Captain Don's Habitat
Bonaire, Netherlands Antillies
September 21-28, 1996
Dive - Site..................Depth - Time
Well, it was time for me to make my first big dive trip. Once again traveling with the Lanier Dive Center, I signed up for their big trip of the summer; a trip to the island of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles. There, we would be staying at Captain Don's Habitat and enjoying a week of diving. So, on September 21 I found myself at the Atlanta airport with the rest of the Lanier group (Laura, Dale, Chad and Hugh) and about 50 other divers from around the country ready for my first true Caribbean diving trip. We boarded the ALM 727, and were on our way.
For about two minutes.
Getting There is Half the Journey
We were still climbing out from the runway when the pilot came on the PA. "I'm afraid we have some bad news." Not what you want to hear right after takeoff. It seems that one of our landing gear had failed to retract. We could not make it to Curacao (our one scheduled stop point) with the gear down and were too heavy to land back in Atlanta, so we were diverting to Miami.
At Miami, the mechanics determined that the landing gear was functioning but that the sensor indicating the door was closed had broken. The sensor was fixed and we were on our way again.
Arriving in Curacao, we waited on the plane while the local passengers departed. After a while, we were asked to deplane as well. Reaching the terminal we discovered that the warning light on the landing gear had come back on again, the new flight crew did not want to take the plane out while it was lit, and there were no mechanics on duty this late in the evening. They handed out drink coupons to everyone and told us that they would reroute us onto a later fight.
ALM would be handing out a lot of coupons that night.
The next Bonaire flight came through about an hour later. It was fairly full and it left with only a few of the stranded passengers on board. We were to find out later that it had also left with most of our luggage on board. We were now told that a commuter flight was due in in about an hour and that we would be put on it.
When the commuter landed, the flight crew informed ALM that they had already put in all of their allowed flying hours for the day and could not take us on to Bonaire. ALM handed out more drink coupons.
The next plan was to put us on a Jamaica flight which was leaving in another hour. This flight would stop in Bonaire, drop us off, then continue on to Jamaica. This plan did not sit overly well with the passengers of the Jamaica flight, who would now have their flight delayed because of us. There were some heated arguments around the ALM counter but in the end both the Jamaica and the Bonaire passengers were boarded on the flight.
After sitting on the runway for a while, the Bonaire passengers were asked to return to the terminal again. It seems they had overfueled the plane and it was now too heavy to land in Bonaire after the short 35 mile flight. So, it was off again, to the cheers of the Jamaica passengers. We were met in the terminal with more drink coupons and the promise to get us on another commuter flight landing in about an hour.
Well, this commuter had the same problem as the last one so finally, after midnight, ALM decided to send us to a hotel for the night. Fortunately I had done enough flying to know to always carry a change of clothes and my shaving kit in my carry-on, since the rest of my luggage was already in Bonaire. I was a little better off than Dale, who only had his video camera, or Laura, who had her dive gear but nothing else.
After a brief stay at the hotel, we were back at the airport at 6 am. Today, everything ran smoothly and we all boarded a small turboprop which took us over to the Flamingo Airport in Bonaire. All of our luggage had safely spent the night waiting on us, so we collected it and caught a van to the Habitat. There, we dropped our gear off in our cottage, grabbed breakfast from the buffet, and headed for the dive briefing.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
The initial dive briefing is required for everyone before they can do any diving. Captain Don's Habitat is run on the philosophy of what they call "Diving Freedom". To them, this means that you as a diver are responsible for yourself. They will provide the opportunity to dive and will be available for help and support but they will not try to run your dives for you. Their divemasters will provide suggested profiles but you are pretty much on your own to do as you wish. A supply of filled tanks is always available and you can grab one anytime you like and go.
Next, we were instructed on how to sign up for the boat dives. Everyone who stays at the Habitat is assigned a Diver Number. Every evening, sign-up boards are put out listing the dives for the next day and the number of available slots on the boat. Simply put your number in an open slot and you're on! If there are enough requests they will schedule boats for other sites and a boat scheduled for one site will go to another if enough of the divers on the boat want to go to the other site. The package we were on allowed us 11 boat dives and unlimited shore dives. We would do both.
The briefing also covers the rules regarding the Bonaire Marine Park. Bonaire is very proud of its reefs and works hard to maintain them. All of the dive sites are marked by buoys and the boats tie up to them; no anchor damage here. Most of the rules are fairly obvious (no collecting coral, no littering, etc.) and should be followed by most conscientious divers everywhere anyway. There is a $10 fee which is required of all divers, which goes towards maintaining the Park.
After the briefing they check your C-Card, take your $10 and give you your Marine Park pass. Then, you grab a tank and do a dive off the dock in front of the Habitat. This isn't a checkout dive; there are no divemasters watching you and nobody makes you demonstrate how to buddy breathe. The purpose for the dive is so you can make sure that all of your equipment works and that you have the correct amount of weight. After that, you are on your own!
The dive also introduces you to what Bonaire diving is like. There are two docks at the Habitat; a larger concrete dock which the dive boats tie up to and a smaller wooden dock for divers. There is a very nice reef about 30 feet offshore. After grabbing a tank, we geared up and went off the dock.
The water is quite warm around Bonaire; I was quite comfortable wearing just a skin. Visibility is 80 feet or more. A rope leads from the end of the dock down to about 20 feet where the drop-off starts. It then goes on down the drop-off to the sand bottom at around 130 feet. There is the wreck of a small fishing boat right at the edge of the drop-off. Patches of coral start around the dock, and become more numerous until they become more or less continuous at around 20 feet and continues all the way down to the bottom at 130.
