After four resort dives, I knew it was time to stop playing around and become fully certified as a Scuba Diver. The diving bug had bitten me, and there was no way around it. It was time for me to join the millions of other people around the world who had found joy in strapping a tank of air onto their backs and start exploring aquatic realms.
After checking around, I found out that there was a PADI Dive Center in Hoboken, New Jersey. Being 10 minutes from my house, it seemed the perfect place to get certified. The Hoboken Dive Center is a vibrant, busy shop with a store full of great scuba gear to buy, and knowledgeable instructors certified to teach the most advanced PADI dive courses. They also run exciting dive trips all over the world. You can reach them at [email protected]
My plan was to do my theory and confined water in Hoboken, then complete my four open water dives at the Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire. My instructor at the Hoboken Dive Center, Robert Sievens, a very patient, friendly man with ten years diving experience, explained the Executive Class to me, a weekend course for busy people who might not have the time for the regular certification class that meets for six weeks. The Executive Class allowed me to meet one Friday evening and two full Sundays to complete the classroom and pool work. Before I knew it I was calculating dive tables, and assembling and disassembling my dive gear.
After 20 hours of pool and classroom work, and the final theory exam, I was more than halfway there to being certified. My instructor filled in all the necessary referral papers in my log book to take with me to Bonaire.
I had heard so much about the incredible diving in Bonaire, I wondered how much was hype. Not much. This island was almost created for diving, and thousands of people a year go there just to slip beneath the surface and to marvel at the lush reefs and abundant fish life.
Bonaire is located in the Netherlands Antilles and is 40 miles (approx 65km’s) north of Venezuela. The islanders speak Dutch but English is also widely spoken.
After flying American into San Juan, Puerto Rico, then hoping on the American Eagle flight that flies three times a week to Bonaire, I was ready for the famed Bonaire diving. I checked into the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. The Flamingo is an affordable, comfortable resort with clean rooms and good service. It is also the only fully handicap accessible hotel on the island. A small group of handicap divers were staying at the Flamingo during my stay. The Divi Flamingo offers some very decent dive packages. They can be reached at [email protected]
Though I did most of my diving through the excellent Flamingo Dive Shop during my stay, I had already made plans to finish my certification at the Buddy Dive Resort down the road a bit.
Catching a ride the next morning, I got my first good look at this laid back island with its crystal clear waters, its desert landscape with cactus, wild donkeys and lizards, and the small, lively town of Kralendijk with its stores and restaurants.
It doesn’t take long to understand that Bonaire prides itself on not allowing over development, and that the government and people of Bonaire are very determined to protect its coral reefs at all cost. The week I was there the Fifth Bonaire Dive Festival was taking place with some of the top marine conservationist in the world taking part. The Bonaire Marine Park, is widely respected around the world for its marine conservation. Since 1979, the waters around the island have been protected to a 200-foot depth. There is a $10 dollar charge to dive in the Bonaire Marine Park.
Pulling into the Buddy Dive Resort, I was met by Hagen Wegerer, who would be my Open Water Instructor. His wife, Corinna, is the Dive Operations manager there. Hagen got me suited up, explaining exactly what I would be doing on my four dives. Over the next two days Hagen ran me through all of the necessary skills in order to be fully certified, including using a compass, and doing an emergency ascent. At the end of the second day on my forth dive, Hagen shook my hand and said, "you are now a new fish."
I have to say, I was more than a little proud on getting certified. Buddy Dive is a great place to stay if you are thinking of doing some serious diving in Bonaire. Their website is www.buddydive.com
Now, I was free to spend the rest of the week diving and exploring this pristine island. Over the next five days I managed to dive 10 more times. Diving in Bonaire is so simple it’s almost silly. There are over 80 marked dive sites scattered around the island, most sites can be reached by simply diving off the nearest beach, or taking a short boat ride. Many of the reefs start right at the water’s edge and drop down to 35 ft (12m).
The water is so clear, and fish life so abundant, it’s no wonder beginners and seasoned divers alike treasure this island. Being a new diver, I knew finding a buddy to dive with was very important. The group I was traveling with were all certified divers.
I buddied up with Craig Wright, who was a member of my group, and a diver of thirty years. When he first suggested I do a night dive, I though he was crazy, and wanted no part of it. But before I knew it, I was diving in the warm, night water with only a quarter-moon and my underwater light to guide me. There were four of us on this dive, and after a minute or so, I found my fears lessening and my wonderment growing. I really couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you, even with the lights. But with fish darting by, and my obsession with watching my depth gage, it wasn’t long before I found myself 75 feet (22m) down, in pitch black waters, wondering what the hell I was doing there. But this dive turned out to be an experience I’ll never forget. The beauty of the night creatures coming out, including eels, tarpins, barracudas, and a whole host of colorful characters wondering what we were up to, was a joy to my senses. Night dives are big in Bonaire.
Another dive that made me appreciate the joy of diving was a day dive to the Hilmer Hooker, a cargo ship that was ‘sent to the bottom’ by the government of Bonaire back in the 80’s, due to the large amount of illegal drugs found in its cargo hold. Again, I dove with Craig. This time I had a bit of a problem clearing my ears, but after a few nose pinches, I was hovering over the top of a very big ship. Craig signaled me to follow him, and we swam around the ship peering into windows where now the local fish lived. Looking at my depth gage, I realized I was down 100 ft! Craig smiled at me and gave me the okay signal. I gave it back to him, amazed how far I had come from getting certified just a few days before. I remember looking up and being able to see the surface. The water is so clear in Bonaire, distances can be very deceptive. Coming up, we did our mandatory stops. Having someone to dive with who not only knows what they are doing, but who is willing to teach you, is a comforting joy.
During the evenings, my group attended many of the seminars set-up by the Bonaire Dive Festival. People from all over the world came to hear top speakers like Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau speak on the need to save the oceans. Stan Waterman, a master of underwater film and television documentaries, showed slides of his scuba diving adventures from around the world. The slides were jaw dropping in their beauty, capturing some of the most unique underwater creatures ever seen on film. And the Coral Reef Alliance, an international organization created to protect the reefs around the world, made it clear that we divers, as the "Ambassadors of the Sea," have a responsibility to protect all reef life, and to teach others the importance of this as well.
And though diving is the main reason most people come to Bonaire, there are many other activities to take part in. I spent a morning kayaking through a beautiful mangrove lagoon, and then another afternoon trying to learn how to windsurf. Not the easiest sport to do. My goal was to be able to stand up long enough to sail past the nudist resort down the coast a bit. Maybe next time. World class wind surfers practice at Lac Bay, one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited. There are also many species of birds on the island including a large population of flamingos to enjoy, and some great terrain for biking.
The food on the island is not only quite good, but there’s a wide variety. From the local small roadside stops, to some rather fancy restaurants. Over the years the local chefs have been having cooking contests among themselves. The results are places like Le Wok, which serves French, Indian &Thai food, in a 200 year-old Bonairian residence, or The Rendez-Vous, which prepares very tasty European and Caribbean dishes. My favorite place was the Kon Tiki, where I had lunch. It’s located on a very quiet, romantic stretch of the island. It serves fresh, local fish of the day, and a great Argentinean steak. And it’s the center of the jazz world on Bonaire, where the famous and not so famous players meet.
Bonaire is a place that draws people back to it again and again. I hope I get the chance to once more dive down to enjoy the lush reefs of this unpretentious island. And if you get the chance-you should try it too.