In a barrier reef system like the Florida Keys or Australia the reef track is slightly off the coastline and the coral reef is a boat’s drive from shore. However, Bonaire is surrounded by a fringing reef meaning that as soon as you walk into the water from the land you are at the reef! No need for a boat at all. And Bonaire has some of the best shore diving in the world.
The yellow-painted rocks shown below mark the names and locations of each dive/snorkel site. So all you have to do is drive your car or ride your bike 😉 and get in!
The coral reef is incredible! Notice the long trumpetfish and round angelfish hiding in the coral sea rods on the lower right photo below. Looking very close at the branching staghorn coral on the upper left, each little bump is an individual coral polyp or coral animal. At night time the coral polyp will extend their tiny tentacles from these little bumps to grab food floating in the water.
I love free diving down to photograph fish. The silver bar jack on the top left turns dark black when it is hunting (lower left). The bar jack often hunts over the shoulder of a goatfish and picks up small invertebrates that the goatfish may stir up from the bottom.
Watch out for sea urchins! The round animals below are covered in sharp spines and usually live on the ocean floor in the tidal zone where you enter the water. But if you simply look down and are careful about where you step these animals are easy to avoid. There are many different species of sea urchins and their spines may look like white tacks, long needles or even thick pencils.
Can you spot the little animals in the photo below? The first is a peanut-size mollusk (related to a snail) called a Flamingo Tongue shown in the photo on the left. This little animal feeds on sea fans and will eat large holes in the sea fan shown below. The second is a small transparent shrimp living in the anemone on the right. The shrimp and the anemone are symbiotic partners.
All the photos above were taken with a GoPro Hero 3 and a red underwater filter with an added macro lens.
Blue lights and blue light filter goggles were essential packing items on this beach camping trip. As the sun set below the horizon it was finally time to put these items to use. We were going hiking in search of scorpions!
Scorpions can be found in nearly every terrestrial habitat from caves to sand and even mountains. Bonaire is no exception. During my recent camping trip to Washington Slagbaai National Park we hoped to seek out these little arachnids.
Finding a tiny 4cm scorpion in a shrubby brush scattered with rocky crevices is a bit like a needle in a haystack. But scorpions have a little known ability that makes them surprisingly easy to find…they glow in blue light! More specifically scorpions fluoresce. They contain chemicals in their exoskeletons which absorb blue light and reemit it at another wavelength causing the appearance of glowing, just like a white t-shirt under a black light.
A short walk down our trail, while avoiding fallen cacti, we spotted our first scorpion. This guy seemed a bit shell shocked as we all gathered around to take photos.
By the end of the night we counted 8 scorpions. Some scuttled quickly and retreated into rocky holes, while others blatantly displayed their stingers as if challenging us to come closer. These scorpions might inflict a painful sting, but their venom is not particularly potent so the overall risk was minimal. Still finding one of these guys inside your sleeping bag at night is less than desirable. The solution: pack a blue light (or UV light) on your next camping trip and search for fluorescent scorpions on your own.
Why do scorpions fluoresce? We do not know. One theory holds that fluorescence may cue scorpions when it is safest to emerge to hunt, allowing them to avoid bright moonlight (which causes fluorescence) in addition to bright sunlight in daytime hours.
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”
When the sun rose the next morning, all the scorpions had retreated back into their crevices and we had a bit of time to snap some daylight photos in this beautiful national park before we returned to the CIEE Residence Hall. Scorpions hunting and beach camping made for a highly memorable trip.
Bon for ‘Bonaire’ and Doet meaning ‘doing’ or ‘to do’ in Dutch.
Bon Doet is the national day for volunteering on the island of Bonaire. Simultaneously various organizations, individuals, and student groups donated their time to improve the island through activities like beach clean ups and weeding cemeteries. I also joined the Bon Doet event but contributed my services underwater through the Coral Restoration Foundation.
Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Key Largo, Florida operates throughout the Caribbean including the island of Bonaire. This nonprofit organization raises baby corals in Christmas tree-like nurseries before transplanting the coral colonies to locations where the coral reef is degraded or absent but was previously abundant.
Selecting to corals breed in these nurseries is a complex process which includes testing the coral’s DNA to ensure that a diverse selection of coral genotypes are represented in each future coral garden. These coral fragments start out the size of a finger and grow to the size of a basketball over the course of 6 months to a year before being moved to the coral reef. While hanging in the nursery, the corals are cleaned each week by volunteers trained by the Coral Restoration Foundation.