To my inexperienced eye the reef seems to be in excellent shape. Of course, my entire previous reef experience at this point consisted of my certification dives to the Florida Keys but I was completely overwhelmed by what I saw. Large schools of Spadefish, Yellowtails and Baitfish are everywhere. Parrot fish and File fish are also quite evident along with a good number of eels and other life. Large purple sponges and fans are also common.
After the introduction, we were ready for our first boat dive. The Habitat seems to have about 7 or 8 boats. Two of them, the ones I used the most, are large flat platforms. These have plenty of room on them for setting up gear and moving around and entries and exits are a snap. We did use one very small boat where there was almost no room for your gear and which you use a back roll to get into the water. I also used one boat where you had to step over the rail then into the water.
The divemasters on the boats do a good job of describing the site and giving a suggested profile. You can follow their suggestions (which were usually pretty good) or you can do your own thing. (We never did see the turtles they kept promising us though.) We usually followed the same profile; down to max depth, up current to 1500 pounds, back up to 30 feet or so, drift with the current back to the boat, then hang around near the boat until our air ran out. No one is timing you to limit your dive time and the near rectangular profile we were using gave us some good bottom times. I had a few dives of over an hour.
The divemasters are also quite flexible. On one of our trips several other divers asked that we change to a different site because they had heard that sharks had been seen there. The divemaster took a quick survey of the rest of us and diverted the boat. (We did see the sharks.)
We did not have a bad dive in Bonaire. We did dives off of both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. For the most part, all of the dives were very similar. There is a shelf at about 20 feet below the boat. The reef starts on the shelf then descends a fairly steep slope to the bottom which is usually around 130 feet. The overall feel of each site is the same but each site has its own unique features.
One dive we did which was very different was the wreck of the Hilma Hooker . The Hooker is (or was) a large freighter which was sunk in about 80 feet of water. It is lying on its side just off the edge of the reef. On one side of the wreck you can swim "under" the deck which is now overhanging because of the angle of the wreck. On the other side there is a narrow opening between the hull of the ship and the reef which can be swam through.
When reading about Bonaire before the trip, everything I read said that one of the "must" dives was a night dive on the Town Pier. I did not make the Town Pier myself but Chad did. His report was "don't bother". According to him there were a lot of dive boats in the area. Everyone had to stay in a small area between the pilings and it was very crowded, to the point that it was difficult to move around. It was also very noisy. He aborted the dive and returned to the boat early on.
Not all of our dives were from a boat. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very good reef just off the dock of the Habitat. In addition to the orientation dive I made two night dives off of the dock. It was on these dives that I got to meet "Charlie". Charlie is a large (5 foot+) Tarpon who lives somewhere near the Habitat. Charlie likes divers. Some people think that Charlie is hunting by the diver's lights. I think Charlie just likes sneaking up behind divers and scaring them. There is something unnerving about being on a night dive, floating in the dark water, catching a glimpse of movement out the corner of your eye, turning and finding yourself face to face with what, at them moment, seems to be some enormous sea creature. For his part, when you turn your light on him Charlie will regard you for a moment, then leisurely swim off to find another victim.
Beyond Charlie, there is much to see. The Morays are active and swimming around, and we would find Parrotfish sleeping motionless on the bottom. We were there during the full moon and at the shallower depths everything was lit by a pale glow.
One afternoon, I simply went snorkeling off the dock. The reef is extensive even at shallow depths, and there is a lot to see even there.
Several things stand out to me from the trip. The enormous lobster we found lurking at around 70 feet. A small shrimp crawling across a lump of brain coral. The large grouper at a cleaning station. The one reef shark I saw, swimming purposefully along the reef apparently waiting for the pesky divers to leave the area. But, the high point came on our last dive. We were swimming along following the contours of the reef when we came to a cut or indentation. Inside the cut, an enormous school of fish swam in a slow column. There were easily thousands of fish here in a column at least 30 feet high, slowly circling like a living underwater hurricane. An impressive and awe inspiring sight, truly a fitting end to a week of diving.
Time Flies When You're Having Fun
We spent our last day on Bonaire exploring the island and letting off Nitrogen. At Captain Don's there is some type of activity every night. There were concerts several nights that we were there. One night was traditional Bonaire night, with local food, dancing and music. There are also slide shows and presentations on everything from sea turtles to conservation to the story of Captain Don. But, we really hadn't seen much of the island, so we took the opportunity the last day
The southern end of the island is pretty much taken up by salt pans. The major export of Bonaire is salt, and the huge piles of salt and the salt pier, where the freighters are loaded dominate the area. This is also where you find the Pink Beach, considered to be the prime beach on the island (most of the coastline is rocky). To the north is the Washington national park, a wildlife sanctuary and habitat. Unfortunately, we were running low on time before we got there and were only able to drive along the edge of the park. We did manage to see some of the flamingos and wild donkeys that live there.
We also stopped briefly in the capital of Kralendijk. We did a little shopping here but for the most part the area we were in reminded me of every other coastal resort area I had ever been in. Aside from the fact that everyone spoke Dutch, of course.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
All too soon, it was time to pack up and head back to the airport. This meant dealing with ALM again, but since we were going home we had no troubles this time.
Bonaire was easily the best dive trip I have yet taken. While there are still plenty of other places I would like to go, I am certain that this is one I will return to again.
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