Monday, August 13, 2007

Fun Times with Guests

Sean and Sarah flew down to Curacao before Scott and I and opened up the boat. We stayed several days at the Seru Boca marina waiting for a weather window to sail upwind to Bonaire. We rented a car and drove around the island to several beaches, swimming and snorkeling - and of course, eating out! Once in Bonaire, besides the PADI course, we spent a day at the windsurfing Sorobon beach in Lac Bay. This was a first time for Sarah and she did very well.

That's her on the right while Sean looks on. Sean had done it only a little before but he really took off this time. Sarah celebrated her birthday during our visit. In the afternoon we played bridge at a friend's apartment and Honoree made a birthday watermelon boat as a centerpiece. We had a birthday cake for dessert. That night Sean cooked a special meal on the boat.
Brent and Wilma flew into Curacao the day Sean and Sarah left. We toured Williamsted and stayed both at the Seru Boca Marina and at anchor nearby. Later in Bonaire Brent and Wilma went horse back riding one day. The trip took them to the mangrove forest, the salt pans and swimming with the horses in the ocean.
Wilma too had a birthday with us. We stretched the celebrating over several days, having her cake and dinner on the boat at Klein Curacao and a great night out in Bonaire later. During our visit to Williamstad in Curacao we had a terrific time at the Kura Hulanda museum and hotel. The museum covers the history of Africa, the chronicles of the slave trade and then follows the people brought as slaves through their history in the Caribbean and north America up to the Second World War.

It is very comprehensive and contains the best African artefact collection of the Caribbean. Instead of a single musuem building the collection is spread over a group of restored houses and sculptures in gardens and patios. After spending hours visiting there we adjourned to the nearby hotel patio for cold drinks and luckily found a dance performance by a local dance group, "The Golden Dancers".
They started with native folk dances and those of the many cultures that influenced the island, then demonstrated South American and Caribbean dance styles, and ended with hip hop. During the performanced they took a break and brought four members of the audience up for a "dance contest" - Brent and Heather were two of them. You can see us trying hard on the right.

Washington Slagbaai National Park, Bonaire

Created in 1969 after Julio Herrara sold, on his death, his plantation to the government with the provision that it be preserved as a park. A second nearby plantation was added at a later date and the park covers a large portion of the western island (5643 hectares). There is an excellent small museum at the entrance which tells of plantation life and the history of Bonaire. Exhibits show elements of the work and structures there when it was a working farm. We saw several very large Iguanas, goats, and birds. One picture above shows a goat skull on one of the many cactus fences and the other a closeup of a curious iguana. The beaches in the park are an important nesting ground for all four species of sea turtles found in the Caribbean.
We went with Brent and Wilma (below left) fairly early in the morning and took the long route along the shore, stopping at all the attractions; lovely beaches (one really charming small one which is also a dive site is below) and rocky inlets, most of which are snorkeling and/or dive sites, the old lighthouse at Malmok, and remains of a salt packing factory at the original harbor on Bonaire. This last structure is being beautifuly restored and will be available as a camping overnight rental soon. One of our favorite stops was Suplado, two roaring blow holes. There is normally a hiking trail to the top of Subi Brandaris, the highest point on the island at 784 ft., but it was closed due to recent rain rendering the trails too muddy and slippery.

Several of the salt ponds had flocks of pink flamingos in them but it was hard to get close enough to photograph them. Bonaire is one of the prime flamingo nesting sites in the Caribbean and there are a number of sanctuaries around the island. They love the heavily salted pans thick with baby shrimp. It was a cloudy and intermitently rainy morning but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm. It was a lot cooler for walking! The roads in the park were pretty puddle strewn too and very rocky: we didn't travel very fast. All together we spent about 4 hours in the park. If the weather had been nicer we would have brought a picnic lunch and spent time at the beach, swimming and snorkeling. Oh well, another time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

PADI Open Water Certification

Scott had done his certification in Carriacou last fall but when I checked one of the medical questions on the initial form "yes", they couldn't include me in the course without a signed letter from my doctor. I do take blood pressure medecine but it is under control. I saw my doctor when I returned to the States for the holidays and he encouraged me to dive. This spring I signed up for the course in Bonaire with my son Sean and his friend Sarah (here shown in the back of the pickup we rented for a few days).

