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BABY DOCK (LA MACHACA)
CAPTAIN DON'S HABITAT - BONAIRE
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Linda, Mercedes, and Myron (buddies)
Captain Don's Habitat
Djarason Wednesday July 1, 1998
It's 12:30pm and I repeatedly check my watch as I sit in on a hastily arranged urgent meeting called by my department chair. Following the meeting, a peer requests, "Tell us about your trip plans, Rich." The room of 15 or so engineers is surprisingly hush as I begin a description of our vacation plans of 10 days in Bonaire, including the details of our diving preparations. Many of these guys would think such a trip a bit too far off the beaten path, and they seem interested in hearing the details. Cutting the description short, I slip out of the meeting room and head directly for the exit. I'm already logged off my computer, have my time sheet completed, and I am GONE!
At home, I grab three hours of desperately needed sleep, as I have slept barely 14 hours total in three nights. The excitement of the trip plus many important last minute work needs have created a crazy recent schedule for me. The timing could not be better for a real vacation.
There is still a bit of packing to do, then other chores related to closing up the house and throwing out perishable foods. I'm alone in the house, since Linda, Janel and John are in Evansville for a week at Grandma and Grandpa's. At Linda's suggestion, I pick up a dozen donuts and a half gallon of skim milk at the store to serve as a homecoming present for the Drays, just returning from an excursion through Washington DC and Indiana. In fact, the Dray's Scottish terrier Laddie has been my companion for the week, and I have been house-sitting at the Drays' during this period as well.
Peter Gabriel's Secret World booms out of our home theater system while I finalize my packing, and the great music and video serves to soothe my temporary anxiety. Dad has left me a voice message to call before I leave, and when we talk, he suggests that we re-vamp our plans to visit Mexico in the fall and instead visit Honolulu. An excellent idea - we will have to work on it when I return.
It's time to go, and my last chore is to stop off at Drays' house and tend to Laddie and other recurring tasks. Almost to the Dray's house, I realize I have forgotten Laddie's bed and leash - idiot! I am supposed to meet Mercedes at 7:00pm to shop at Costco, and I am running late. The round trip home costs me 15 minutes, and I rush around at the Drays so as not to be even tardier. Taking off down the freeway, I make it almost to McClintock Drive before realizing I've forgotten to leave the donuts and milk for the Drays - IDIOT! I guess they will just have to accompany us to Bonaire.
At the Johnsons', Mercedes is pulling out of the driveway when I arrive nearly 40 minutes late. We head off to Costco and pick up provisions for our stay on the island - two boxes of frozen fillet mignons wrapped with bacon, a 24-piece bag of frozen skinless boneless chicken thighs, and a package of 48 hot dogs. Mercedes makes a fruitless attempt to lay claim to all 48 hot dogs, which we plan to feed to fish while diving. We visit Safeway and then Bashas to locate 5 lb of dry ice, and pack all this stuff into a 48-quart cooler, to be included in our checked baggage.
Following an hour wait at the Johnsons' house, a good friend of Mercedes' arrives around 10:00pm to take us to the airport. We have plenty of luggage - the usual stuff plus all our scuba gear and the cooler. We are slated to leave on United flight 634 Phoenix to Chicago at 11:45PM. It would seem that only a lunatic would get on a plane going east at this hour, but this unlikely departure time saves a lot of money and still permits all later connections. For me, it turns out to be a rather costly plan.
As we wait at Sky Harbor, Mercedes and I both agree that the memory is the second thing to go.
Surprisingly, the plane is completely full. Mercedes is asleep before the plane takes off, and she later indicates that she never felt the plane ascend. I'm pleased to see a small child sitting behind me, but when I attempt to recline my chair I find it locked in the upright position. As a result, sleeping is very difficult.
Djaweps Thursday, July 2, 1998
We arrive in Chicago at 4:52AM, and we sit in the gate area to watch the sun slowly rise and O'Hare come to life. At 6:00 AM, a McDonald's opens up, and we enjoy coffee and McMuffins. Still, I feel hungover from a serious lack of sleep, in spite of my afternoon nap. Given our many connections and differing routes, I propose that the odds that Mercedes and me and Linda and Myron and all our respective stuff will arrive on schedule in Bonaire are very low. I suppose this is part of my usual pessimistic-optimist outlook. Mercedes tells me to be more positive and so we bet 25¢.
We board United 1796 at 7:50AM, and while boarding there is a woman on board trying to stuff a ridiculously oversized carry-on into the overhead bin. She is mindlessly and repeatedly pushing on it from underneath. I help her out at length, eventually tucking, folding, and cramming the beast into the bin. She then simply turns around and sits in her seat - I am rather amazed at her lack of any simple expression of appreciation. When we land in Miami some 3 hours later, I watch with interest as the scene repeats itself in reverse, with a different samaritan but an identical outcome.
