Our first impressions of Bonaire were not great. We arrived on a rare grey day and were reluctant to re-enter the developed world after all our off-grid island hopping.
The south of Bonaire is low-lying so the trades blow out across the smooth water in the lee of the island. It was breezy as we reached up to the town of Kralendijk under full sail and arrived at the moorings at 12kts!
It is illegal to anchor anywhere in Bonaire. All visiting sailing boats live on the moorings provided just off the town.
This is part of the protection of the reefs and marine environment in which Bonaire has long been a world leader. The entire island was declared a Marine Park in the 1970s, way ahead of the rest of the region. The results are impressive, the marine life here is the most varied and abundant we have seen. The water is clean and transparent. This has become the main attraction to the island and it has developed in to a world class diving centre.
Dive schools, dive shops, dive resorts all around, it seems that most visitors here come to dive. We had decided it was high time we got PADI certified and we had heard that this is a great place to do it.
We settled on our mooring, a short dinghy ride from our dive school jetty on one side and the town dinghy dock on the other. All very convenient, but there is a road running along the coast, not far from the boat.
We hadn’t seen a car for weeks. Here they are hard to ignore, one popular Bonaire car modification is to replace the back seats with enormous speakers. These mobile bass bombs cruise the streets very slowly with hip hop playing at road-shaking volumes, rattling the windows of buildings as they pass. Then there are the stretched street bikes, unable to ride anywhere without revving their engines as though on a starting grid, but most amusing are the mopeds, for whom the wheelie is the standard way to travel down any straight piece of Bonaire road. These kids are so good at it, they can sustain mile-long moped wheelies on their way to school, with their girlfriends on the back. And at weekends they like to party here. So it’s not the most tranquil place to swing on a mooring, a bit of a culture shock but still wonderful most of the time, and we are sitting in an aquarium. It’s worth just snorkelling round the boat to see what swims by. Schools of big silver tarpon, hawksbill turtles, rays, jacks and just thousands of small fish jumping all around.
We rented a truck and toured the island. It’s not big, but quite fun. A national park in the north with craggy rock formations and cactus like a Mexican desert. Donkeys, goats, iguanas and flamingos in large numbers. We had a very good iguana stew one lunchtime. Salt ponds in the south, and a beautiful shallow lagoon at Lac Bay, this is on the West coast, so open to the trades but protected by a reef. The lagoon is huge, turquoise water over white sand and knee deep.I can’t think of a better place in the world to learn to windsurf. There are a couple of windsurf centres there and how’s this for serendipity? On the first island we come to after Los Roques, we find Tino and what must be the best windsurf board repair shop in the Caribbean! His work cannot be rushed, but thanks Tino for a beautiful job on my dinged-up Quatro. We spent a great Sunday afternoon at a West Coast cookout, fried mangrove snapper, lobster and cold beers under a tin roof with the locals dancing to a couple of rum-fuelled guitars.
But the real draw here is the diving. Bonaire is surrounded by a narrow fringe of reef, beyond which there are dramatic drop-offs to great depths. It is this ribbon of reef that offers exceptional scuba diving at hundreds of sites around the island, at most of these you can just park your car, put your tanks on and walk in to the sea.
Last season we were in Sint Maarten, another Dutch island, but the culture there seemed more American. Bonaire is now a part of Holland, and it really feels like it. The local language is Papiamento, a patois of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, but if you are in town, in a restaurant or in a supermarket, it’s really like being in Holland.
We replenished our ship’s stores with cases of Heineken, jars of herrings, wedges of gouda and a pack of stroopwafels.
Think Good Thoughts
We first crossed paths with our friends from California, Josh and Suzee, in the BVIs last spring. They set sail around the same time as us, on ‘Think Good Thoughts’, an enormous Voyage 500 catamaran. We ran into them again in then in Antigua, Grenada, and now here we all are signed up for a scuba diving course together.
So we finally got around to scuba diving! As a child I was fascinated by diving, Jacques Cousteau, Flipper and all things sub-aqua. As an adult I just never found time for it. I have always said that’s something to do when I’m old, I was too busy chasing waves, or working. Now we have time for this, so here we are in a classroom, doing all the theory exams and getting to grips with all the kit. Must be getting old.
