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May 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Buddy Dive Resort, Bonaire

freedom for solo diving photographers

from the May, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

As a photo-diver, I have too often been paired up with a buddy who is with me at the start of the dive, then disappears the first time I stop to take a careful shot. Being solo certified, I wondered whether at Buddy Dive Resort, Id be able to do my own thing, which is important for a serious shooter. With only a week to travel at Decembers end, Bonaire was my choice, especially due to its reliably good winter weather. And thanks to Captain Don Stewart and others, its waters are a protected marine park, with diving thats easy to reach and enough marine life so that photographer/naturalists like Ned DeLoach come back year after year.

Outside Flamingo airport, a friendly Buddy representative herded us onto an air-conditioned bus packed with a huge tour group of divers who managed to drink and joke their way from Atlanta.(Thankfully, they were put on their own dive boats.) At check-in, I received my dive-and-drive package perks, including keys to a pickup truck with tank racks, and the clear warning: Leave the windows rolled down and remove everything of value when parking for shore dives.

Buddy’s Dive Resort

Buddy’s Dive Resort

Buddy has one- to three-bedroom units in three-story buildings. A king-sized bed filled most of the air-conditioned bedroom in my unit. The bathroom was clean but small, with a shower. A leak from the AC pooled in the doorway, remaining there during my entire stay. The living area had touches of Caribbean elegance, with a dark wood dining table, a widescreen satellite TV and a full wall of closet space. The kitchenette contained a coffee maker, fridge, microwave oven and cabinets containing plenty of utensils. Buddy Dive Resort, BonaireFrench doors overlooked a private patio, one of Buddys three pools, an attractive thatched outdoor bar and grill, and the ocean beyond. A modest strip of sand spanned the coral ledge that separated the grounds from the oceanfront. Comfortable lounge chairs were shaded by low palms. During my stay, the sky was clear, and air temps hovered in the low 80s during the day and 70s at night.

On my first morning, 80 new arrivals gathered at the outdoor bar at 9 a.m. for our dive orientation. Stocky John Wall, photo shop manager, let everyone know about camera rentals and his photo doctor services. Smiling Venezuelan transplants Marco Caldato, a supervisor/ technical dive instructor, and Augusto Montbrun Segini, operations manager, led a tour of Buddys impressive PADI 5-Star Gold Palm facilities. Reviewing the rules for diving in Bonaire National Marine Park in a relaxed way (no dive Nazis here), they nevertheless left no doubt as to how serious the island is about protecting its ecological treasures. Even shells purchased as souvenirs are confiscated at customs, according to park officials (see all rules at www.bmp.org).

By 11 a.m, I walked down wide stairs from the wharf into eight feet of 81-degree water. I was diving alone -- and no one stopped me. Visibility near the dock was only about 30 feet; fine suspended particles filled the water. Pale blue-green yellowtail parrotfish wore expressions that reminded me of Groucho Marx with their dark eyebrows and drawn-out snouts. Harder corals predominated. Farther out, visibility increased to 100 feet. Secretary blennies tiny heads poked out like little whack-a-moles on almost every coral head. Macro photo ops included peppermint gobies, yellowline arrow crabs, flamingo tongues and dozens of rosy-lipped blennies. A silver tarpon glided by and there were colorful tangs, pug-nosed blackbar soldierfish, floppy gray-blue soapfish, sharpnose puffers, and uncharacteristically bold graysbys seemed to predominate each local coral neighborhood. An hour and a half later, with the third of a tank that solo divers are trained to hold in reserve on every dive, I emerged for lunch with my nondiving spouse.

While my first dive left me feeling liberated, the rest of my daytime shore dives on Bonaire had a sameness that became a bit boring. Bari Reef seemed barren compared to my trip four years ago. Piles of rubble testified to the pounding the reef must have received in recent storms. Buddys House Reef appeared healthier, with sandy shallows at 15 feet close to shore, followed by a transitional coral- and sponge-covered slope from 20 to 35 feet deep that then dropped off onto a wall down to the sand at 100 feet, but no giant coral heads, haunting underwater canyons, maze-like spur-andgrooves or swim-throughs. Drab browns prevailed. The reefs teemed with small fish and a few schools of tangs, schoolmasters, Creole wrasse and chromis. Klein Bonaire was not much different; however, thats where I saw the first frogfish and seahorse of my trip, plus a large spotted drum and a magnificent midnight parrotfish gliding smoothly along like a boxcar on steel rails. But somehow, I was missing the wow factor.

