On Bonaire, diving from shore beats taking a boat

06/21/2014 12:00 AM

06/21/2014 9:56 PM

Scuba diving and boating are two of life’s greatest pleasures, but together they amount to a disastrous cocktail of seasickness and diesel fume asphyxiation for me. Once below the surface, the rough seas and engine smells don’t even seem to exist as I sink to the ocean floor, entranced by the aqua world around me. But heading to and from the reefs is always a torment when it comes to enjoying my otherwise hedonistic hobbies.

It was a desire to scuba dive sans vessel that brought me to Bonaire, one of the Dutch Antilles islands near Aruba and Curaçao. Marine-conservation efforts are so robust there that the reefs along the island’s western shore are almost pristine.

Certified divers must pay a $25 admission fee to the Bonaire National Marine Park (which encompasses the island’s wetlands and entire reef system along the shore) and must perform a “check dive” at their resort to get acclimated and perfect their buoyancy. Other than that, visitors are free to dive wherever they want along the shore, whenever they want, and without any supervision — no boat necessary.

All of the dive resorts offer rental equipment, and some include pickup trucks in their lodging packages. Guests use the truck to pick up and exchange oxygen tanks at 24-hour drive-through fill stations around the island.

Over the course of a week last June, my husband, Jay, and I made 10 dives, eight of which were accessed by walking in from the shore. We split our time between two resorts, Buddy Dive Resort and Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino. Each has a cult following of groups that loyally return every year and convene after their dives for barbecues and beer on the ocean.

Each day we reviewed a map dotted with dozens of red and white dive flags, and planned our day around buzz from other guests at breakfast or on Buddy Dive’s fill station chalkboard, which had notes about the day’s sightings. Occasionally, we would stop at dive sites marked with yellow painted rocks on the side of the road, because several empty pickups were parked there. We thought, “Hey, if these people came here, despite having to navigate rocky beaches and tall concrete stairs in flippers, it must be good.”

If all of this sounds strange to you, it is, especially for a nervous Nellie like me who had never breathed O2 from a tank without an experienced divemaster within arm’s reach. Blame it on the adrenaline, but it was at the Hilma Hooker wreck that I got over that. The 200-plus-foot bulk carrier lying on its starboard side looked ghostly as it came into view from shore, and once Jay and I moved closer, its sheer size awed me to the point that I almost dropped the regulator from my mouth.

The best part of sinking solo is that you can explore sites at your own pace without having to worry about being kicked by other divers, or startling creatures because a dozen people hover over them at once. But Jay and I had to be mindful of managing our depth, “safety stops” and oxygen levels on our wristband computer, which an experienced divemaster would be monitoring as backup if they were with you.

Soon, though, we became skilled at managing our dives while gawking at several 100-pound tarpons and healthy-looking barracuda. One 250-pound goliath grouper swam practically by our noses. I felt small, and I liked it.

Later in the trip, we dove the Salt Pier, the pilings of which are covered with colorful corals, and the vast array of tarpon, puffers and other tropical fish resembled a screen saver. We were lucky enough to catch glimpse of a rare, sapphire blue parrotfish with pursed lips, though the reef sharks and octopus known to lurk there eluded us.

By coincidence, Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Key Largo-based Coral Restoration Foundation, was visiting Buddy Dive during our stay. Even with Bonaire’s aggressive conservation measures, years of disease and hurricanes have almost decimated the island’s stock of staghorn and elkhorn corals, which offer shelter for reef fish. The foundation has started a Bonaire chapter that maintains staghorn and elkhorn nurseries at Buddy Dive and Klein Bonaire, a small, uninhabited island offshore, in addition to planting corals at new reefs.

After a mandatory orientation with a divemaster our first day, we were invited to help clean and plant new corals with Nedimyer, his wife, Denise, and a couple other volunteers.

Nervous that I would accidentally kick and ruin the coral trees, I planted myself in the sand in shallow water while I delicately brushed algae off them for almost 45 minutes. After all, the corals were like gold — loose fragments obtained with a special permit, cut, and grown back three times before they could be “planted” onto PVC and fiberglass “trees” that stick straight out of the sea floor and bob mesmerizingly with the sway of the tide.

As if we hadn’t had enough adventure, fellow divers told us we couldn’t leave the island without diving the diverse reefs of Klein Bonaire. We signed up for the two-tank boat trip on our final day, winding up on the same boat as members of Eels on Wheels, a not-for-profit group that teaches people in wheelchairs how to scuba dive. The group comes to Divi Flamingo annually for its calm waters, camaraderie and laid-back atmosphere.

As I watched two young men, one a paraplegic and one a quadriplegic, floating through the water and observing the myriad colorful creatures without a care in the world, I forgot all about being on a boat.

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