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For Divers since 1975
The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
"Best of the Web: scuba tips no other
source dares to publish" -- Forbes
August 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Friends, Courtyard Marriott, Bonaire

finally, a way to use hotel points on your overseas dive trip

from the August, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

My most magical moment underwater on this trip to Bonaire I owe to the ostracod, a millimeter-long crustacean that ejects a blue bioluminescent substance. The species, known as "blue tears" in the Caribbean, goes through a monthly mating ritual, four to five days after the full moon. They move into shallow water to mate just after the sun sets and before the moon rises. To attract mates, the males rise up in a spiraling motion, releasing a glowing chemical in bursts. If a female likes his light display, she uses the pattern to intercept him. I entered the water at Windsock, just as the sun was setting. I kept my light off so I wouldn't disturb the ostracods and ruin their show. After 40 minutes, finning at 30 feet, I saw tiny flashes of blue light in the coral. When I turned to get my buddy's attention, I saw brighter globs of blue goo spewing about. Everywhere I looked, there were strands of blue dots rising up around me. For 20 minutes, I was immersed in a galaxy of twinkling stars.

Due to its unlimited shore diving and location below the hurricane belt, the Dutch island of Bonaire is a diver's paradise. Were all my dives here magical? I tried to find them, reader, but it gets harder every time. However, I tried a new tactic for making this Bonaire trip different from past ones -- avoiding crowds by staying in a different type of lodging.

Courtyard by Marriott Bonaire Dive ResortBonaire welcomes 80,000 tourists every year, many of whom stay at dedicated dive resorts along the west coast. I used to be one of them. I would stay at Buddy Dive, but it has become too big for my liking -- crowded boats, cluttered dive decks, dirty rinse tanks and no place to hang a wetsuit on the rack to dry. When Marriott opened a Courtyard hotel in Bonaire, my interest soared, because being a member of the Marriott Rewards program would now pay off on a dive trip. Most overseas dive destinations I want to visit are too small or too far off the beaten path for major hotel groups to consider setting up outposts there. So here was my opportunity to use hotel points for diving, and hopefully find a more relaxed, less crowded dive trip.

Built in 2016, the Courtyard by Marriott Bonaire Dive Resort is two minutes from the airport. After I exited baggage claim, I hopped in their free airport shuttle, and having used Marriott's check in app, the front desk had my key waiting. And surprise! I got upgraded to one of their four suites, just for being a Marriott member. I had a small kitchen and dining area, living room, bedroom with king-sized bed -- just like sleeping on a cloud -- two bathrooms with plenty of hot water, ample closet space, WiFi, Netflix on the large flat-screen TV, and good AC.

The Marriott's six two-story, brightly colored buildings in the Dutch Caribbean style sit alongside a canal, and house a restaurant, fitness center, infinity pool and yes, a dive center. This is the only Marriott in the world that is a dive resort -- but unlike other Bonaire hotels, no house reef.

Ilsa, the ever-friendly Canadian in charge at Courtyard's Dive Friends, knew I would be arriving after she closed at 5 p.m., so she left a locker key for me to stow my gear. Next morning, my buddy and I checked in and paid $25 for the mandatory marine park tag. Ilsa gave us a quick tour of the facility -- a tank room with both 80- and 63-cu. ft. aluminum tanks filled with air or nitrox (free upgrades for certified nitrox divers), a gear locker room, men's and women's restrooms, and an outdoor rinse area. The large wooden deck had showers, rinse tanks always full of clean water, a drying table for booties, and a rack for hanging wetsuits. The shop had a good supply of T-shirts and rash guards, and the Scubapro rental gear looked in great shape. Wrist computers could be rented. The nitrox analyzer was selfservice. No on-site compressor, but the shop at Port Bonaire regularly delivered tanks. Ilsa said we were free to use facilities at any of Dive Friends' seven locations on the island, which was great, because we didn't have to return tanks to the same shop where we got them.

Bonaire MapI booked Marriott's Escape Package, which included a rental truck from Avis. When I was ready for it, an Avis employee drove me to the airport office to take care of paperwork. Courtyard had already taken care of most details, so it was only a matter of minutes before my buddy and I were driving away in a four-door Mitsubishi pick-up.