My Salt Pier night dive (guided) was one of those personal pinnacle dives that made up for any lack of thrills in the rest of the fish bowl. From the get go, a sandy beach gave way to steeply sloping, unstable and uneven blocks of coral rubble underwater, making balance tricky in the dark. Waves threatened to throw me on my rear even as the seaward-bound surge tried to pull my feet from under me. Donning fins in deeper water, Daniello Nicolaas, my young pony-tailed Bonairean guide, headed for the massive pilings that prop up the loading equipment and conveyors. Here at 40 feet, the dive took on an Alice in Wonderland quality, threatening equilibrium and orientation at every turn. The clusters of pilings angle into the water, and each one holds a grove of colorful sponge and coral-encrusted trunks, crawling with life. If you approach under a pilings acutely angled side, any lack of buoyancy control can send you upwards into the unyielding encrustation. Divers light beams swept about like long light sabers, adding to the funhouse sensation. To compound the disorientation, a second group entered the water not long after us, its members often crossing my path, making it difficult to lock onto the sight of Daniellos raggedy, cut-off swimming jeans and follow him out of the mass of black-clad, light-waving divers. Back on shore, I stripped off my gear in that calm, warm afterglow I sometimes get following a proverbial better than sex dive.

For me, my four night dives, whether from boat or shore, surpassed the 17 I made during the day and tipped the overall diving experience from good to great. Finding so many sleeping parrotfish in their shades of night coloration was a kick. So was seeing the nocturnal, giant basket starfish folding and unfolding its birds-nest arms, soft polyps emerging from their hard coral bodies, and the beautiful blue lettuce sea slugs. Keeping in mind that solo dives are properly made in environments you are comfortable with, the two night dives I soloed made in shallow water on Buddys Reef fit perfectly: no current, less than 25 feet depth and close to a guideline back to the swim ladder. The path to the reef took me by a pair of beautiful nocturnal creatures, like a pale, hydra-like, undulating tube anemone with delicate, translucent pointed arms about five inches long, and another tube anemone blossoming like a small, bright purple carnation. Light-sensitive, the little carnation withdrew into its tube, which itself scrunched up into a perfectly camouflaged sandy lump. On my second solo night dive, the visual feast took another turn as soapfish revealed unexpected Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities. Buddy Dive Resort, BonaireBy day, they lazed around, bodies floppy, but by night, their energy was electric and frenetic. Each time I shone my dive light into a crevice, two to three marauding soapfish instantly appeared. They slithered into virtually every crevice I lit, more annoying than flies at a picnic.

Buddys dive operation was top notch and supports 24-hour diving. Technical dive instructors offer many courses. Nitrox is complementary, and they offer custom-blended gases, including trimix, for a fee. The gear-drying area is large, with ample hangers and hooks; its locked at night but a hidden key is available to all of Buddys divers. There were three main gear rinse areas, two dedicated regulator tanks and two camera rinse tanks. The camera tanks were always crystal clear but by late afternoon, the gear tanks were as briny as the sea. The dive shop is well stocked with reasonably priced gear and rentals. One complaint: The newly added boat dive off of Washington Slagbaai was poorly advertised. I only discovered the dive shops paper placard for it on my last day there; it wasnt in the chalkboard area where people sign up for dives.

My six boat dives were all aboard Harbour Lady, a 36-foot Newton making easy runs to Klein Bonaire sites. Its broad swim platform and single boarding ladder were adequate for the divers they carried; headcount rarely exceeded half the boats stated 24 seats. As a photographer with heavy gear, I preferred using its dedicated photo table to the on-board rinse bucket where everyone elses cameras sloshed about. Diving out front of the resort was even easier; after you suit up, you only need to get yourself down a ladder to take advantage of the house reef. Negligible current meant easy finning from Buddy to explore Bari Reef to the south, and Scientifico and Captain Dons Reefs to the north, each on a single tank. Underwater navigational aides include a well-marked trail. Buddy also has a drive-thru area where divers driving to other shore-dive sites on the island can drive through a two-lane pickup area to grab tanks on their way out. On the way in, driving divers only have to drop off their tanks and throw gear into the 24-hour-a-day rinse tanks right there in the drive-through bays.