In the coral reef ecosystem algae and coral compete for light and space. Therefore, volunteers will scrub the fishing lines and pcv pipe structures of each nursery to remove algal growth which can stunt the progress of the baby corals. With the moderate water currents carrying food and weekly cleanings by volunteers these baby corals are living in the marine equivalent of a 5-star resort.
Though it may sound like a mammoth effort for such a small animal, coral reefs provide a home to numerous fish, protect coastlines from wave action, and are even used for medical research projects. With so many long-term benefits I was happy to devote my time this morning to scuba diving with a scrubbing sponge and brush to remove algae from Bonaire’s future shoreline protection force.
And I learned a new method for attaching corals to a sandy bottom: bamboo poles zip tied together into a square with each corner hammered into the sand. This would be easy to implement in the Philippines too!
I was not sure what to expect when Martijn led Maddie and I onto a dirt road, inland and away from the ocean. I had been told we were going to an underwater cave, which I expected to mean a short cliff jump into the ocean and free diving down along the coastline to peer into an ocean cave before returning to the surface. I did not expect to leave my bicycle locked to an inland gate and hike through the shrubbery down to the mouth of a cave.
The descent into the cave required a bit of rock climbing. We lowered our bags, turned on our flashlights and carefully climbed down, finally reaching the water. Freshwater. This dark inland cave seemed narrow and small but as we donned our masks and snorkels for a swim one room led to another. Most of the water was shallow enough to stand but some pools were much deeper.
“Don’t pee,” Martijn instructed. This was a significantly challenging task. As a scuba diver, peeing in my wetsuit is usually my first step to getting warm when I hit the cold water. (Don’t worry the pee diffuses away. If this sounds gross you are clearly not a scuba diver. The longer you dive the more unavoidable it becomes.) Additionally, cold water actually increases your urge to pee. Your blood vessels constrict in cold water, which increases blood pressure. An easy way for the body to lower this pressure is by peeing. The official term for this phenomenon is cold immersion diuresis. Despite this increased urge, I did my best to refrain. The freshwater pool received only periodic circulation after intense rainfalls so I heeded Martijn’s advice.
Swimming further into the next room the water was deep enough for free diving.
“There is an underwater tunnel here. I will check it.” Martijn stated.
“Martijn!!!” Maddie and I exclaimed in protest. “Are you sure it’s here?” I asked.
The underwater tunnel was a 15-20 second breath hold and swim into another separate cavern of the cave. Martijn had done it before, but agreed to swim a practice dive down and back just to look for the exit to ensure his memory was correct. I followed him in a quick dive down and we shined our flashlights deeper into the tunnel.
“I’m going for it.” Martijn announced once we returned to the surface. Seconds later he dove again and kicked through the tunnel and out of view. ‘Did he make it?!’ I wondered. Only a few seconds after he left I saw his light shining back, confirming his success.
With a deep breath, I dove down and followed. Kick, kick, kick. I could see the walls of the tunnel all around me. As I cleared the midpoint I could see the shimmery surface of water with air above it. Martijn’s feet were also visible standing in the water. Made it!
Maddie opted to stay behind and shine her light to mark the proper way back. In the next cavern I was in for another surprise. This room had deep free diving well too. Diving down I couldn’t tell where the cave let out but it clearly connected to the ocean, because we could see the blurry swirls of salt water meeting freshwater once we dropped down past 10ft. After a few more dives to explore we swam back through the tunnel where Maddie was waiting.
“You have to try it!!!” I exclaimed as soon as I surfaced back on the other side. After a detailed recap of the tunnel swim and salt water well Maddie was convinced. This time I stayed behind as the light to mark the way.
It was entirely silent waiting there by myself. But I was not the only living creature in this cave. Shortly after they left, I started to feel little nips from cleaner shrimp or small fish on my toes. As the fish continued my pedicure, I closed my eyes and tried to imprint the tunnel passageway into my memory in case I returned again with another group of friends. When Maddie and Martijn swam back, we made our way to the exit.
“I have to pee so badly,” I admitted. My urge had grown increasingly noticeable while I was standing by myself and waiting.
With a guilty smile Martijn confessed, “I already did.”
“Martijn!!!” I admonished.
“I did too.” Maddie divulged.
“You guys! I’ve been waiting so long and you both just went ahead and did it,” I said. Perhaps the cave should have a warning sign that says, ‘Scuba Divers Not Welcome,’ because it seems we just can’t help it. My bladder was also significantly less full by the time we climbed back out. There will be more rain and all in all this adventure was a big success.