Down in Miami, Linda strolls up to greet us not 20 feet from the gate! She looks well rested from a layover evening at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel in Miami. We have a short wait in the airport, and we are a bit confused with the check-in procedures for ALM airlines, who code-shares with United. ALM (Antillean Airlines) serves a number of Caribbean islands and is the only airline that flies to Bonaire. ALM holds the rather notorious reputation by Internet posters for frequent flight delays, frequent baggage losses, and indifferent service attitude. We find our interactions with ALM clerks are pleasant, however. In the end, the three of us board code-share United 4574 (an ALM painted DC-9) to Curaçao at 1:00PM. With a grin, I notice the ungrateful lady with the oversized bag has boarded the same plane.
During the flight, we laugh at a Dutch sign on the seat in front of us that reads:
"Schwimmweste vorne unter dem sitz"
Maybe understanding Dutch will not be so hard after all. Our first stop outside the United States is at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. From the low approach altitudes, the country appears unbelievably poor. Almost half the structures have no roofs, and there are extremely dense concentrations of crude shanties in many areas. On the ground, we hear a calypso band (including bass, rhythm, and saxophone) playing a welcoming tune at the gate, but unfortunately we are not permitted to leave the plane to check it out. A number of passengers do deplane, however, and we smile as a few lose their hats in the strong winds across the tarmac and go running after them. The unappreciative woman departs with them. Through very limited observation, I am left with a perception of the typical Haitian as a bit rude and self-centered. This also has been termed a "sullen hostility" towards the comparatively wealthy tourist, and may have roots in the tragic recent history and poverty of Haiti as a nation.
Another hour of flight takes us to Curaçao. We note that it's hot and humid but with a nice breeze (~85°F and 75%RH) on our outside walk to the gate area. We meet up with Myron immediately! Myron has flown to Curaçao through Dallas and Miami via American airlines in order to use some frequent flyer miles, and has been in the airport for about 2½ hours. We all get boarding passes for the plane to Bonaire - working with ALM has been successful and efficient so far. The Curaçao airport is the hub of ALM and also a primary destination for KLM airlines from Amsterdam. There are quite a few Dutch tourists milling around the gates and shops, and much of the merchandise is from the Netherlands, too.
Our flight to Bonaire (ALM 824, a Dash-8 prop job) is very short, about 15 minutes. From our approach, the island appears to be largely barren desert with a healthy population of some sort of saguaro-like cousin. The waters around the island are a fantastically lush turquoise that fades rapidly into deep blue.
Bon bini! Down on Bonaire, we all receive a showy Flamingo Airport stamp in our passports and proceed easily through immigration. At customs, we are quite pleased to then find that every piece of our luggage has made it to the island without delay. Incredible! I owe Mercedes 25¢! A customs inspector wants to know what we've got in the cooler, but otherwise we proceed through without event.
Outside it is drizzling. The few passengers quickly disperse and we are left standing nearly alone on the airport curb. There is a single abandoned taxi sitting in the departure lane. We ask a passing airport worker about the taxi, and we are informed that its driver is over in Curaçao. Eventually, though, a second taxi driver pulls up in a small SUV and begins helping to load our parcels in the back.
We have opted to stay at Captain Don's Habitat for our first four days. An abridged story of Captain Don Stewart would include his pioneer scuba diving expeditions carried out in the 1960's, and his establishment of strict reef protection rules and a marine reserve park around Bonaire. He is credited with "starting it all" with respect to the recreational sport of Bonaire scuba diving and holds near-legend status on the island, where he still lives.
The Habitat office pays for our taxi transfer and begins our check-in procedure. We meet a very friendly and talkative gentleman guest from Philadelphia and learn that he has brought his two teenage children divers to Bonaire. We receive our diver numbers and then keys to Room 22. We have rented a two bedroom kitchenette cottage that is situated in a very nice forest garden setting a few steps from the beach. Along the path to our cottage stands the mast to Captain Don's boat, the Valerie Queen. It is still raining as a bellhop delivers our luggage on a cart and we begin a settling-in process. The cottage is equipped with a small refrigerator/freezer that is already cold, a small table, a gas stove, a very spartan collection of kitchen cooking implements, and exactly 4 place settings. There are two bedrooms each equipped with an air conditioner and queen bed, and not too much remaining floor space. In the rear bedroom, there is a small lockbox mounted inside the closet for valuables. We will share a central bathroom and shower. In the living area, there is a clock radio, and we find several snappy Venezuelan stations to enhance the mood.
