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This just in from Andy Hamilton:

"Bonaire report – period 17-28th November

Just returned – in summary of the 4 Caribbean diving holidays we have had (Tobago, Rosario Islands, Cozumel and Bonaire), the latter gets both mine and my wife’s vote as the best all round trip. Very highly recommended.

The island itself – One of the Dutch Antilles (the famous ABC islands) 60 miles off the coast of Venezuela; shaped like a rough half moon, with the sheltered leeward side facing west/south west (Curacao is that way). The windward side has only 2 dive sites – the rest is dived very very rarely (strong surf, currents etc) apart from 2 restricted dive sites and in times when hurricane has past to the North and temporarily reversed the direction of the swell (the island is actually off the beaten track for Hurricanes – we were told by a couple that 5 years ago they managed to dive the windward side when the conditions described above occurred – but it’s a once in 30 year event I believe). Island is mostly semi-arid (they get maybe 10-15in of rain a year) and as result most of the vegetation is low scrub with a huge variety of cacti – this is best seen in the northern fifth of the island which is an excellent National Park (Washington Slagbaai Nat Park). The southern fifth is made up of salt pans – both natural and man made (salt is a main export). There is a smaller island in the protected lee (Klein Bonaire – this has 26 dive sites), whilst the rest of the leeside of the main island has 58 dive sites. In practice both numbers are to some extent meaningless – you can dive almost anywhere (see below). The island has been formed like many in the Caribbean by magma intrusions from below, with build up of coral (and eventually limestone) as the land mass was built up. The volcanic component is best seen in the National Park (interesting geology up there with raised limestone terraces etc). There is a very nice sheltered bay on the windward side (Lac Bay) with great mangrove swamps and birdlife – windsurfing is apparently very good around there.

Because its limestone with one exception all water bodies are of the saline type (as well as in the south there are a number of salt lakes in the north). These are home to a huge number of flamingoes (absolutely beautiful), 30,000 I believe. Bird life is extensive, with a beautiful endangered parrot (the lora) among the highlights – we also saw a variety of herons and waders, many ospreys, pelicans, frigate birds, several types of other raptors (including the fabulous caracal) and some stunning orange and yellow fly members of the flycatcher family – also mockingbirds. Ground life is dominated by a colony of wild donkeys (300 plus, they wander everywhere!), goats and a magnificent collection of lizards – including some very impressive iguanas, some of which in the National Park are tame enough to be a threat to your toes (while I think of it – the roads in the National Park are very testing – 4 wheel drive essential – make a trip to the National Park on your last none dive day - $10 per person, well worth it, budget 4 hours for the long route, see the island as it was).

Travel – the only major fly in the ointment – we booked via Opodo and got KLM flights; the cheapest (via Amsterdam) have you arrive at 4.30am and depart at 3.30am (the airport is fine, typical island style, nice air conditioning in the departure lounge). Cost about £450. Unfortunately KLM fly clapped out MD11 aircraft (old style headrests, old style video monitors headphones may not work) and the food was very poor both ways. Flight out 9.5 hours from Amsterdam – was meant to be 9 hours on return but they lost their all weather capability (maybe it hadn’t been repaired) so we could not land at Amsterdam on return due to ‘bad weather’, diverted to Brussels. They tried to replace part, threatened to then bus us all back to Amsterdam that night, we revolted, demanded returns from Brussels. They relented, we had to overnight at hotel airport, then flew back next morning via BA (bliss by comparison!). Overall impression of KLM – hopeless no wonder they nearly went bust until Air France rescued them. But you have little choice but to use them unless you want to fly via US and overnight (not recommended – its what my wife did when she met me on Cozumel previously).

Accommodation – there is something for most tastes, though large 5 star monsters don’t really exist thankfully. Sea front development is low rise (thankfully) though they are some condos spring up. The islanders seem to treat their physical environment very well (it’s the cleanest Caribbean island I have been to (and I have been to 20 odd). There is some new development of plush pads to the North of the very pleasant (and quaint) capital of Kralendijk. Plenty of opportunities to book your own holiday, we went for Yacht Club Apartments (run by Dutch folk as are many businesses on the island). I could thoroughly recommend, all divers would need, lots of space, tanks to wash out in, patios to hang stuff in, air con in bedroom, self catering facilities, nice pool, very relaxed. There are a number of the more resorty type place both north and south of Kralendijk – Captain Dons Habitat is the best known. We didn’t visit them, but I am sure they are fine.

Currency – US$ accepted everywhere we went but the official currency in Antilles guilder – 1.75 to the $. Often you might pay in US and get change in guilders – no worries, totally interchangeable. We just took cash, but there are ATMs and banks around. Costs – for day to day stuff from supermarket – pretty high as everything is brought in via boat. Eating out – also not necessarily cheap, budget on $50 per head for 3 course dinner including a bottle of decent wine (but that’s still cheap by London prices!). Lots of catch of the day style fish, great prawns etc. Best restaurants we found were Mona Lisa and a new one called Mai Mai – also 2 pretty good Italian ones (Ciccione and Croccatinos) and a great setting at Richards. Some also less good restaurants ie the Lighthouse. Over all we thoroughly enjoyed eating out; nightlife – never went looking for it, but was told it was there some nice looking bars on the waterfront. Generally I would describe it as a very quiet relaxed island. Vast majority of visitors are Dutch, Yanks and Germans, only heard 3 English voices while we were there. Vast majority are divers or divers partners – generally all we met were very nice, it tend to attract very experienced divers (met several with 1000 plus dives to their names, lots with hundreds, made us feel like absolute beginners!). The locals are very nice but a tad diffident by Caribbean standards. Unlike Cozumel it doesn’t suffer from hordes of cruise liners – there seems to be one Dutch liner a week (only stays a day) plus a much smaller 4 master. As a result there are not stacks of shops selling junk jewellery in the high street – probably about 10 gift shops, and another 5 dive shops in the ‘city centre’. Internet access is good though pricey - $3 per 15 minutes.

