Bonaire, October 2015

Bonaire is somewhere I've always wanted to go, so when the uDare meetup group arranged a trip there, I signed up. As the island is part of the Netherlands, the easiest way to get there from Europe is with KLM, which means connecting at Schipol. At least they didn't leave my luggage there this time, which was a bonus. The outward flight also stopped at Aruba for about an hour. It went straight to Schipol on the way back.

We were booked to stay at Buddy Dive and they picked us up from the airport. Our apartment had three separate bedrooms. The one I was sharing was a bit cramped. With two single beds in there, the door didn't open properly. There wasn't a lot of wardrobe space either as it was half full with the water heater. The communal areas were spacious, not that we made much use of them and there was a balcony on both levels. Somehow, we managed to pull the front door partly off the hinges, though on closer inspection, there was only one screw in the hinge where there should have been three. Maintenance fixed it for us without comment.

After a bit of confusion with the travel agent, it was confirmed that breakfast was included. It was a buffet breakfast and was quite expensive if you were actually paying for it, especially as they only did full buffet. There weren't any cheaper options if you didn't want the full works. There was a supermarket just up the road and several restaurants within walking distance. The main town was a little bit too far to walk and as we found out later in the week, getting a taxi back from town wasn't that easy. There just aren't very many.

At Buddy Dive, there were a couple of swimming pools, two restaurants and the bar. The only night we ate there in the evening was when they had their weekly all-you-can-eat BBQ. We had lunch there most days. The wifi was free though a bit erratic. It worked in the bar, the breakfast room and from the balcony of our room.

The first dive was the checkout dive and had to be done on the house reef. It wasn't really a checkout dive. No-one came with us. You just jump in with your buddy and do a dive. It's a good dive site. I managed to spot a sea horse, which I was pretty pleased about. It was to be the only one I saw on the entire holiday.

After the first dive, we were then free to pick up our vans. Each van held up to 8 people and we have 5 of them between 27 of us. Each day, the driver would pick a couple of dive sites, and then people would get on the van going to the site they wanted to see. Buddy Dive has a drive through tank filling station, so we'd each pick up two 80cuft tanks of nitrox and head off. The free map shows you where the sites are on the island and there are yellow marker stones by the side of the road. You just park up and go diving.

The vans weren't that new and my one had a tendency to pop out of first gear but they did the job of carrying us and our kit to the dive sites. Given that when we returned it, there was no comment about the amount of sand we'd somehow managed to fill it with, I was quite glad we didn't have a newer vehicle.

The prevailing winds are from the east, so most of the dive sites are along the west or south coasts of the island. A couple of times, we arrived at a site and it was a bit rougher than we wanted to do, so we just moved to another site. We also had the dive guide book which gave advice on where to enter. The book did make some of the sites sound a lot harder than they were. I'm not sure who their target audience is, but, for example, Oil Slick Leap was recommended as a boat dive just because diving it from shore involved climbing up a short ladder. If anything, that site was one of the easiest to enter and exit. There's also no oil there. It's named because it was the proposed site of an oil terminal. Then there was the "gruelling" 1000 steps. There are only 72 of them really. I've done worse walks at purpose built UK inland dive sites.

The reef is fairly similar around the island. There are differences between which types of coral are more prevalent if you compare the south to the north, but I'd be hard pressed to pick any favourites. Some dives were better than others, but it was mostly down to luck and what we saw on the day. The diving is all on the wall of the drop off though in the south, there is then a second reef a bit deeper. The coral is in good condition and it's fairly typical Caribbean style diving. There wasn't much in the way of big stuff. I did see a couple of eagle rays and a few turtles. I didn't see any sharks, though there were some big tarpon. A couple of them live on the Buddy Dive house reef and come really close on night dives as they have learnt to hunt in divers' torch lights.

The only shallow wreck dive of note is the Hilma Hooker. Entry is much like all the other sites from the beach and as you get deeper, you see a big wall of steel in front of you as the wreck is lying on its starboard side. It lies in just over 30m and there are a couple of areas that you can swim inside. It made a change from the other dives. Considering it's been down since 1984, there's not a huge amount of life on it.

The other different dive is the Salt Pier. You can only dive this when there are no boats tied up, though in our week there, we never saw one. We did this twice, once during the day and once at night. The fish tend to congregate around the pier legs, so there's plenty to see including the biggest grouper I saw on the whole trip.

Part of our package included one boat dive. Typically their boats go over the Klein (Small) Bonaire, which is an uninhabited island off the west coast. We did Ebo's Reef. I didn't find it any different, let alone better, to the other dives that we did on the main island. The big difference was that I had to follow a guide along with 7 other people rather than do my own thing with my buddy as I did the rest of the week.

Whilst we were at Buddy Dive, they were running a tech diving event, which meant that there was a talk in the bar every evening. It also meant that they were running try dives and I finally broke my CCR duck by doing 23 mins on the house reef on a Hammerhead rebreather. It wasn't enough to convince me to part with all that money.

There was also a big focus on sidemount diving. I'm am somewhat cynical about the fad for sidemounts, but Bonaire is a place where it makes sense. As it's all shore diving, I wouldn't fancy clambering over the beach with a twinset, and there was often a step down off the rocks into the water. Being able to kit up in the water, as sidemounts allows you to do, makes perfect sense for those deeper dives where you want some redundancy. All our gas was 32% nitrox from a continuous blend system, but Buddy Dive also do custom nitrox mixes and trimix, so there are opportunities to do some deeper stuff.

Bonaire's big appeal for me was the freedom to do your own thing. Being in our own group, with the vans at our disposal, meant we could just go off diving without having to put up with any of the usual annoyances of holiday diving. Obviously, this does require a bit more experience in your group, but it was about as easy as diving gets. Our typical dive plan was to walk in off the beach, check the current, swim into it until our gas got to our turn point, then go a bit shallower and swim back the way we'd come. The boat diving held no real attraction for me, though it would be a good option for less experienced divers.

Total cost for 8 nights, including 7 days unlimited diving, cost £1549 including flights from London. I don't think this is particularly cheap. It does work out quite cost effective when you consider that I did 21 dives, but these were self drive, self guided dives.

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