Bonaire A La Carte

In the Pacific Northwest “shore diving” conjures visions of 15-30 hardy souls per dive site; donning 7-12 millimeters of neoprene, long underwear, hoods, drysuits, jugs of hot water, 8 cell dive lights, and lead, lots of lead.  In Bonaire neoprene is optional: we often had the reef to ourselves; waters so bright you wish your mask came with sunglasses. 

Our recent trips have been to all inclusive and live aboard operations so we decided to try the touted “freedom of unlimited shore diving” of Bonaire.  We booked our apartment, rented a pickup, and had only one two tank boat dive scheduled.  The plan was to sample all the options as we went along.  In the end we did 29 dives over 6.5 days.  Two boat dives; one on the Wild Side, the other to Kline Bonaire.  The rest divided between shore dives up and down the west coast of Bonaire.  With the exception of our night dives we did not repeat any sites.

The price of living in Seattle is 14hrs of travel to dive most of the Caribbean.  After weeks, ok months, of obsessive surfing the Web regarding Bonaire we were a little concerned about our flights with Air Jamaica.  Seemingly on cue as we were packing the car the phone rang and it was Air Jamaica calling to say our return flight was cancelled.  It was a 3pm flight, which would have allowed us to get in 3 dives the day before departure.  Unfortunately, we were bumped to an 8am flight with American Eagle.  We hopped this was not a sign of things to come.  In the end all our flights left on time, no problems. 

Accommodations & Dining
A friend is a Bonaire veteran and strongly recommended the BelMar Apartments. This fit perfectly with our A La Carte plan.  We rented a Classic Superior 2 bedroom apartment, unit 9, on the ground floor.  We did tour Buddy Dive and Lion’s Den. They were nice but BelMar is smaller, quitter, and has a more upscale feel.  Our unit was a two bedroom, two bath, and well appointed.  It even had it’s own large, locked, storage unit/closet just outside our front door.  The apartments are right on the water, all rooms have large patios with great views of the ocean.  There is a wonderful pool with plenty of lounge chairs and your own friendly iguana.  Nothing like relaxing with a cold drink watching dolphins swim by.  The two docks have easy entry stairs, fresh water rinse tanks, warm water showers and tanks staged for dives on the house reef.  The house reef is full of life and makes a great night dive.  

We hit the Supermarket to stock up, there are several and easy to find.  We typically ate breakfast in and after doing three dives then went out for a late lunch, around 2-3pm.  I do not know if it is a Dutch issue our local custom but there are limited options for eating out between 2-4pm.  Due to the European influence you will find more Italian restaurants in the main town than Caribbean.  Once you get off the main drag the food takes on a more Latin flavor.  

The “Crime” issue
As previously mentioned, obsessive web surfing had us slightly concerned about crime.  I was even considering bringing a bike chain/lock to secure my Pelican case to something sturdy in the room, is that paranoid or what?  After one day at the BelMar this concern melted away.  In the evenings there is even a Security guard who would walk you from your car to your room.  This was TOTALLY unnecessary but shows the managements attentiveness to this issue.  If you just apply the same logic you do when you park in any downtown area you will be fine, don’t leave anything valuable in the car! We left the car unlocked, windows often down, nothing in it but sun block, t-shirts, snacks, o-rings and cheap sunglasses.  All where there on our return.  We found everyone, locals and ex-pats, to be friendly and helpful. 

The Freedom of Unlimited Shore Diving
BelMar subcontracts the diving operation to Buddy Dive and they keep BelMar well stocked with air and nitrox tanks.  Take as many as you like.  There are a BelMar employee and a Buddy Dive employ on site to do orientations, arrange boat dives, pier dives and answer any questions you may have like ‘where are the frogfish?’ 

Like many we had compiled a list of dives we wanted to do and the beauty of A La Carte diving is you just do what you want, when you want.  So we decedided to start diving in the south and work our way north.  We found all the reefs to be very healthy with a nice mix of bright orange sponges, soft and hard corals.   Most sites you back your car about 10yards from the water and suit up.  Most of the dive sites entries are over worn hard and broken coral. 

I would suggest buying some booties with a hard shoe sole; some of the entries were tough on the feet with out tropical booties.  At all sites there are schools of fish everywhere and we have never seen so many Spotted Drums, Box and Trumpet Fish.  The farther south or north we went we found larger schools and more lush reefs.  Of course at these sites you must deal with more current and a little more chop on entry/exit.  In the south we typically had the sites to ourselves this maybe due to a little longer surface swims, average about 5-7minutes. (FYI South means; south of the airport, site numbers 32-58)

We did a 2-tank dive with Larry’s Wild Side and had a great time.  You do see more turtles and rays out on the reef.  The Blue hole turned out to be a great site to see Tarpon (a first for us) the largest puffer we have ever seen, squid and more schools.  We did have 3 foot chop but Larry has perfected getting you to the site and into the water quickly for those prone to seasickness.  The only other boat dives we did were out to Kline.  They were nice but I cannot say we saw anything special.  We were on the hunt for Frog Fish which to our chagrin we never found.  Our must do dives would include; Karpata, Ol’Blue, Red Slave, Tori’s Reef, the Hooker and of course the Town and Salt piers.  If I had to do it again I would dive each of the piers once during the day and once at night.  Plan pier dives on arrival since they can take time to confirm.

This is a great location to play with wide-angle shots.  As mentioned, we were hunting for the hard to spot Frog Fish so I was typically packing the 60mm and 105mm lenses.  I experimented with a four strobe setup for my 10.5mm Fisheye lens at the piers and the Hooker.  It worked well in some case and failed in others.

From a photography point of view there are great numbers of fish, just not a huge variety.  Once again, I would schedule at least two dives at each of the piers.  At Town Pier night dive there must have been +20 divers in the water and they stirred up a lot of sand.  I took me some time to figure out to shut off my focus/dive light and take pictures using other diver’s lights to get the auto focus lens to work.  If you have focus lights on your strobes this might work.  Otherwise, I would arrange a sign with a buddy to hold their light on specific spots if you use an auto focus lens. As a side note, my Pelican case with camera gear was opened, one TSA lock completely missing the other damaged to the point it was non-functional.  From now on I am going to ask the TSA to pre-check my Pelican and seal it with one of their zip-ties, I don’t believe the locks are effective anymore.

There is not much to do topside unless you find iguanas, goats and donkeys fascinating.    
We had a great time.  We found 4 dives per day a comfortable pace and five dives can be easily managed.  Bonaire’s easy shore diving spoils you, and having reefs to yourself is pure joy.  It makes going back to boat dives with 10-14 others and dealing with the “bubble train” a little painful.  Coldwater divers will think fondly of their time in Bonaire as they suit up for there first shore dive back home, especially as the don that 25lb weight belt…

An update: Bonaire is our favorite place in the Caribbean to dive, one we will revisit someday.

Salt Operation

Share this by email
Enter your search terms below.