We were at the Dive Friends school where the ‘pool’ training is the beach in front of the shop. So you go through all the exercises in 3m of clear water with all kinds of fish swimming by, amused by the antics of the latest batch of students. Then you are free to swim beyond the classroom area and out over the reef. After a lifetime of snorkelling, scuba diving is a treat. The luxury of neutral buoyancy and an air supply, just hovering above the reef and watching the world go by. Actually those first few dives we were all over the place, crashing in to each other as we learnt to fine tune our movements. We found all the gear very cumbersome, I suppose you need to spend more time down there to transcend all the man-made stuff. To us as beginners, the experience was dominated by equipment: bouyancy control, watch, dive computer, air pressure gauge, depth gauge, adjusting to breathing compressed air with all the bubbles and the Darth Vader sound effects, it’s noisy down there!
Great to do the course with lots of added fun and humour from Josh and Suzee, and our patient instructor Davy. We had a slight hold-up as Dawn had a problem with her ear which kept her out of the water for a few days. Now we are officially certified Open Water Divers! To celebrate Davy took us diving from our tender at his favourite spot. It’s interesting to see how creatures respond differently to you when scuba diving. I have always found turtles to be quite timid when I’m snorkelling around them. A large turtle appeared around the reef as the three of us were just hovering above the coral, he swam by unconcerned, very close to us. I suppose a turtle that size on Bonaire has seen a few divers in his time.
(Freediving is the sport of diving without air tanks.)
In Los Roques we met a young Aussie couple who had sailed their 45′ Beneteau ‘La Vagabonde’ from Italy, not unusual round here, except that they are at least a generation younger than most yachties, and when they left they didn’t know how to sail a boat! (That’s another story, have a look at their blog: www.sailinglavagabonde.com, all very entertaining). Anyway, these two, Riley and Elayna, are both accomplished free divers and we started to chat about it. They are diving to 20m to shoot fish with spearguns. I’m impressed. I always remember the deep-end of public swimming pools in the 1970’s was 12′ 6″. That’s still my benchmark for deep! I used to struggle to get down there. I’m not great at holding my breath but I’d like to be better. Sometimes I need to scrape barnacles off a prop, dive on an anchor, retrieve something I dropped over the side, get rinsed by a big wave, all good reasons to hold your breath. Riley explains that they have been trained to ignore the body’s physical signals to surface for air, knowing that they can stay submerged far beyond the normal ‘urge to breathe’. We are intrigued, they recommend that we go on a free diving course and we’ll be able to do the same. I started timing my duck-dive descents while snorkelling. 30 secs seems about right, 40 at a push.
Strolling through Kralendijk we see a sign for a Free Diving School, run by World Record holding free diver Carlos Coste. Carlos has been free-diving since the 90’s, when it was thought that humans without scuba gear could not survive deeper than 30m. He confirms everything that Riley has told me. Most of his students start by holding their breath for 30 seconds and diving to 4m. (12’6″!) With training their breath hold is 2 minutes and they easily dive to 10m. What’s going on here? We need to find out, so we sign up for the AIDA2 Free Diving course. For Carlos, Bonaire is a free diving paradise, constant temperatures, a whole coast of sheltered flat water, great visibility and easy access to 200m depths. (Yes, free divers go down there!)
We start with theory, physiology of the respiratory system, blood oxygen and CO2 levels, pressure equalisation. Then we move on to yoga, relaxation and ‘belly breathing’ exercises.
This is really the key to free diving, putting your mind and body into a very relaxed state enables you to surpass all the boundaries you thought you were limited by. Carlos soon has me lying face down in the sea and holding a single breath for 1m 30s. I’m impressed, the day before I was pretty sure that was not possible. We keep practising relaxation, belly breathing and breath holding, gradually becoming more comfortable with higher levels of CO2 in our bodies. We also study the theory and biology of free diving and ‘The Mammalian Dive Response’ which we share with seals, dolphins and whales. This stuff is fascinating, but we are really starting to understand that breath control is mind control, these techniques are closely linked with yoga and meditation, Carlos has been practising very advanced yoga and breathing exercises for decades, he is now able to enter a mind state which allows him to achieve extraordinary feats underwater. For me it is about learning about my own mind and body, and finding we are capable of much more than we realise.
Today we were practising the classic free dive discipline of ‘constant weight’ diving. It means that you swim down to a depth and back up with only your weight belt. (As opposed to ‘Variable Weight’ dives where you can descend using a heavy weight, or holding a big rock like the Pacific pearl divers used to.)
