Back Row, Allan Greer, Bill Wayman., Carol Kender, Max Mueller; Front Row Leesa Weisner and Jill Greer
DIVING IN BONAIRE, NETHERLANDS ANTILLIES SEPTEMBER 2017 WITH AQUARIUS
I first went to Bonaire sometime in the early 1980’s. By that time shore diving from Jeep style vehicles was well established. Over the years I have led many groups to this small Caribbean island just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Bonaire is one of the islands that compose the Netherland Antilles, which are governed by the Netherlands. The islands consist of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao; Saint Eustatius, and Saba. There is diving offered at all of the Netherlands Antilles locations but Bonaire holds the distinction of being one of the oldest marine parks in the Caribbean. In the mid 1970’s Captain Don Stewart came ashore (not like the ancient explorers, but as the captain of a slightly decrepit sailing boat he had acquired while living in California). According to a biography written in the now closed website, thescuttlefish.com, the boat was on its last legs when he and a small crew arrived on the island. Capt. Don liked the island and immediately realized its potential for the fairly new industry of scuba diving. He apparently gave up his love of sailing to pursue scuba diving and in 1976, founded Captain Don’s Habitat. At first shore diving was the rule of the day. Capt. Don had several Jeep style vehicles in which he gathered his customers and drove them to sites around the island. Soon Capt. Don recognized the uniqueness of the islands marine life and pushed for environmental protection, being instrumental in founding the marine park that now surrounds the entire island.
Captain Don Stewart and Capt. Don’s Habitat have been in the forefront of environmentally sound developments on the island of Bonaire. His vision is also reflected in the design of the resort. From the low impact construction methods, to the use of solar water heaters and energy saving devices, as well as a state of the art wastewater treatment system, every detail has been designed to have the least possible impact on the local environment. The rooms and facilities are nestled in lush landscaping carefully designed to eliminate harmful runoff into the fragile marine eco-system thriving right in front of Captain Don's Habitat. Walking through the resort, one can truly appreciate a broad spectrum of the flora and fauna of Bonaire.
Our eight day stay at Capt. Don’s Habitat included their legendary unlimited shore diving and 10 boat dives. Because our trip leader, Leesa Wiesner, had two open water students, two advanced open water students and one divemaster candidate, our first day of diving was from Habitat’s front porch. It was also my first time in salt water in nearly ten years and the first time I have dove without my beloved compact steel 80 tank (with this tank I need zero additional weights). I will be the first to admit that getting used to using weights in my BC was a real challenge. But by the time it came for our first boat dives on day two I was ready.
At Capt. Don’s there are three schedules boat dive departures a day. The 8:30 am which is usually a deep dive, and the 11am and 2 pm departures. Divers with boat diving packages can sign up for any one of these dives, provided there is room on the boat. The operation offers Nitrox for those certified as well as a choice of 80 and 63 cubic foot tanks. I also saw a few 50’s in the supply. A diver is assigned a dive number (mine was 2005). He/she puts her number in a box with the departure time along with the size tank (if other than 80) and N for Nitrox. The crew will have your selected tank on board the designated boat.
Day two, and our first boat dives, include a site Mi Dushi, which was a nice, moderate wall complete with fish (of course) a couple morays, and two octopus. The depth was 55 feet for 27 minutes. On the second dive at Windsock we had a shallow reef with more hard and soft corals and sponges and anemones. And I should mention the Christmas tree or feather worms which were on every dive. These boring worms live in the corals and extend their gills out of their bodies. The gills are colorful and frequently resemble Christmas trees. What I found unusual about these creatures is that they did not react to divers like others I have encountered in other sites. By this I mean they rarely retracted the gills in the presence of a diver.