The Courtyard's lack of beach may bother you if you want easy access to shore diving. Bonaire requires every diver do a buoyancy checkout dive, and because the Courtyard has no beach, we had to drive our gear to Delfins Resort, another new property, two miles down the road. That could be a hassle, but I'm a laid-back diver who is fine with daily packing of dive gear into my rental truck. At Delfins, my buddy and I were given weights and a wagon, onto which we loaded tanks and our heavy gear bags and then pulled it to the little beach. After gearing up in the covered area with cement floor and benches, we walked down the sandy beach, swam into deeper water, then dropped down, while a Dive Friends employee watched. We popped up, let her know all was good, and off we went.

Once at the wall, I determined the direction of the current so we could return with it. Along the top of the wall, at 30 feet, were many sea fans, caramel-colored instead of vivid purple. The star and brain coral were also dull in color; even the sponges were tan. So if your favorite color is brown, you will enjoy Bonaire's reefs. At 60 feet, I watched a never-ending stream of creole wrasses migrate north. Trumpetfish tried to hide from me, hanging vertical among the branches of soft corals. I paused during my safety stop in the middle of a brown chromis nursery.

Back at Delfins, I rinsed salt and sand off my gear in the tanks, then used the shower. My partner and I were the only two divers there. Now that's my idea of a great vacation -- plenty of space to spread out and gear up at my own pace. I didn't have to compete with other divers for video footage of the marine life, and afterwards, I had plenty of clean water to rinse my mask and regulators.

We were able to avoid crowded dives sites, too. Since Dive Friends didn't open until 8 a.m., we would get our tanks the afternoon before and put them next to our dive lockers, which had 24-hour access. We ate breakfast at 6:30 a.m., when the hotel's buffet opened, then loaded up the truck and headed out to the popular dive sites.

One morning we arrived at the Hilma Hooker at 7:30 a.m., geared up and swam out to the popular wreck before anyone else arrived. I made a slow descent down to the sand at 100 feet, where the Dutch freighter lay on her starboard side. With no other divers around, the scores of shy, brown garden eels in the sand let me approach close enough to look them in the eyes. Nothing had changed on the 235-foot-long wreck since my last dive on her four years ago. The parrotfish have kept her picked clean, but multiple clusters of purple eggs in dinner plate-sized circles showed that Hilma made an excellent breeding site for Sergeant Majors. Poking under the hold, I interrupted a half-dozen large tarpon hanging out.

Rating for Dive Friends and Courtyard by Marriott Bonaire Dive ResortWhen I surfaced, two dive boats and five more trucks had arrived. A dive leader of a group of eight approached me and asked about the dive. None had been to Bonaire before, so I shared my thoughts on the entry and exit, and how to dive the wreck safely. That's one thing I like about Bonaire's shore diving -- it's easy for divers new here to ask others about a site's particulars before heading in.

This was also when I felt most grateful not to be staying at a crowded resort and possibly stuck with annoying divers. While taking off my gear, I overheard four young men having a profanity-infused conversation about problems with their GoPro cameras. One had a dead battery, another's housing had leaked on his previous dive, a third diver could not figure out where to attach his rig. I've been there, but I was so glad I wasn't sharing a day-long dive boat with them. And I'm happy with my divespecific Paralenz camera, which has no external housing and is small enough to stow in a pocket. (See "Flotsam and Jetsam" about updates to Paralenz camera features.)

Big, soft bath towels and an unlimited supply of hot water made a nice end to a day of diving. But the Courtyard's restaurant, BLT Burger, did not satisfy. The first day I ate there, my first choice wasn't available. The menu was primarily burgers and salads, so I went with my second option. After an hour passed and I still had not been served, I had to ask where my food was. When I finally got my salad, the oily lettuce and charred chicken made it inedible, and I am not a picky eater. But because BLT Burger has a great location overlooking the canal and pool, I gave them a second try for lunch the next day. It took a while for someone to bring me a menu, but then no one came around to take my order. So I crossed BLT Burger off my list. My suite's kitchen had a refrigerator and microwave, so I made a three-minute drive to the grocery store to buy supplies. (Standard Courtyard rooms only have a mini-fridge.)

One afternoon, wet and dirty from caving (see the sidebar, "An Interesting Way to Off-Gas in Bonaire," on the preceding page), I just wanted pizza for dinner. A company called Dinner-in-a-Box delivered meals from many of the island's restaurants. Ilsa suggested pizza from Rumba Cafe, so we had Dinner-in-a-Box bring us one. It was delivered hot and fresh within an hour, and was delicious.

