UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP WITH MARK WEBSTER
BONAIRE'S DIVING FREEDOM
Underwater photographers are quite a fussy species and we need very particular conditions and opportunities to bring out the best in us. The most crucial elements in the equation is where and how we dive as the correct combination produces relaxation and productivity, whilst the wrong mix will lead to stress and disappointment. Bonaire is a location which suits our needs perfectly.
Bonaire is one of the three islands that make up the Dutch Leeward group of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, often called the ABC islands. They lie right at the southern end of the Caribbean sea between 50-70 miles from the coast of Venezuela which places them outside the seasonal hurricane belt which can plague the islands further north. Bonaire itself is a boomerang shaped island lying roughly north to south and only 24 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest point. This orientation puts the island directly across the path of the trade winds from the east and so provides a year round lee shore on the western side. Mid way down the island nestled only a mile or so from this lee shore is the tiny uninhabited island of Klien Bonaire. The coral reefs on the western edge of the main island are never more than 15-30m from the shore and Klien Bonaire is only a short run by boat. The entire coast and neighbouring island are a protected marine park and you can choose to dive easily from the beach or from a variety of purpose designed boats operated by the diving centre.
From a photographers viewpoint perhaps the most important feature is that most of the diving centres operate a policy called ‘diving freedom’. This means that for beach diving you can literally collect a tank at any time of day or night and step off the beach at the diving centre. Alternatively you can use your hire car and choose any one of the numerous beach dive sites along the coast. Each dive centre requires you to attend a Marine Park briefing before you start, where they may recommend buddy diving, but the choice is most definitely yours and you will not be hassled by horrified dive guides. Boat diving presents few problems either. If you are part of a mixed group then the dive master will lead the ‘normal’ divers on a tour of the site and leave you to dive with your fellow photographers – in short they seem to understand us!
The marine park was established before the expansion of diver traffic and therefore has managed to preserve the reefs from some of the damaging practices which have plagued other parts of the Caribbean. The hard and soft corals are lush and healthy and fish life profuse. A ban on fishing means that most fish are inquisitive rather than wary which is very encouraging if you are a photographer. Beach diving is particularly attractive as you can often have the site to yourself and also have the freedom to dive a site repetitively to pursue a particular subject. All the dive sites have a mooring buoy for the dive boats and all the operators observe a one boat per site policy, which means that sites are never crowded and you will not see the long strings of dive boats which some Red Sea locations are now famed for.
In addition to the reef dives there is a intentionally sunk wreck (the Hilma Hooker), which is slowly being colonised by the reef species, and two pier dives, one at the Town Pier in the centre of the capital Kralendijk and the other at the salt loading pier in the south of the island. Boat traffic rarely precludes diving at the piers and they are both stuffed full of macro life and Salt Pier in particular attracts large schools of fish. Bonaire is often advertised as the macro capital of the Caribbean and, whilst some may dispute that claim, the reefs certainly do have innumerable subjects to keep you busy with exotics like sea horses and frog fish to keep you looking hard.
Although the majority of the island's tourist industry is dedicated to the visiting diver, there are other attractions by day and night if the diving becomes too much for you. However, don't expect a cosmopolitan night life here, although there is a night club and casino in the capital entertainment is largely relaxed and low key. There are a wide variety of restaurants to choose from - fast food to sea food - and it is fun to sample the different styles of cuisine on offer. The capital of Kralendijk is the size of a small seaside town in the UK, but definitely has the imprint of Dutch colonialism on it particularly in its brightly coloured architecture. There is a range of shops from supermarkets to high chic boutiques, but most of the shops are geared to the tourist souvenir market aimed towards American tastes.
If the pace of the diving becomes wearing, or you extend your stay, then take the opportunity to investigate a little of Bonaire's other attractions. There are two other nature sanctuaries to explore on Bonaire, the Washington-Slagbaai National Park at the northern end and the flamingo reserve at the southern end. In fact the bird population is very varied and prodigious and, surprisingly to divers, some tourists visit only with bird watching in mind! The northern end of the island is surprisingly rugged and hilly with lush vegetation and hides a number of secluded beaches and coves ideal for a lazy picnic watching the island's flamingos and crash diving pelicans grabbing their lunch. At the southern end of the island you will find the salt pans, which is what attracts the flamingos to the breeding sanctuary, and evidence of the history of the island's use of slave labour to harvest the salt. Tiny slave workers huts, which dot the coastline, are a harsh reminder of the common use of slaves throughout the Caribbean.
KLM now fly direct from Amsterdam on a daily basis which makes the journey very simple from the UK.
Bonaire will measure up to most photographer’s requirements and there are a host of species here to keep you more than busy for a week or two. Successful photographic trips are all down to the planning, flexibility on location and the opportunity to dive when you wish and Bonaire will easily accommodate most of this.
For further details please contact Oonasdivers on:
+44 (0)1323 648924
or visit their website atwww.oonasdivers.com
Information:Currency: Local currency is the NAF - Netherlands Antilles Guilder - but US dollars are accepted everywhere as are all major credit cards. You can also draw cash from a number of ATM’s and banks.
Language: The official language is Dutch but most locals peak Papiamento, a mixture of several colonial languages. Most locals also speak English well.
Voltage: 110-120v 50hz is standard, but can surge. Bring a transformer to boost and smooth the current to 240v or charge batteries at the dive centre.
Water: All tap water on the island is produced by a desalination plant just north of Kralendijk. The quality is excellent and can be drunk from the tap without a worry.
Medical: The main well equipped hospital is St. Francis Hospital. There are also local doctors and medical centres.
Recompression: A recompression chamber is situated at St. Francis Hospital.
Climate: Truly tropical. Temperature a steady 80-85° with a constant trade wind from the east which get somewhat stronger during July and August. Rainfall is 10-15" per year in short showers generally in the winter months.
Water Temperature: Between 78-84°, warm enough for a shorty or dive skin if you swim about during your dives. For photographers I recommend a 3-5mm wet suit. Visibility is normally around 30m.
Tourism Corporation of Bonaire –www.infobonaire.com
Oonadivers - Tel. 01323 648924www.oonasdivers.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography on Bonaire's reefs
Three Band Butterfly fish