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Bonaire - an island paradise?

by Mike Valentine

Reproduced from in focus 6. Mar. 1984


Supposing you had to design the perfect photographic dive site - what would your specifications include? Well, your hotel might be situated on a sandy beach, which would of course provide superb shore diving, with a reef dropping down a wall to 80 feet to an eel garden below. Other dive sites would be reached in only ten minutes by boat, providing a huge variety of fish life and corals, with visibility. over a hundred feet and water so warm that wet suits would be a thing of the past. When you got back to the jetty, your film would be processed while you planned the next dive.

All too good to be true? That's what I thought when reading the rave reviews in Skin Diver and the travel brochures. However, having just returned from Bonaire, 50 miles north of Venezuela in the Caribbean, let me tell you it's all true! For years now I have been diving in the Red Sea, and good as it is, I've been looking for an alternative site with better access (wouldn't it be nice to step off your plane and be in your hotel in five minutes, instead of five hours?), better photographic backup (sand-free E6 processing), real food to eat (instead of the usual camel), and above all, superb diving.

The reef in front of the hotel I stayed in started about twenty feet out and twenty feet down. It then dropped to one hundred feet, where there is an eel garden. Anyone who has tried to photograph these creatures will know how difficult it can be, but from behind a specially constructed screen the eels can be photographed at leisure.

What about fish life? Well, on our first dive we were greeted by Yellow-tails, Spanish Hog fish, Trumpet fish, Spotted and Green Morays, Damsels, File fish, Mutton Snappers . . . the list goes on. But it is the close-up life on the reef which makes it so outstanding. Hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms, finger sponges, purple tube sponges, arrow crabs, and flamingo tongues abound. A close-up photographers dream come true.

Remember this is just in front of the hotel, on what is aptly called 'Doorstep Reef'. What about the other dive sites? Most of them are within a five to fifteen minute boat ride away. Bonaire is about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, and roughly boomerang-shaped. The Bonaire Beach Hotel, where we stayed, is on the inside curve. This is the leeward side of the island, so most of the dive sites are quickly accessible and safe.

About a mile offshore from the hotel is a small uninhabited island called 'Klein Bonaire'. This has about 17 dive sites all around it, with all the above marine life and more (I won't bore you with a list). These sites are reached by one of three 'flat top' dive boats. Kitting up on one of these, with so much room for yourself and all your gear, is pure bliss. The boat leaves the jetty at about 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. with time in the evening for a night dive. It would be easier to forget the tables and grow gills!

Certainly from my point of view one of the most exciting facilities was the photographers dive shop inside the dive centre. Run by Dave Venslavsky, it boasts a range of equipment which seemed greater than the stock of our largest photographic outlet, and all of it could be hired at very reasonable rates. Dave also runs E6 processing, with fresh chemicals on each run. Cost of one 36-exposure film is about 08. Well worth it when you calculate the cost of returning because of duff exposures or an equipment fault. He is also equipped to service and repair your Nikonos or flash gun, even saving a flooded Nikonos IVA while we were there.

During our stay we witnessed the sinking of two ships. The first was a 230' freighter, which had been impounded by the authorities for carrying marijuana, 25,000 lbs of the stuff. This was subsequently burnt in a huge bonfire! (What a party!!!). The ship was then sunk in 80 - 100' of water, for the benefit of divers visiting the island. We dived the wreck the next day, to find it lying on its side at the bottom of a reef slope, not having damaged the reef at all. A spectacular site by any standard. It will be interesting to see the rate of coral growth over the years to come. The second wreck was sunk in front of the hotel in 70' of water. Once a small tug, it too is now on its way to becoming a man-made reef.

This trip also gave me the opportunity to put the new Nikonos flash gun, the SB102, through its paces. Using the principle of through the lens (TTL) metering with the Nikonos V, this system provides perfect exposures all of the time. Starting with a 1 : I extension tube and a standard 35 mm lens, I found that with any f-stop setting, the exposures were all the same. Switching to a 15 mm lens (no, not underwater) it was the same story, with the added facility for using flash for fill in light, or as a main source, merely by altering the aperture of the lens. Anything that makes picture taking easier must be a bonus. There are a couple of faults however, the case could be much sturdier and the 'target light' beam is far too narrow but all in all it is a major step forward in underwater flash photography.

The only thing wrong with Bonaire, which offers 360 days diving a year, is it eats all of your film!

Reproduced from in focus 6. Mar. 1984


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