The second dive was Windsock (so named because the windsock at the airport was visible). I liked this shallow reef a lot. There were stoplight parrot fish, grey angels, sergeant majors and lots of wrasse. My buddy, grandson Max Mueller and I had a 39 foot dive for 45 minutes. He took off once like a speed demon once (I thought he had lost something, but it was our other buddy Tom Hay waving him over to see a really nice squid.) Max was using his uncle Al’s (my son) special issue Force Fins, given to Al personally by Bob Evans the inventor of Force Fins. I was super impressed with how well they performed in the water and at that point was wishing I had packed my Force Fins rather than a pair of TUSA fins that worked well in fresh water when I was wearing a heavy boot, but kept slipping off of my warm water boots. Live and learn. Next time I will know better.
Day Three I only did one dive at a site called Keepsake. This is on Klein Bonaire and was very nice. The depth was 72 feet for 39 minutes.
On day five we dove a site called Oil Slick. Now, I know that drift diving if frowned upon in Bonaire but this site should have been one. In fact when the late Jack Chalk ran Capt. Don’s he took a group of dive store owners (myself included) on a drift dive that started here and ended up on Capt. Don’s Front Porch. The site is beautiful but swimming against the current was a challenge. Nevertheless our dive was 56 feet for 50 minutes.
Day six, which was my last day of diving we chose two sites. The 11 am boat went to Sampler (48 feet for 59 minutes) and the 2 pm boat to Andrea II (48 feet for 59 minutes). They were both very nice and at Andrea II I saw the first frog fish of the trip. Others in our group did more short dives and Max did a few morning boat dives where he joined divers from other parts of the states.
On Saturday, some of our group did shore diving in the morning. In the afternoon we drove around the island, including down the beach so we could take Leesa Weisner’s picture with her Aquarius Rock, marking one of the many Bonaire shore diving sites.
Early Sunday, I mean very early like 4 am early, we were up and about and gathering at the hotel office for the shuttle to the airport. Goodbyes are hard but this one was especially so because we had such a great time and met some really good friends.
The morning dive on day four brought us to a site that I was looking forward to seeing again – the Hilma Hooker.
The Hilma Hooker is a 236-foot Dutch freighter built in Krimpen aan den IJssel, the Netherlands. It was originally christened the Midsland on May 20, 1951. How it ended up in Bonaire is somewhat of a mystery.
A number of years ago, on a trip to Bonaire I met up with Bruce Bonker. Bruce runs a small boutique hotel and dive operation called Carib Inn. Like other Bonaire dive operators he offers shore diving and boat diving. Bruce was somewhat instrumental in getting this former drug smuggling boat that started life as a legitimate freighter sunk as a dive site. The ship was abandoned in the harbor when the crew saw the handwriting on the false bulkhead that concealed the contraband and jumped ship. After languishing in the harbor for some time with no maintenance the ship was towed to deeper water where on September 12, 1984 it began taking on water. At 9:08 am she rolled over on her starboard side and slipped beneath the surface. As Bruce relates, there were few people on hand for the sinking because “it was not legally intended that the ship should sink.”
But sink it did — and with enough pre-planning that claiming the Hooker was a natural wreck seems a little inaccurate, but calling it purpose-sunk stretches the truth just as far.
The location of the wreck was essentially hand-picked for scuba divers; it’s within swimming distance of shore, nestled between two coral reefs and within recreational limits. When the ship sank, there was little fuel or oil in its tanks to pollute the surrounding water — fortuitous coincidence or a foresighted conspiracy? Rumor suggests that the pumps that kept the leaky ship afloat didn’t malfunction, but were deliberately sabotaged by impatient divers. Also, for those who are curious all the contraband had long ago been removed.
At Bruce’s suggestion, I had dove the Hilma Hooker sometime in 1985. I had dove on it several times after that, but not for more than 12 years so I was anxious to see how the old girl was holding up. The answer was very well. The wreck has attracted a nice variety of fish (but not much coral which I thought strange based on my experience with other Caribbean and South Pacific wrecks). And it is still somewhat intact. Max and my dive was 74 feet for 30 minutes.