In Filipino culture each community has a weeklong fiesta full of parades, costumes, beauty pageants, fireworks, and roasted pigs. On the island of Bonaire a similar celebration known as Carnaval has this same spirit of feasting and drinking freely before subsequent budget-induced fasting in the months which follow.
Gathering on the streets to witness the parade was an interesting mix of Latino culture with salsa music blasting, Dutch residents interwoven among the locals, and tourist spectators stealing selfies with the passing floats. In the background a giant cruise ship stood along the ocean and overhead a drone captured the action from above.
Although this parade lacked the drumming that characterizes Filipino fiesta, the energy of Carnaval was evident as young children and tourists alike danced in the streets with the passing parade. The sidewalks in town were packed! But leaving town the streets felt oddly empty because everyone was gathered to watch the parade.
And the party did not stop after the Sunday afternoon parade finished. Two days later the paraders were at it again for round two, but this time under the stars with Christmas lights to illuminate their costumes. I tried to snap day and night versions of the best costumes and floats.
Take a close look at the photos above. Although I could not find the same bikini-clad, body glittered space cadet from the daylight photo, the woman in the background of photo one was my counterpart in the second nighttime photo.
Take a look at the long branching root in the photo above. This root belongs to a mangrove tree. Underwater it serves as an important habitat for juvenile fish and a substrate for algae, sponges and barnacles to grow on. Above water mangroves are a foundation for coastline protection.
Visiting the mangroves is a bit like entering a natural maze. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong way from the get go. The park guide smiled at me as he knowingly asked if it was my first visit to Bonaire’s Mangrove Center. After a quick reorientation I set off in my kayak and navigated the narrow, tranquil passages of this mangrove forest.
The mangrove forest was breathtaking above water, but below water there seemed to be a different story. Sedimentation, or the accumulation of small particles, was readily apparent. The water was murky and all nearby marine life was covered in a thin layer of fine sediment.
How did Bonaire’s beautiful mangrove habitat become this degraded? The root of the problem is donkeys and goats or so I was told. When Europeans first came to Bonaire they brought with them donkeys for transporting goods and goats for livestock production. However as vehicles replaced the donkeys, these animals were allowed to roam free. Today it is easy to spot a wild donkey on Bonaire. However donkeys and goats are both grazers. As these animals feed on plants and grasses more terrestrial soil becomes exposed. Then when it rains, this soil can be carried into the ocean, causing an increase in sedimentation, particularly in coastal areas like this mangrove habitat.
While donkeys and goats may be part of the problem, I’m not yet convinced that they are the only ones to blame. If I had to guess, I’d bet that my own species poses the greater threat. While we don’t graze the grasses, our tendency towards cutting down trees and building seawalls or waterfront houses seem like an equally likely cause of sediment production.
Local donkey enthusiasts have tried to solve this problem by creating a “Donkey Sanctuary,” a safe place for donkeys to live out their lives where their grazing patterns can be properly managed.
Fortunately, for us humans the donkeys have not yet retaliated with gated “Human Sanctuaries,” but we should still try to keep our actions in check so that the beautiful mangrove forests remain healthy.
Sometimes it seems like the best moments happen when we are unprepared. When we forget our camera or when our phone dies. Earlier today I was snorkeling and a baby green sea turtle swam pace for pace next to me with a beautiful blue ocean backdrop and perfect lighting as if teasing me for being unprepared.
Do you think you are more aware of your surroundings with or without a camera?
Perhaps I would have missed the baby sea turtle today if I had brought my GoPro. Instead of looking around maybe I would have been photographing an anemone on the seafloor at that exact moment. However, sometimes simply having a camera inspires funny and goofy moments for no other purpose than to take a picture. Working on Bonaire with a coral reef in my backyard it is relatively easy to create a beautiful photo, but I have to thank my co-workers for the entertaining memories that go with them.
We rode our bikes to “1000 Steps” a famous snorkel spot on Bonaire with rocky stairs and cliff jumping.
The following two photos were definitely camera-inspired. The next time you are taking a group photo I challenge you to play “Lion Face, Lemon Face”. Repeat this saying several times back-to-back for a series of hilarious photos.
Luckily, the CIEE Admin Team shared our sense of humor. Otherwise the 2017 version of our Staff Handbook would probably contain an amendment: You should not look like a lion or a lemon for your staff photo.
