Back to Bonaire – Week One
We’re back in Bonaire for our sixth consecutive September, as guests of the good folks at Buddy Dive Resort. What a deal, for leading a couple of boat dive excursions, showing underwater slides of the wonderful marine wildlife there is to see right off the dock, and talking fish and critters with delightfully enthusiastic guests from around the world, we spend the month diving our hearts out in what today remains the Home of Diving Freedom. As is traditional, Eric Riesch, manager of New World Publications, makes the annual trek south with us, unfortunately only staying for the fist week. Oh, but what a week it has been!
We begin our diving with a welcoming committee of gray snapper, palometas, and other assorted freeloaders that linger under the shadows of Buddy’s dock waiting for food scraps to shower down from the heavenly restaurant above. As an added bonus, this year a seemingly endless school of silversides, attempting to take refuge along the seawall, split, swirl and reform as contented, overfed bar jacks and the occasional four-foot tarpon half-heartedly cut through their shimmering ranks.
Shortly after returning to our room to finish unpacking, we receive a welcomed phone call from Marge Lawson, one of Bonaire’s numerous underwater naturalists, inviting us to an early afternoon gathering of fishwatching friends at her Sand Dollar condominium just down the shoreline from Buddy’s. What a treat, to meet up with ol’ friends who share our passion for sea life and know the local reefs intimately. There is nothing like a few insider tips about where the newest and most exciting critters can be found to get our first week off to a quick start. Along with Marge and her husband Jim, we’re greeted by two of REEF’s most active fish surveyors, Franklin and Cassandra Neil, and Bonaire’s celebrated underwater and topside naturalist, Jerry Ligon, who has been working for Bonaire Dive Adventures since the early 90s, and probably knows more about local fish lore than anyone. Together with another half dozen Sand Dollar residents, the group has been instrumental in keeping Bari Reef, the two-hundred meter sand flat and coral slope fronting Sand Dollar, the best documented stretch of ocean in the Caribbean. Franklin alone has contributed more than 800 surveys to the REEF’s database, many recording Bari’s prolific fish population. Cassandra a converted snorkeler, who has only been diving since moving to Bonaire three years ago, has already garnered a reputation as one of the best cryptic critter hunters on the island. Just the week before she documented the first sighting of a Gulf Pipefish from southern Caribbean waters. And while other accomplished fishwatchers only dream of ever catching a glimpse of the tiny and elusive Red Faced Moray, Cassandra boast six sightings. Before leaving, the group has us giddy with fishy tales, and lined us up the following day for an early afternoon dive to locate a juvenile Flying Gurnard, a rare visitor to local waters.
The following morning we drive south with Bonaire resident and underwater photographer, Bruce Zavon, who along with wife Karen and their dog Buddy recently settled on the island. Eric, Anna and I follow him south to Windsock where he has a stunning orange frogfish holed up at 38 feet.
Tuesday is mangrove snorkeling with guests at Buddy, a special afternoon we always look forward to. Lac Bay located on the island’s southern shore provides a rare opportunity to explore a mangrove forest and seagrass meadow bathed in clear water. Eric has his camera in tow to take some shots of animals seldom seen along the ocean shore, including tiny, toothpick-thin, juvenile barracudas wearing camouflage suits, and dramatic Upsidedown Jelly, that make their home in the grass bed. Rather than dragging a mop of deadly stinging tentacles like other jellies, the pacifist members of genus Cassiopea, rest on shallow sea floors farming algae in their cauliflower-like tentacles.
Our streak continues that evening when Houston REEF Surveyor Madison Lee, Eric and I, leave exhausted Anna back at the room to catch up on e-mails, while we head for a night dive at Front Porch. We find a dandy little cluster of decorator crabs hanging out on a frayed end of a abandoned mooring rope, but the show begins on the way back in when I notice a puff of smoke rising from the side of a concrete piling, which stops me dead in mid fin stoke. The smoke turns out to be male gametes rising from a set of four Christmas Tree Worms. Seconds later a plume of eggs spiral up the core of an adjacent female and drift off into the night.
On the night of the full moon Anna, Eric and I caravan south with Buddy Dive Manager Augusto Montbrun, his wife Wendy and son Eduardo to Salt Pier. The moon rising over the salt pans is so bright that we hardly need a light to navigate our way through a vast gorgonian field leading to the pier. The criss-crossed metal pilings hold a dense growth of sponges and Orange Cup Coral, perfect hiding places for cryptic crabs. I was proud of the sponge decorator I found, until near the end of the dive when I spot the most beautiful little crab in the Caribbean, if not anywhere, a rare Gaudy Clown Crab tucked in a sponge near the top of a piling. On my way back to shore I see Anna’s blast-furnace video lights off in the distance holding motionless, a sure sign something good is afoot. When I arrive on the scene, her dual thruster beams are lighting up a snow storm of gamete bundles slowly drifting from a huge stand of Black Sea Rods – a spectacular sight and a good omen for the annual week of coral spawning yet a week away. ~Ned DeLoach
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