Finding Creative Inspiration from Bonaire's Beautiful Reef
Google the best shore diving in the world and it's a given that Bonaire will be in the top five of all those lists and for good reason - the reef that surrounds the entire island is one of the healthiest unbroken strips of coral reef I've ever seen with diverse and dense marine life. If you love creature and coral photography then Bonaire is the place for you.
This past January, a group of us with Dan's Dive Shop travelled down to Bonaire for some fun diving. With the "Drive and Dive" package at Buddy Dive Resort we piled up our gear into the back of a rental van and off we went exploring the different dive sites that surround the island.
I'd never been to Bonaire. I admit warm water reef diving is not where I often choose for dive traveling but I was curious about the land of cactus and coral. My goal was to unplug, get more hours on the White Arrow rebreather and get some video footage for my painting inspiration. Bonaire delivered. The endless walls and the gentle current at depth made for relaxing dives like the one on the Hilma Hooker wreck below with my dive buddies Matt and Nik.
I LOVE wreck diving so that was definitely a treat given it's 99% reef diving in Bonaire.
As I'm writing this, recalling that trip while flipping through photos and videos, (it's been two months since that trip) there are distinct sights and sounds that make up my memories of that trip and my dives there including:
The many many beaches with different entries like easy and pleasant entry at Karpata beach...
...or the long distance entry with the steep steps at the dive site known as 1000 Steps. Thankfully, the guys graciously carried my rebreather up and down all the steps!! It's an incredibly beautiful beach but I'd recommend it more for snorkelling than diving. It's a popular spot and many Instagramers were out taking beauty shots on the steps which means you really have to take care with your gear going up and down or hope you don't have to keep stopping or waiting for them to take their pics.
...or the non-stop Waves meant you had to time your entry at Salt Pier. Each dive site entry needed careful consideration so as not to twist an ankle or get tossed around by the waves and get scraped up on the rocks. The wind on the island is constant which was great for a cooling breeze but could make some entries a bit dodgy. And don't be fooled by the pic below, if you weren't careful, you could really scrape your knees or end up turtling on the sharp coral where the waves would break.
The quaint and painted rocks marking the entry and exit points at each dive site like this one that leads the way to dive the Hilma Hooker wreck. You keep an eye out for these yellow painted rocks along the main road that circles the island and it's easy to spot the dive sites. Grab a map and you don't even need to spend time driving far from site to site if you plan your days properly.
The wonder of seeing towering piles of white salt and pink drying pools of the salt flats by the popular dive site of Salt Pier. Bonaire salt is a popular gift to take home if you're looking for something original and inexpensive.
The delight of finding and trying a popular food truck for some freshly grilled lunch of lion fish or bbq spicy chicken with a view of the ocean. Our lunch was excellent. It wasn't fancy but the food was tasty and the ocean view while eating your wrap while sitting on a rock was exceptional.
The contrast of cactus above the coral underwater. I have a love affair with cactus and the island is covered with them.
Stumbling upon a distillery where they ask you "Have you ever drank a cactus?". Cadushy Distillery makes some fine cactus based rums, liqueurs, whiskeys, vodkas and gins!
The magic of a night dive accompanied by a group of Tarpon whose silvery bodies glistened in our lights as they hunted alongside us in the dark.
The pleasant breakfast views overlooking the water. The coast on the south side where we were located are not made up of sandy beaches but the rocky cliff views are pretty stunning.
The reassuring daily ritual of building and breaking down our dive gear. Buddy Dive is fully set up for tech diving as well as recreational diving. We had a separate tech station all to ourselves to do our daily rebreather maintenance and checks including a separate gear washing area and separate fill stations.
The donkeys that roam the island freely! The donkeys were my favourite thing for me on the island. It's strange to see them wandering especially in the busier parts of town but they're such lovely creatures. Donkeys were brought to the island by the Spanish in the 17th century and with the march of progress, they were abandoned for motorized vehicles. They frequently can be found close to the road and traffic and there is a Donkey sanctuary that aims to feed them and keep them safe. I hope they continue to survive through no fault of their own, they're left to fend for themselves.
The excellent food options on the island. There's a good variety of cuisine even for foodies to be found at different price points. I've been told I have the palate of a two year old ha - but the seafood was excellent at Rum Runners Restaurant found next door to Buddy Dive Resort.
The coral nurseries just off our resort dock. The dive resorts work together on the island to do their part with the coral nurseries. Buddy Dive is heavily involved in coral restoration and are working actively to restore marine life one reef at a time.
The swaying of thousands of arms of a carpet anemone. I could sit and watch their swaying arms forever. Whoever determines the popular names for marine life is brilliant since it really does look like a carpet.
The colourful ascents back up the sloping reef after each dive. It made for nice easy ascents where we took our time and took in all the sights.
The branching, waving arms of fan coral in the shallows. My goPro died on this dive but the shallow last 15 feet were full of giant fan coral at the Karpata dive site. If that's your jam - dive there!
The movement of schools of fish moving in together in unison. I pulled this still from a video by my dive buddy Semion. He got a GREAT shot of a trumpet fish swimming in the middle of what look mostly like Blue Tang. (If you're into fish ID let me know if that's correct!)
The bursts of colour on coral I don't even know the names of each time I shine my light on them. These were hard coral as the "bud" weren't swaying with the current. I pride myself on knowing the names of many types of coral but the diversity and richness of the reef was beyond anything I've seen in a while.
And more colourful coral...
The biggest trumpet fish I've ever seen. I really have not seen Trumpet Fish as large as those in Bonaire. There were even a pair found at the same coral heads at Buddy Dive's "House" reef. My dive buddy Semion pointed them out and they were always at or near their coral home.
The rhythmic patterns on the appropriately named brain coral. Honestly, I understand where James Cameron got so much of his inspiration from for the world in Avatar. Being underwater and seeing things like this is just so incredible for its beauty and shows how patterns in nature can be found in us and in the water we come from.
Fish feeding noisily with their crunching on the coral that's formed a skin on the hull of the Hilma Hooker wreck. Have you ever heard fish feeding? They're noisy and I would not want to be on the receiving end of being crunched down on over and over again by these little guys.
The treat of seeing my favourite vase sponge (yes I have a favourite) on every dive. Vase sponges can be found everywhere on the reef in Bonaire. There were abundant blue/pink varieties and even some yellow varieties.
The fascinating tube sponges. They look like something out of a Hanna Barbera cartoon from the 80s (GenXers know) and are abundant on the reef. Much like many other marine life, these were some of the largest tube sponges I had ever seen.
The aptly named staghorn hard coral. Good buoyancy is a must if you plan on hovering over these guys. Well...good buoyancy is always a must but even more so unless you plan on getting harpooned by these or worse yet, damaging the reef.
The fun of not being such a serious tech diver ;) Leave it to my dive buddy Semion to show the fun of diving in 360 degrees.
I returned from the trip renewed and started painting immediately and non-stop, What followed were series of paintings I included in my show "Waterlust" and which became the grouping of paintings for the reef section.
Want to see what came out of that trip? You'll have to wait for the next blog post as I catch up during #selfdistancing2020.