The course takes on the average five days, although all of us completed it in four days, and our instructor said some people take much longer. It's an intensive four days. Before we arrived they suggested we complete the first three or four chapters in the book. We started two days in advance and I wish I'd begun earlier. There is a lot of material, self correcting quizzes throughout the chapters and a test at the end of each that our instructor corrected in class.
We took the course at the Carib Inn with Ralf Klug, a Dutch man who moved to Bonaire a number of years ago and is now a resident. He had a good sense of humour and carefully watched out for our welfare. Numerous drills and practices are necessary to really learn to safely dive and to instinctually handle any emergency. He watched us for signs of panic and happily didn't see any. The course alternates classroom sessions where we read, watched video instruction and discussed the material, with practical sessions in the water. The first day we used the fresh water pool, the second day the ocean off the beach and the last two days we dove at different locations off the boat, two dives a day. This picture shows me in my full diving regalia almost ready to fall backwards off the boat into the water.
Self corrected tests check for understanding throughout the course. A more comprehensive quiz follows each of the five chapters and is corrected in class. If anyone gets a question wrong Ralf went over the material until it was understood. Near the end of the program we took a final exam with 50 questions, a 75% score is necessary to pass. We all did very well on this and I believe that it would be impossible not to pass if you went through this process.

We started at 8:15AM in the morning, had a one and one half hour lunch break, and ended around 4:30PM. If you don't do all the chapters ahead of time, there's home work at night. I strongly recommend finishing the book before you begin - you're really tired after the long day. Diving is really different from snorkeling. We felt less like voyeurs and more like one of the fish. The hardest thing for me was managing my buoyency. At first I often felt I either was sinking, or more often, heading for the surface. Once my weights were adjusted correctly and I relaxed, it was effortless. There is so much to see the time goes by too quickly. Most of our dives lasted between 45 and 55 minutes. The deepest we went was 60 feet and we hardly noticed we had descended that far (although of course we were checking our depth meters and watches as instructed).

The week following our course Scott completed the PADI Advanced Open Water Certification. He did four Adventure dives and completed the course work - all still at the Carib Inn. His four dives were a night dive, deep dive, peak performance buoyancy and a navigation dive. He really enjoyed all of these, especially the night dive.
Several weeks later Scott's brother Brent took the "Resort PADI course", a one day introduction to diving. He had Ralf as an Instructor as well (picture shows Ralf on the left and Brent) and had a wonderful experience. He had a brief classroom introduction, a short time in the pool and then a shallow dive in the morning off the Carib Inn. That afternoon he did a dive from the boat off Klein Bonaire. Two days later he did another dive with Scott and myself. Because he is still not certified in any way, he had to dive with the same outfit and stay with the dive master at all times. He took this colorful shot of the corals with his underwater camera. PS UPDATE - over the next month and a half Scott and I did a lot of diving. Scott did several more night dives and I joined him for one. My record depth now is 96 feet and we went on a specially planned dive to the salt piers together. This was like an underwater cathedral. The pillars were covered with colorful corals and branches of plants. the light shining through the rows of columns was magical.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Klein Curacao

"Scott Free" has visited Klein Curacao twice now, once on the way back from Bonaire to Curacao with Sean and Sarah and again while returning to Bonaire with Scott's brother Brent and his wife Wilma. We picked up a mooring off the beautiful white beach and spent one night each time. This small flat island, one and one half miles long and just under one half mile across, is southeast of Curacao and is unpopulated. The skyline has three prominent features, a beautiful lighthouse and two wrecks, one of an old freighter (seen in the distance in the photo above left and in detail below) and the other a once lovely sailboat, only recently tossed up on this reef.

Several day boats bring visitors to the island but they are all gone by 4 PM so we had the island to ourselves. There are five substantial moorings installed and we were told to use these rather than risk damaging the coral by anchoring (our guide book did say it was possible to anchor in 12 - 20 feet in the sand south of the moorings). We snorkeled our mooring and it was strong enough for a boat much bigger than ours, in fact it was labeled "Insulinde", a large sailing ship often tied up at the dock in downtown Williamsted. We walked the beach and on paths over the island and enjoyed the solitude that night. With no lights at all on the island (the lighthouse is no longer working), the stars were really spectacular.

On the North Eastern point is a deserted Phosphate mine which was used in washing powders and was exported. It was closed in 1918 with the building of the oil refinery in Curacao. The beach houses and fishing shacks at the beginning of the path to the lighthouse are the remains of the mining village.

The trip from Bonaire is generally a fast downwind sail of about 27 miles and onward to Curacao is equally easy. Getting back from Curacao is more challenging. We had a hard directly upwind slog into choppy waves on the 13 mile trip from Spanish Waters to Klein Curacao. The next day we luckily had a close reach the whole way to Bonaire. But the stop at Klein really breaks up the upwind trip to Bonaire and is so lovely on it's own.