By Tom Morkin
I lost my scuba diving buddy 18 years ago in Japan when she suffered a collapsed lung. When I say ‘lost her’ I don’t mean I really lost her. I mean Liz stopped scuba diving after they pumped her lung back up. This loss is not a total ‘black cloud’. We don’t have to buy and carry two sets of dive gear on the boat so we save a bit of money and storage space. However, when you sail into one of the premier diving destinations on the planet, the crew’s enthusiasm is a tad muted. Sure, being a kid in a candy shop is great but not as good as when your buddy is ther
e, and let’s face it, solo scuba diving is frowned upon in many circles. In fact I think “Thou shalt not dive alone” is one of the PADI and NAUI commandments.
So this was the situation on board Feel Free upon arriving in Bonaire. I was so close and yet so far. That is, until Jeff, Raine and Julia, all not just avid divers but also dive instructors, sailed in from Trinidad on their lovely J40, Gryphon. That’s when everything fell into place. The candy shop was open for business.
|Cruising around the world on a sailboat, it is virtually impossible to avoid great places to dive, so why make a fuss about Bonaire?|
Well, for a number of reasons: 1) Although there are 98 named dive sites, really, the entire island is one big dive site. Dive in anywhere- it’s all good. 2) The dive sites are easily accessible, by dinghy, by car or if you want to go with dive operators. We could dive right under the boat to see at least 50 varieties of fish, lots of corals and innumerable sponges. We even dived under a cruise ship docked at the town quay. 3) Tanks are easy to fill or rent, and cheap. For $99 we got 21 fills. 4) The whole island is a Marine Park. That means no spear fishing. The fish have learned that the thousands of divers they see in their lifetime are totally harmless so why waste energy swimming away from them when they approach in that clumsy, awkward way they do?
|Bonaire is like an underwater petting zoo.|
The impatient sinner that I am couldn’t wait for the Gryphon crew for my first dive. The first commandment “Thou shalt not swim alone” went out the window as I went over the side for my first dive. In my defence for diving alone, I should mention that although Jeff and Raine were gracious in their inviting me to tag along on their dives, it was made clear to me that instructing was something they did for work and they had come a long way to ‘play’ in Bonaire. They were not going to be my underwater babysitter. Since it had been 12 months since my last dive in Malta, I figured it couldn’t hurt to re-familiarize myself with all the dive gear and underwater procedures to minimize the likelihood of embarrassing myself with my buddies.
So over I went, slowly releasing the air in my life jacket-like buoyancy compensator as I slowly drifted down carefully but firmly blowing out while plugging my nose to equalize the increased pressure. Within 30 seconds I was below 30 feet, the usual limit of my snorkel trips. This put me on the sand bottom immediately below the boat. I knelt on the bottom to take stock of what was around me.
|In the quiet watery realm, I savoured each breath from the tank on my back, marvelling at the colourful splendour that engulfed me. What did I ever do to deserve this? I felt so fortunate and privileged to be allowed entry into such a domain and would, over the course of the next five days, do nine more dives.|
When you spend a lot of time in the water and 99.9% of that time is with only a mask and snorkel, arriving at 30 feet in scuba gear means the lovely luxury of knowing your dive is not about to end within 30 seconds, it’s just beginning; that the world you normally get to see at only a distance, you will be putting inches in front of your mask.
|Lionfish are indigenous in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and are not a problem in those oceans, however, their recent arrival in the Caribbean, believed to be brought about by one or more aquarium owners who, perhaps after tiring of their hobby, chose to release them into the warm waters of the Caribbean where they have virtually no predators. The speed at which they are decimating populations of indigenous fish is shocking marine biologists. Worse still, the population of the Lionfish has achieved critical mass and their numbers are just now beginning to explode. For Bonaire, this ecological disaster could be an economic one as well.|
We dived the Fish Hut, Alice in Wonderland, Oil Slick, Tolo, Karel’s Pier, Something Special, to name some of them. We were lucky to meet up with Robert, an expatriate American who has moved to Bonaire for the diving. He too is a dive instructor with extraordinary knowledge of diving in Bonaire and proved to be a wonderful guide. In fact, the underwater pictures you see here are thanks to him.
Robert explained how Bonaire, like the rest of the Caribbean, is coming under threat from the invasion of the non indigenous ‘Lionfish’. These rather menacingly beautiful fish are not particularly large but are equipped with long spiny and toxic pectoral and dorsal fins.
So day after day for five days it was: get up, put the tanks and gear in the truck, drive three to seven miles to the dive site if they were shore dives, otherwise, drop in, swim or dive over 50 to 100 yards of shallow crystal clear water with a white sandy bottom of about 30 feet in depth. This sandy shelf is found around the entire island. Seldom does the shelf extend more than 200 yards before it drops steeply. It is at the drop off point between 30 and 150 feet that hundreds of scuba divers could be found on any given Bonaire day.
|I was also preoccupied by multiples of very tasty looking yellowtail and red snappers, parrot fish and groupers who seemed to know, that anywhere else in the world I’d be trying to take them home for dinner, but here I was content with the visual feast. After all, I’d had those peanut butter sandwiches.|
In the afternoons we’d load the truck again and off we’d go on another magical mystery tour and so it went for five days. In addition to the shore dives and two dives off Feel Free, I had to take advantage of the many moorings available for dive boats only, no overnighting and no boats over 38 feet. I dinghied off, tied to a mooring and spent 45 minutes hanging out with a school of very ‘kick-back’, four to six foot tarpon. These large and lethargic silver beasts seem to have not much to do and seem content to just hover all day in one spot. Only by approaching them will they actually move. It begged the question: how did they get so big doing so little? They looked too lazy to eat. I couldn’t imagine them ever moving fast enough to catch anything to eat. But what a treat to hang with these big critters and that’s what I would do – drop down to 50 feet and slowly approach a couple of them within six to ten feet. These creatures, bigger than me, would just stare at me for 10 minutes or so, I marvelling at their size, shape and obvious power, they, probably bored, wondering why this land creature didn’t have anything better to do with his day.
|As is always the case in this cruising lifestyle, you are constantly leaving your friends, or in this case, they were leaving us. Jeff and Raine were on a schedule. They had 750 miles to go to the Panama Canal, and then on to New Zealand and we were off to visit Curacao, the second of the ABC Islands. (Jeff and Raine emailed this picture of themselves in front of a fort after their arrival in Panama.)|
I was later to discover that to see tarpon at night is an entirely different matter. Divers in Bonaire call them bullets for the speed at which they attack their prey. The loud thumps yachties report at night are usually terrified fish ricocheting off their boat’s hull fleeing these night bullets.
We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, knowing that within four months Gryphon would be on the other side of the planet from us. A little tough to take, but is just one of the hazards of the cruising game. On the positive side, chances are our wakes will cross again. Who knows where and when, but we can rest assured there will be stories to be told.