Linda and Myron flip a coin to determine room selection, and Linda wins. There is really no criteria to base a decision, and we select the rear room and begin unloading our gear. We are glad to see that all our frozen foods have arrived still solid and in good condition, although it is a chore to stuff them all into the tiny freezer, especially the frozen chicken thighs.
Mercedes and I have been on the road now for about 24 hours straight, and we are both tired and hungry. The four of us make our way back up the path towards the Habitat restaurant, but stop at a wooden station with lettering all over it. We soon decipher the dive boat schedules and quickly sign up for 2 boat dives tomorrow, one at 11AM and another at 1:30PM, using our new diver numbers. We then proceed in to the Habitat's "RumRunner" Restaurant. It is Thursday night, Tex-Mex night at RumRunner's, and an impressive-looking buffet lines one wall of the outdoor enclosure. The buffet is $20pp and we use our complimentary tickets for a well deserved round of rum drinks. The dinner is palatable, with the seasoned seafood mix probably the best offering.
The atmosphere is lightly breezy and humid as the rains slow to a drip. We catch nighttime glimpses of the gorgeous waters in front of us, even the outline of a parrotfish or two snooping in the shallows. It makes us eager for the morning to arrive and for our diving adventures to begin. After months of preparation, our travels have taken us on a varied and circuitous route of almost 4,000 miles, finally to the wonderful and magical tropical island of Bonaire.
Djabierne Friday, July 3, 1998
Morning arrives much too soon for me - I am still beat. We find that our bedroom air conditioner has created comfortable "meat locker" conditions in our room, but that Myron and Mercedes have suffered throughout the night in heat and humidity. Myron further fiddles with the A/C unit, however, and eventually gets the compressor to kick on. Perhaps the coin-toss selection of our room was significant afterall. We then hit the complimentary breakfast buffet at RumRunner's. An uninspired but acceptable fare of coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and fruit is served. Mercedes opts for a bowl of sweet granola and yogurt, "European"-style, but finds the yogurt rather disagreeable. At 9:00AM we assemble at the Deco Stop Bar for a required briefing about the Bonaire Marine Reserve and Captain Don's Habitat operations. A divemaster named Jost discusses the strict reef preservation rules practiced on Bonaire, including the disallowance of chemical light sticks (often end up as underwater garbage) and diving gloves (overly encourages divers to touch fragile corals, etc.)
Habitat diving operations are beautifully simple - dozens of tanks are always filled and available outside the dive shop 24 hours a day. Just pick one up and go - there is virtually an unlimited supply of tanks! The Habitat staff assumes that you have arrived as a responsible diver, and they make no pretense to babysit or coach any diving activity unless requested. The dive boats typically leave the dock at 8AM, 10AM, 1:30PM, and 3:30PM daily, with the site selection made on the previous day by diver request. Once our PADI "C" (certification) cards are presented, we each pay $10 for an admission token to the Marine Reserve, good for one year. The token is attached to each of our BC's.
We have already paid for 6 boat dives as a package deal including our air travel, so we're glad we've signed up to use two boat dives today. However, it is a normal precaution to conduct a shallow water check-out dive after traveling, and so we quickly return to our cottage and gather up our dive equipment. By 10AM, we are all suited up on the Habitat dock. Linda and I are reasonably fast at suiting up since we have been practicing beside our pool for the past few weeks, while Myron and Mercedes are old pros.
Linda and I have purchased new diving equipment aimed at this trip, due to our growing interest in diving and to our reluctance with the idea of renting equipment for 10 whole days here in Bonaire. In addition to our previously owned personal gear (mask, fins, booties, and snorkel), we have brought with us:
We are using weight and air tanks supplied by the Habitat dive shop, which are included in the dive package. As accessories, we've each brought a primary and back-up dive light. The computers are great for Bonaire diving since they give nitrogen absorption "credit" for multi-level dive profiles, allowing longer no-decompression dive durations.
As a checkout dive, we do a "giant stride" entry off the dock and then a simple out and back to the reef slope, about 14 minutes total. The official name for this dive site is "La Machaca," slightly to the south, or "Reef Scientifico" slightly to the north, but we immediately start referring to it simply as "Baby Dock." All our gear is in good working order, and it is good for Linda and me to acquaint ourselves with the new gear one more time before diving in the slightly more "public" setting aboard a dive boat. Linda and I are both wearing only Lycra skins, and the water is a pleasant 80 to 81°F on the surface. The brief dive gives us a tiny glimpse of the sites to come: great marine vitality and great visibility.
Mares Avanti Quattro (new!)
U S Divers Matrix
80 ft3 Al
SeaQuest Spectrum 4
Body of Water:
U S Divers