Image: Turtle at Karpata dive site, Photo by Richard Bilow
Scientific analysis shows that the future of our planet depends on the health of our oceans. Global climate change, warming oceans, and bleaching of our coral reefs are just a few of the harsh realities that our oceans are struggling to cope with. Careless development and unsustainable fishing practices are also stressing our oceans to the point of no return.
What started out as a trip to rejuvenate from a stress-filled life of deadlines soon turned into an awe-inspiring educational awakening. It all began when I decided that I needed a break to re-charge and disconnect from my busy lifestyle in LA. A trip to Bonaire in the Dutch Caribbean was an obvious choice. Bonaire is widely known as one of the world’s best and easiest places to dive, so it was an appropriate place for me to return to diving…after some ten years away from one of my favorite activities.
The trip inspired me to write several articles – one for PADI about my underwater adventure, and one more for Arianna Huffington’s new website, THRIVE GLOBAL. The artice touts the benefits of un-plugging and re-connecting with one’s inner peace. See my article titled Running Away Never Felt So Good!!
Image: File fish on the Buddy house reef; Photo by Richard Bilow
Since 2010, the population of the island has been growing rapidly, and local entrepreneurs have responded by introducing new fine dining and luxury lodging options to this tranquil island. With so much to see and do, we grabbed our bags and quickly headed over to the Budget Car Rental, located right on the airport premises. A pickup truck is the way to go for divers, and Budget had just what we needed.
I decided to stay at Buddy Dive Resort, which hosts a mandatory lecture each week for all divers intending to explore the coral reefs. Here, I learned about the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) via Augusto Montbrun, manager of Buddy Dive operations, and Laura Summers, dive master/instructor. CRF is an important and increasingly effective nonprofit organization which helps to develop other nonprofits such as Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire. CRF Bonaire works to restore the reefs around this specific island.
The next day, Summers led us on a preliminary dive at the house reef right off the Buddy Dive dock as part of our refresher course. Later in the afternoon, we were taken by boat for an amazing dive at Klein Bonaire, a small uninhabited island just across the water from the resort.
Image: Coral diversity at Klein Bonaire dive site; Photo by Richard Bilow
Richard Bilow, a professional underwater filmmaker/artist (and my travel companion) raved about this particular dive site. It was perfectly suited for his needs. Bilow is producing an underwater video installation using 4K footage designed to make viewers feel like they are one with the sea. “Bonaire is one of my favorite destinations for underwater photography,” explained Bilow, “because the island is filled with easily accessible dive sites and you can dive almost every site from shore. When Laura took us to Klein Bonaire, I was so blown away by the shallow zone we swam through on our way back to the boat, that I had to change my production plans.”
Summers comes from a family of divers and has worked around the world in the dive industry. In addition to working as a Buddy Dive instructor, she also volunteers for Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire. She is the project leader for the Buddy Dive team and oversees Buddy Dive’s nursery of twenty-three coral “trees” as well as the restoration sites. She also coordinates daily Coral Restoration activities for the staff at Buddy Dive. “I love being involved in an environmental project where you can see that it is working right before your eyes,” explained Summers. “To plant a coral and watch it grow into a habitat over time is so inspiring and gives me hope for the future of our oceans.”
There are a total of five nurseries around the island, and several dive shops share the responsibilities related to their management and care. Volunteers with CRF Bonaire include the staff of Harbour Village, Wanna Dive, and Gooodive, among others.
Image: Photo courtesy of CRF
Discovering the work of CRF was fascinating and unexpected. I wanted to know more about the organization, so I reached out to Ken Nedimyer, founder and president of the original nonprofit and flagship company, Coral Reef Foundation. Nedimyer was living and diving in the Florida Keys when he saw the reefs dying and wanted to do something about it. What started out as helping his daughters with their 4-H project evolved into the idea of growing and replanting enough corals to actually turn the clock back and restore coral reefs. “To do this, I knew I was going to need help, so I decided the non-profit model would be the best way to achieve this vision. In founding CRF, I wanted to create a company that could develop effective and efficient ways to restore corals reefs and then train others to do the same thing throughout the world.”
Nedimyer has seen his dream come to fruition while helping other CRF organizations set up in locations such as Curacao, Mustique, Colombia, etc. He cited CRF Bonaire as an incredible example and acknowledged the team at Buddy Dive for all its hard work. “I like to say that what we are doing at CRF is ‘selling hope and buying time.'” He went on to say that in addition to needing funding to continue supporting CRF’s ongoing work and to expand into new areas, qualified people are also needed to get involved in the process and help continue building a strong international network of self-sustaining, independent businesses, focused on coral reef restoration like CRF Bonaire.
Image: Photo courtesy of CRF
There are currently over 9,000 corals included in Bonaire’s nursery project – all in various stages of growth. Over 8,000 corals to date have been transplanted to the reef. Summers gave us an underwater tour of the Buddy Dive nursery. It was quite inspiring to witness the growth of the corals and see the restoration first hand.
Project Coordinator Francesca Virdis has worked for Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire since it started in 2012 and was involved in the initial nursery set-up. She has been diving for over twenty-five years. “Diving in a restoration site, swarming with colorful fish seeking shelter in the thriving branches of the growing corals, is something that will make everyone happy.”
Image: Elkhorn coral, one of the two types of coral being grown by CRF Bonaire, Photo by Richard Bilow
Summers and Virdis both agreed that they love working with CRF Bonaire. Summers added, “I take incredible pride in my work with the corals, but I am most proud of my students who show up just to give back. I just hope that we can impact enough people so that one day we won’t have the need to restore.”
The public can help CRF Bonaire by donating directly or they can adopt a single coral for $50, a tree for $500, or a coral thicket for $1000. See bottom of this article for websites.
In addition to boat diving and the exceptional diving at the resort, one can head to popular dive sites on the north end of the island such as Karpata,1000 Steps, and Oil Slick Leap. On the south end, some favorite dive sites include: Hilma Hooker, Tori’s Reef, and Margate Bay. There are over sixty easy-to-reach dive sites and nearly every spot holds potential for a diver to see the wide variety of sea life found in this part of the world. I personally prefer boat dives, and Rock Pile off the south side of Klein Bonaire was one of my favorites.
Image: A school of goat fish at Buddy House Reef; Photo by Richard Bilow
One afternoon, we went for a couple of shore dives with VIP Diving, a top-notch dive business with a highly personalized approach to customer service. Founded in 2009, VIP Diving was created by dive master and professional guide Bas Noij who moved to Bonaire in 2006. An avid traveler, he and his wife fell in love with the island and decided to make it their home. “We chose Bonaire because of the relaxed pace of life, good weather year round, and fantastic nature.” Noij is currently on the board of BONHATA (Bonaire Hotel and Tourism Association) and STINAPA (National Park Foundation).
We had a great time diving with our VIP guide – Jossue De Palm, a young dive master who has been diving since he was sixteen. Jossue drove us up north for some fantastic shore diving, helped us manage all our gear, and then took us for lunch at Posada Para Mira. We enjoyed fresh Wahoo and Cod with plantains and rice. Iguana soup was available, although I did not partake. Then it was back to another fantastic dive site called Tolo, where we started a slow drift north to our exit at Karpata.
Image: Trumpet Fish at Buddy House Reef, Photo by Richard Bilow
If you are looking for a great diving destination with gentle currents, clear water, and lots of sea life, Bonaire should be at the top of your list. It’s a perfect choice for novice divers to perfect their skills, while experienced scuba enthusiasts come back year after year and leave the island with beautiful photographs to share with family and friends. Those who love the freedom and simplicity of snorkeling also return to the island year after year to marvel at the sea life.