A drive through Washington Slagbaai National Park is memorable. At an average speed of maybe two miles an hour, it took me close to five hours to tour. You can climb dunes, watch spouting blowholes and visit historic settlements. I lingered at Playa Chikitu, a beautiful little cove with a treacherous, washing-machine-like surf. Roads were so rutted that one side of the track was sometimes two feet below the other, and had so many steeply pitched turns, climbs, and descents that it felt like a wild theme park attraction. My description is no exaggeration; authorities will turn you back if you dont have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a spare tire.

The drive to the southern part of the island is more laid-back. At Lac Bay, the islands windsurfing mecca, I had a pleasant lunch munching on a fish sandwich while sipping Amstels at Jibe Citys Hangout Beach Bar. Going barefoot on their sand floor felt liberating but admittedly not as carefree as the naturists at neighboring Sorobon Beach Resort (which has now temporarily gone non-nudist). On the way back to town, a row of cramped stone slave huts, too small to stand up inside and barely long enough to lie down in, sits in front of the salt ponds, a grim reminder of the past. A rich double- dip waffle cone at Lovers Ice Cream, just a stones throw from Buddys, capped off the trip back.

Buddy is within walking distance of a number of restaurants (typically $25 to $30 per person) with on-the-water views. At Rum Runners, located at Captain Dons Habitat, I had a succulent grilled wahoo, attractively plated with au gratin potatoes and delicious vegetables. I tried the sauted wahoo (overdone) and sampled my spouses tiger shrimp with pineapple salsa (good) at the Sunset Bar & Grille, located by Sand Dollar Condominiums. At both places, the wait for the main course was long but made tolerable by decent food. The 90-minute wait (even after complaining several times) for underdone burgers at Lions Den Restaurant, on Buddys grounds, was ridiculous but Buddys own meals were as good as or better than any. Its Dive & Dine dinner was just $8. The mahi-mahi with garlic butter sauce was delicious. I also enjoyed the weekly complementary happy-hour rum punch, followed by a reasonably priced all-you-can-eat barbeque. Breakfast was always good, with eggs prepared by a chef and a choice of cereals, cold fruits, delicious breads and hot entrees.

The high point of the trip came after I got home. A trusted expert stated that more than 10 of my images were of things he hadnt gathered before, and probable NIBs (not in the book). Even among the seemingly commonplace marine life, I left the island with something rare. My latest appraisal of Bonaire is a variation on how Captain Don put it years ago: Bonaire truly is indeed the home of -- solo -- diving freedom.

--S.P.

Buddy Dive Resort, BonaireDivers Compass: The six boat-dive Drive n Dive package with breakfast was $1,200 for me and $930 for my non-diving spouse . . . We took an early-morning flight on Delta through Atlanta, arriving in Bonaire with plenty of daylight left to settle in; thanks to a great credit-card offer from Delta and AMEX, I had enough frequent flyer miles to cover my flight . . . We economized by buying lunch foods and a couple of dinners in nearby convenience stores, one within 300 yards, the other half a mile away, and local markets nearby in Kralendijk, preparing meals in our apartments well-stocked kitchen . . . Wireless internet access cost $8 for two hours or $90 per week . . . The night dive at Salt Pier was $35, and a night boat dive added $10.50 to my package . . . Be prepared to pay refundable deposits for things like beach towels, extra room keys, a safe deposit box key; youll also pay about $135 for full auto insurance, a departure tax of $35 per person and the National Marine Parks annual dive tag fees of $25 (a donation of $1 per night to voluntary social programs is optional) . . . Buddys says its pickup trucks are allowed into Slagbaai Park but Id double-check to make sure . . . Website: www.buddydive.com.

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