It is beautifully simple. Mask, fins, weight belt, a smooth duck dive, and then fin vertically down with a streamlined head and body position. To help our orientation, Carlos positions a buoy behind his boat, from the buoy a weighted rope hangs down like a plumb line. There is a tape mark at 5m, a tennis ball at 12m and a bunch of dive weights at 13m. It looks like a long way down. Carlos coaches us in the techniques we need, equalising the pressure as we descend, encouraging us to go deeper and deeper with each dive. First to the tape, turn and ascend. Then to the tennis ball, and finally all the way down to the weights, hang for 5 seconds, enjoy the view and the neutral buoyancy. It is a deep blue down there with fish swimming all around. The visibility here is beautiful, from down there I looked up at the surface, shimmering so far above. The tiny silhouetted figure of Dawn floating at the buoy, waiting for her turn. I have 40 feet of water above me but I am calm and relaxed. Carlos gives the signal and I start to ascend, slowly finning to the surface. Big smiles back at the top. Then it is Dawn’s turn. She surprises us – and herself – by duck-diving and swimming 10 metres down the rope, hanging there for 5 seconds to enjoy the view and then calmly rising back to the surface. My wife has become a mermaid.
In free diving this is nothing, part of a standard training warm-up session for deeper dives. For us today it felt like a huge accomplishment, something I just did not believe I would be able to do before we arrived in Bonaire. Hey Riley, you were right!
In today’s dreaded ‘Static apnea’ test I tried to stay relaxed and hold my breath whilst floating face down in a pool. I had been trying to do this sitting on Escapade this morning without much success, struggling to do one minute. Now at the pool Carlos was there with some gentle coaching, breathing exercises and then keeping me calm as I worked through the abdominal ‘contractions’ and all the other ‘urge to breath’ triggers in my mind and body. I kept my mind empty and floated in blackness with my eyes closed, time passes, I’m in the zone. I was there for two and a half minutes! I continue to surprise myself. Then it’s into the dive boat and out to sea for more practice finning down the rope to retrieve a clip. Carlos again asks me to ‘hang’ at depth for a few seconds before ascending. If I’m relaxed these moments down there are very cool. You can enjoy the depth. During one of these five second rests about 30 feet down, a 4 ft tarpon came lazily swimming by.
My deepest dive today was 14m.
02.02.16 Last day with Carlos.
To complete the AIDA2 course I need to dive to 16m.
The course is well structured, we passed the theory exams and we have now established:
I can now hold my breath for 2mins 30secs.
I can equalise pressure as I descend.
I can swim 40 metres horizontally under water, on one breath.
So why not just swim 20m vertically down and 20m vertically back up?
And that is really the interesting part. However well you rationalise your ability to do it, your mind and body will scream at you to turn around as the pressure starts to build. So free diving is simply shutting out that mental noise and calmly swimming down. That’s it.
This time we attach the buoy to Carlos’s deep mooring and drop the rope in about 40m of deep blue water, you can’t see the bottom which is a bit spooky. He tells me there are some huge tuna down there. After some warm-ups and pull-downs Carlos notices some stress in my movement. He asks me to hang for 10 seconds at 10 metres. Easy. That seemed to put me in the zone and I go for my first ‘constant weight’ dive.
Here’s what it’s like in my head:
Relax on the surface, looking down, belly breathing through snorkel. Relax, breathe, relax.
One Deep Breath
Head down, strong fin kick, align to the rope.
Straight down, kick steadily.
Relax, down you go.
Here’s the 10m mark.
Finning vertically down, head first. Just watch the rope sliding by in front of my mask.
Oh cool look at these fish!
Starting to feel the pressure, exhale a little air into the mask
Its getting darker, relax..
Contraction in my chest, ignore it.
Now I am negatively buoyant (around 15m) I am sinking head first.
You are supposed to enjoy this ‘free fall’ section, but maybe not the first time..
Equalising is getting a bit more difficult and squeaky down here.
Here’s the tennis ball. Made it! Grab the ball and turn.
Look up, the surface is a long, long way above, enjoy the moment.
Now the easy part, start finning up
Another contraction, but I’m fine, plenty of time and I’m ascending.
Up towards the light.
Steadily finning and now accelerating back to the top.
I didn’t know at the time, but the tennis ball was at 19.7 metres, 65 feet!
3 x Atmospheric pressure.
So that’s the end of the course. Over these weeks we have had a glimpse of the world of free diving. Those few moments at the bottom of the rope still seem to defy everything I thought I knew about my own ability. Just being in the water with Carlos has been an extraordinary experience. The guy is part dolphin. If anyone is interested in trying free diving, consider a trip to Bonaire. See more at Carloscoste.com
Time to leave Bonaire
Our usual timekeeping, we came for a week and stayed for a month. But we learned a few things on Bonaire. All that studying was stimulating, old dog new tricks etc, we have a new perspective on the water below us.
My new sail and boom arrived! Many thanks to the Global Logistics department at pritchardwindsurfing.com for sorting all that out.
Time to sail away again, next stop Curacao..