We chose the long route through Washington Slagbaai National Park. It's a two-anda-half hour drive to the first dive site, making diving there a full-day commitment. We reached Playa Funchi, parked in a shady spot, and assembled our gear at a covered picnic table. I walked out into the water, surface-swam to the site buoy, then descended for a dive down the wall to the south. The reef was a disappointment -- lots of red algae growth, and the fish life was minimal. I swam back in poor visibility over shallow, algae-covered rubble.

Red Algae, Brown Coral ReefsAfter setting up tanks for the second dive, we ate a picnic lunch, but the lizards were aggressively begging for food. A giant green iguana jumped on my partner, and a smaller one tried to climb my leg. We ate quickly so we could escape from Jurassic Park. The reef looked better on our dive in a northern direction, but still far from healthy. I had hoped to see a nice variety of life here, but aside from a few French angelfish, some princess parrots and a smattering of smooth trunkfish, the sea life have moved away from this area of reef. I even dove down to 70 feet in search of life, but fish were not to be found. From Playa Funchi, the drive was another hour through the park. Goats, flamingos and native birds grazed and relaxed in a cactifilled landscape.

I focused on shore diving, but Dive Friends made it easy to book dives from one of its four dive boats. Two 33-footers that take 10 divers are docked at Courtyard; another one is at Port Bonaire, and a larger, 12-diver boat is at Sand Dollar Resort. Dive Friends once had the rule that they wouldn't take a boat to any site you could drive to, so they almost always went to Klein (Little) Bonaire or a few sites to the north. But now they let the crew and guests decide the destination for their two-tank morning trips and one-tank afternoon trips.

Bonaire's lionfish population appears to be under control; I saw far fewer than I did four years ago, they now show up on menus, and a food truck even sells lionfish burgers. That's great news for native fish populations, but in my two weeks of diving, I didn't see any grouper, and few yellowtail snapper. Most reefs were in bad shape -- lots of broken coral, algae, a good deal of disease on corals and on many fish. Visibility was 30 feet or less in the shallows, maybe 60 feet deeper down the walls.

But Bonaire diving still has some surprises. On a quiet afternoon dive at Bachelor's Beach, my buddy pointed out a dark cloud that was growing ever larger into a giant bait ball. Thousands of fourinch-long big-eyed scad enveloped us and we swam right into the center as bar jacks attacked the edges. As we made our way back to the buoy, another baitfish ball cruised by, this one bigger than the last. When we got back to Dive Friends to tell Ilsa, she already knew. Word of such sightings travels fast on Dive Friends' Facebook page.

My goal for this trip was to avoid crowds, and the Courtyard was definitely the place to achieve this. Most guests were there for business reasons; I saw few children or families. Most days, only half a dozen people used the pool. Being near the airport, I expected to hear noise from jets coming and going, but the buildings were soundproof. And because it seemed like my buddy and I had the entire Dive Friends facility to ourselves, we had plenty of time to chat with Ilsa about our day's diving as we rinsed and hung up our gear.

If you're preferring a quiet, uncrowded option to the Bonaire resorts packed with divers and all their gear, the Courtyard should fill the bill. Not having a house reef wasn't a problem for me, because great sites to the south like Bachelor's Beach, the Lake, and MV Hilma Hooker were only a few minutes' drive away. Aside from having a restaurant with more varied offerings and faster service, I couldn't ask for a better dive resort at which to use my Marriott Rewards points.

-- L.E.D.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: "I got certified to dive in Florida in 1998 and received my instructor credentials in 2000. I've done 1,200 dives in seven mainland U.S. states, more than 20 Caribbean islands, British Columbia, Hawaii, Micronesia and in Mexico's stunning cenotes. I enjoy researching new places to dive, and have been my own travel agent for the past decade."

Divers CompassDivers Compass: United, American, and Delta all fly to Bonaire, although you can also get there via Aruba or Curacao; my $800 United flight had a layover in Houston . . . My Marriott package included the room, breakfast for two, unlimited shore diving with a free nitrox upgrade for two, and rental truck for $205 per night . . . Currency is the U.S. dollar and English is spoken everywhere... Water temperatures in June averaged 78-79 degrees . . . Electricity is slightly different, but most U.S. appliances will work, although they may get hot . . . Courtyard rooms have hair dryers, fast and free WiFi; charging stations are found all over the room and include USB ports . . . Websites: Courtyard by Marriott Bonaire Dive Resort --; Dive Friends --

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