whom is a photographer who is pretty well-known for his underwater dog photos; it turns out that he lives about a mile from us in Venice, so we might have a new buddy to explore restaurants with when we get home. As is typical with this group of friends, there was a lot of laughing throughout the night, but it ended with people literally crying as Banick recounted a night from his college year abroad in England when he was attacked by some hooligans outside of a bar – with everything from Ajay standing on a bench making kung-fu noises to Banick trying to “Hulkomania my shirt off” the story was definitely a throwback to all of our crazy nights sitting up yapping during college.
Dan and I attempted snorkeling this morning, but that attempt was thwarted by poor visibility – while swimming out to the reef a swell came by, and at its trough a massive coral head emerged from the depths. The fact that the water was so murky that that I couldn’t to see the coral from about two feet away was reason enough to head back to shore, since the alternative would have been getting ripped to shreds on the reef, something I’m not fond of.
Instead of snorkeling I joined the crew for a resupply mission into town, then hung out and reminisced for hours before enjoying a steak and cake birthday dinner for the many newly-minted 40-year-olds on this trip. Audrey arrives tomorrow, but sadly her arrival coincides with the trip’s end for a few of my friends here – it’s been fun seeing people again and it will be a shame to have to start the goodbyes so soon.
The Baths are a series of small coves created by hundreds of massive boulders on the southwest side of the island, and they are epic. The short “Caves” trail allows you to scramble over, under and around the rocks, wading through water, hanging on ropes, and scrambling on all fours – there are easier paths through the area, but there are enough branches in the trail to create an awesome choose-your-own-adventure route. Making things even better, the snorkeling in the area was also pretty good. Ryan left a happy boy.
Aside from boulder adventures, the day’s other activities were a trip to the old Copper mine, some soul-restoring moments sitting above the ocean, and a dinner at the top of the island at the “Hog Heaven” barbecue restaurant. Also, lest I forget an amusing moment, as we were standing on the beach Rachel (without her glasses) was looking at the crowds trying to identify anyone in our group. Suddenly recognizing someone emerging from the water, she exclaimed “thanks goodness for Jonathan and his great white whiteness”; no truer description of a visitor to the Caribbean from the snowy north has ever been uttered.
Stage two of the 2016 Caribbean scuba extravaganza started today, although not without more transportation travails. The ferry was scheduled to depart at 11:45 (arriving at 12:15), but at 12:05 we were still parked at the dock in St. Thomas. A clearly agitated passenger finally leaped out of her seat and ran outside to give her two cents to the captain: “you out there boozin’ and I has an appointment in Tortola – c’mon already”; we were underway two minutes later.
I had to catch a second ferry at 1:30, which didn’t seem like it would be a tight connection, but after arriving twenty minutes late I somehow managed to go from the middle of the customs line to the end as a local youth basketball team proceeded to cut in front of everyone. After finally getting through customs I asked where I could buy a ticket for the ferry to Virgin Gorda, to which the response was “that ferry leaves from Road Town”. Twenty-five minutes by taxi later I was at another ferry terminal, luckily on time, and soon embarked on a trip to Virgin Gorda to meet up with some old friends.
Their plan for the evening was to visit Leverick Bay for the Michael Beans Happy-Arrrr. If ever anyone wants a two hour musical pirate show I can confidently say you will never find a more enthusiastic host, although I discovered my limit for “-arrr” jokes was far less than the allotted 120 minutes. Everyone else seemed to be feeling the same, so we bid the pirate good night and spent the remaining hours catching up on everything that’s happened over the past two decades, all the while with one of the crew randomly breaking into the Whip and Nae Nae – aside from the fact that he’s now a federal patent judge, he hasn’t changed.
After not diving since October 2014 I jumped out of the boat today only to come swimming back to shamefully admit that I’d forgotten to put on a weight belt. Adding insult to injury, the guy on the boat reported that the BCD had pockets for weight and that I was wearing 14 pounds. They still let me dive, but I’m pretty certain they did so with the assumption that I was brain damaged.
The dive sites were shallow so running out of air wasn’t a concern, thus both dives ended when the divemaster got cold. Scuba diving is always a nice way to relax, and the soft corals pulsing in the current just made it moreso. After diving I also wanted to do some snorkeling at the nearby Coki Beach, but when I got off the boat the beach was a total zoo – apparently a cruise ship had just landed and dumped the equivalent of a mid-sized American city onto the narrow sand. I fled, but returned a few hours later to a spot where they sell “fish biscuits”, so upon entering the water you are swarmed by schools of begging reef fish. Sadly I didn’t realize that the GoPro battery was dead, so while I got a short video of some rays, the hungry reef fish and two cuttlefish sightings will have to go undocumented.
The much-needed vacation and scuba extravaganza of 2016 is officially underway. I was surprised when I printed my itinerary to discover that many moons ago when I arranged the trip I’d cashed in award miles for a business-class ticket, and even more surprised when I got on the flight from LAX to JFK that it was one of those super-fancy planes where the seat folds down flat. We live in a glorious time when you can be in a bed 37,000 feet in the sky, and even moreso when you can enjoy that bed after eating shrimp sliders and vanilla ice cream.
Aside from the seat-bed, most of today’s travel details aren’t worth writing about, although after arriving I did have a flashback to the Turkish side trip of doom. Twenty minutes into the shuttle ride in St. Thomas I realized that the driver was driving across the entire island and dropping everyone off at the ferry terminal, and that I might have gotten onto the wrong van. After the rest of the passengers had grabbed their luggage and departed I sheepishly repeated the name of my hotel, and asked if he thought I was stupid. Luckily no mistakes had been made, he only thought I was a little bit stupid, and five minutes later I was drinking rum punch in the lobby of the Point Pleasant Resort.
The day’s only other adventures consisted of a trip to the local scuba shop to book a dive for tomorrow, followed by a long nap meant to overcome the effects of getting only four hours of sleep last night. The resort’s lone restaurant is right on the water, so I imbibed another rum drink while watching fish swimming past underwater lights. I purposely picked the table farthest from the solo saxophone player who was playing smooth jazz hits in a corner of the restaurant, not realizing that he made frequent field trips to jam out in front of each table; being a lone diner at a fancy resort is uncomfortable enough, but now I have memories of a saxophone player standing two feet away while playing in a manner that can best be described as “suggestive yet awkward”; one can only hope future therapy will not be required to deal with any painful flashbacks.