Town Pier in Bonaire – The best night dive in the Caribbean, now closed, but hopefully not for long.
Sept 13-19, 2009 Bonaire - The week before Anna and I traveled to Bonaire on what has become our annual September stay as guests of Buddy Dive, I received a phone call from ol’ friend, David Espinosa, who had recently been appointed to the editorship of Scuba Diving – a well deserved congratulations to both David and the magazine – in my estimation a perfect fit and a coup for diving. David was inquiring about the current status of diving at Bonaire’s Town Pier and Salt Pier in the process of researching a possible article. I had heard rumors of some damage from a storm the previous year but knew little more about the situation. The web produced conflicting information, but for the most part indicated that the piers were closed and had been for some time. The news was troubling. I count the piers among the best night dives in the world, and I love night diving.
Once on the island, we discover that Town Pier is indeed closed and has been since the previous October when the surge from hurricane Omar did a number on the pier, scouring sponges off the pilings and causing significant damage making diving unsafe. However, it seemed that some folks were diving at Salt Pier making shore entries at Salt City, just south of the Cargill property.
After investigation the situation further, we find that the story behind the closure goes back to before Omar. Following 9/11, docks and other transportation facilities around the world were required by treaty to heighten security. In response, the Harbor Master at Bonaire began requiring everyone visiting the docks to be accompanied by a registered guide who was responsible for providing, via fax, names and passport numbers 24-hours in advance. The policy capped the numbers of divers per guide at four, and limited dives to one hour. No permits were issued when large vessels were in port. The policy allowed divers to dive and put a much appreciated jingle in the pockets of local dive guides. There were grumbles here and there about the procedure, but for the most part, everything went along swimmingly until Hurricane Omar raised it ugly head. After the storm, the Harbor Master, faulted dangling cables, but adding to the decision to close the structures were ongoing legitimate complaints about the extra paperwork created by the constant processing of permits. So as of last October, it was decreed that no more dock diving permits would be issued for the foreseeable future.
Anna and I gladly hopped at an invitation from Ellen Muller and Linda Baker, to join them for a night dive under Town Pier. The pair had been granted a special permit by the Harbor Master, so they could check on the health of the marine life and survey damage prior to repairs and construction scheduled to begin in a matter of weeks. It was a rare opportunity to explore a classic dive site with two of the Caribbean’s best marine naturalists. Linda, who has been a dive guide at Bruce Bowker’s Carib Inn for nearly two decades, knows as much about the island’s fish life as anyone having contributed well over a thousand fish surveys to REEF’s database. To understand just how good Ellen is at finding and documenting unusual marine life, view her work at www.pbase.com/imagine. Her web site brims with images of unique, often never-before-seen animals from Bonaire, photographed, mainly at night, during the past several years.
In the 11 months since Omar, marine growth on the piling has made a strong comeback, as well it should. The thick growth, made up primarily of fouling organisms such as Golden Cup Coral, an invasive species from the Pacific, and encrusting sponges, grows like weeds. But what beautiful weeds they are, blanketing the 20- to 40-foot piling from sand to surface with a unrivaled display of dazzling colors. The great stands of tube sponges, some reaching six feet in length, vanished with the storm, however starter colonies of the fast-growing organisms are popping up everywhere. By the time the repairs and extension have been completed and the pier is reopened to diving, sometime in 2010, the animals should be back to their previous state of opulence.
Video – Colonial Animals Blanket the Pilings from Sand to Surface
As impressive as animal colonies covering the pilings are, we have come to see the critters that creep out of the tangle after dark. The thick growth also attracts sea horses and frogfish – two of Bonaire’s superstars. The highlight of the night is a red, fingernail-sized longlure frogfish perched on a yellow sponge. There is always a total surprise under the pier, like a the distinctive little red mystery goby that makes an appearance for only a few seconds. But crabs, and especially decorator crabs that pick living bits from their surroundings to disguise their presence, steal the show. Another rare sight, Anna finds an arrow crab wiggling out of its molt. And the small nudibranch inhabiting the pilings and bottom debris aren’t shabby.
Toward the end of last year’s stay Anna and I began hunting for examples of symbiosis on the reef and sand flat extending from Buddy’s to town. The discovery of a Orangespotted Goby and its symbiotic snapping shrimp got us started on the venture. The alert goby acts as a sentinel for a near-blind burrowing shrimp that builds and maintains a burrow for the pair. Anna’s discovery of an arrow shrimp hiding within gorgonian plumes quickly followed. Soon we added highly specialized shrimp living exclusively within host basket stars, sea biscuits, crinoids, and anemones. Ellen Muller put us onto a fun find; an unclassified brown and white shrimp that lives nowhere but inside Touch-Me-Not Sponges. Peering into dozens of sponge openings to locate the half-inch crustaceans, causes us to take a closer look a the white specks of worms that dot the sponges’ surface. All the exciting animals we discover, only make us even more mindful of the many wonders we are almost certainly missing. ~ Ned DeLoach
Video – Basket Star Shrimp
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