And now to the proper bit – the diving! There are two types of diving available – conventional guide led diving (predominantly boat – this is the only way to dive Klein Bonaire, the islet) and, what we have never seen elsewhere (and the most popular type) the so-called dive freedom option. Basically you hire a 4 wheel pick up (typically a Mitsibushi – this is relatively cheap, and we did via one of the numerous local firms at the airport (the Yacht club folk put us on a to a good operative – we used less than $50 petrol in the whole week and went everywhere), and basically load it up with tanks from your operator in the morning and off you go! Choose a dive site (they are marked by yellow named stones along the coast road (its all fringing reef between 25-100m offshore) and by yellow buoys (no anchors allowed) drive to it, suit up and tank up and in you go! (in practice you don’t even have to choose the marked sites – wherever you fancy along the leeward side. No dive leader, no following a crowd no maximum 40 min. dives! You can fit in 3 dives in a day easily. Mostly the reef falls off to 30-40m deep then a sandy plain falling away deeper – there are some deeper wall drop offs in the North and South. We arranged our diving via Wannadive but most seemed professional and let yu get on with it. They ask you do an orientation dive first day then you are as on your own as you want to be (there is a one off charge of $10 to maintain the marine park – basically Bonaire is one vast marine park. The only places you cant dive is 2 reserves on the leeward side and various piers associated with boats (ie salt pier) – there is also an oil storage farm on the North of the island where obviously you cant dive).

Most dives south of Kralendijk involve a swim over a flat terrace of sand and coral sloping down to 7-10m then the reef proper starts and falls away at angles from 45-80 degrees – then you are out in the blue. Without exception the quality of the corals is very good – lots of soft corals, lots of brain coral, some staghorn, huge selection of vivid sponges, fans etc all showing little damage (with so many dive sites and given the fact that most divers are so experienced there is little evidence of fin damage etc. Fish life is abundant everywhere – we made it to 50 species and stopped counting within a day or so. All the usual suspects in great abundance. I have never ever seen so many morays – everywhere! We identified at least 4 species and had the bonus of seeing the biggest green moray we have ever seen – 2 metres long and swimming freely over the reef towards us (at the site known as the Lake). Jaws dropped. Our favorites closer in were peacock flouders (v.common) and sharptailed eels (v.pretty). Generally it’s a single reef but in the south between the Lake and Jeannies Glory it’s a double reef – the outer falls to 35m. On the outer reef (again at the Lake) we saw a range of fish life we haven’t seen in the Caribbean before – we were circled by a school of sothern sennet (a member of the barracuda family – the latter were seen individually on most dives), came across the bizarrely shaped Palometa, and saw numerous yellow tailed and horse tailed jack. On another dive here we even had a ‘Blue Planet’ moment – a genuine baitball (we think sardines) being hammered by horse eyed jacks – absolutely brilliant! Bonaire is not renowned for its big pelagics – we most often encountered sizeable tarpon in this category and barracuda; we were apparently very lucky to see a large shark (off Atlantis, a deeper wall dive to the South) of unknown parentage; other divers also saw sharks though they are considered rare. Turtles were also about (we didn’t see them) though we saw one ray at distance (also rare). However the reef life more than makes up for this – there is a good selection of invertebrates (lots of reef and cleaner shrimp and one lobster – during the day!). Anemones too – and unfortunately the odd sea wasp (we think) – I got a very nasty sting across the face and mouth from a floating tentacle; the latter event is very rare thankfully. Frogfish (we didn’t see – others did) and seahorses (we did see, on a night dive).
There are two wrecks – the Hilmer Hooker, at a max depth of about 33m, very diveable, on its side between the 2 reefs in the south, the upturned hull is as shallow as 18m, been down 20 years very easy diving, and an old clipper from 1912 in the North – much deeper (60m) but apparently a great dive (if you like a 10 min bottom time). Visibility generally in the 20-30m range – it had come down as the island had its first rain in 10 months while we were there so there was a mini bloom – some of the yanks claimed 40m was more normal. Water temperature sublime at about 26 degrees C or more. Daytime Temps up to low 30s, nighttime a bit cooler but there is always a pleasant breeze.

There has been a problem of petty theft from the trucks of divers while your in the water (many of the sites are very quite to say the least). Therefore avoid leaving valuables in cars (they will break the windows apparently). In the south this problem has been largely solved by the activities of one of the dive operators who use a touring dive bus (pink) which moves between 6 dive sites – you can leave valuables free of charge with them. Its still a problem to the North (some Dutch people in a neighbouring car had a watch stolen so be aware).

We didn’t do as much diving to the north – the reef are steeper, though just as good. Favorite sites – The Lake, Aquarius and Karpata. You can night dive when ever you wish but the operators do a guided tour under the main peir at Kralendijk – worth going but only if its not busy – it’s a bit like being in an orange encrusted cathedral (and its only down to about 8m)

Overall we thought it brilliant – there are a lot of mozzies at this time of the year and particularly in the North (away from the breeze) there is a tiny nuisance fly (like a Drosophila) which may drive you mad before you suit up. Other than that – magic! Any other questions let me know


Andy can be contacted at:

[email protected]
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