Tales of coral reefs in decline seem to be omnipresent. Various ocean conservation websites list estimates like, “75% of the world’s coral reefs will die by 2050” (http://www.coralvita.co/). Snorkeling along a coral reef I cannot help but wonder if 5, 10 or 20 years down the road will this beauty still be here at all?
Species of Acropora corals, or branching corals, known as elkhorn and staghorn naturally form dense thickets of reef in relatively shallow waters offering home for numerous fish and marine invertebrate species. However in the 1980s and early 1990s whiteband disease took a huge toll. This disease is named for a band of white necrotic tissue that spreads from the base of the coral at a rate of 1cm per day. In the Florida Keys, 95% of Acropora corals disappeared.
When I was working in Key Largo, Florida, there was one particular location that allowed students a rare glimpse of a huge elkhorn coral colony. I remember telling students how incredible this coral was given the disease of the past. Students would crowd around for a glimpse of this beautiful coral. But in all of my teaching, I never imagined that someplace else in the Caribbean football fields worth of pristine elkhorn and staghorn coral still existed.
Last Sunday my mind was blown! Our snorkel trip near the southern end of Bonaire Island featured MAGNIFICENT elkhorn and staghorn corals.
This snorkel was not for the faint of heart. After an hour-long swim against the current we reached our first elkhorn, a small but healthy colony that reminded me of my favorite colony back in Key Largo. I dove down and snapped photo after photo, trying to capture the best lighting. When I paused to look up, our instructor was far ahead, unwavering in her push to swim further. And the further we went the more beautiful the reef became. More elkhorn than I could have imagined. When we paused to catch our breath I promptly declared this to be the most amazing snorkel of my life! Our instructor laughed at me and said we hadn’t even gotten to the best part.
When we reached it I knew. It felt like being in the maze during the Triwizard Tournament in the 4th Harry Potter book, only all the walls were thick, dense, healthy staghorn coral. It was a pristine that I thought had been lost forever and I felt like I had gone back in time to a world when coral reefs flourished.
Although disease, warming ocean temperatures, rising ocean acidity, hurricanes and pollution are constant threats to our coral reefs, it is good to know that there are still places of incredible beauty.
On your mark, get set, GO!! Only in this race there was no announcer to call out commands. Instead, the dive instructor completed a series of enthusiastic underwater handmotions which all participants interpreted to mean go and our race was off.
This dive was a challenge of buoyancy control, an essential skill for a scuba diver. To obtain neutral buoyancy in the water one must add air or release air from their scuba vest, known as a BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device). Then, by regulating the amount of air you take in on a given breath, you can fine tune your buoyancy even further. To complete the relay race successfully CIEE Bonaire students needed highly advanced buoyancy skills. I was assigned to be the group photographer and videoed the chaos that ensued.
Step 1) Use your regulator (what you breath from) to fill your dive buddy’s upside down plastic cup with air.
Step 2) Swim with your buddy, carefully holding your cup of air along a transect line.
Not too bad so far, but step 3 was a killer:
Step 3) Take your regulator out of your mouth. Blow bubbles until you pick up a spoon with your mouth from the bottom of the ocean without spilling your cup of air.
If students successfully completed step 3 they could resume breathing from their regulators, replace the spoon upright on the bottom of the ocean, and swim to the end of the transect line.
Step 4) Add your cup of air to the bright orange lift bag.
Step 5) Race back to start and repeat.
The team with the most air in their orange lift bag at the end of the race wins. But if at any point you or your buddy touch the ground or break the surface of the ocean, the instructor will dump all of the air out of your lift bag and you must start over.
The most humorous race struggles were watching people blowing bubbles and approaching the spoon but instead bobbing a tongue’s length above it unable to fall down the last 2in. Or after finally reaching the spoon, they realize that all of the air had dumped out of their upside down cup during spoon-bobbing process. By far the best strategy was the grab and go: a fast swim just barely above the ocean floor, grabbing the spoon as you swim over it and replacing it back all in one go.
If you have ever gone scuba diving try to hold yourself to this buoyancy control standard in the future: swim as if the entire ocean bottom was lava so that you never disrupt a grain of sediment with your fins. The coral will thank you.
After four months in South Carolina, the call of aquamarine ocean water was too hard to resist. I have moved back to the tropics and am working as an Intern Coordinator for CIEE Bonaire, a study abroad program for undergraduate students located on the Caribbean island of Bonaire just north of Venezuela. I am living at a research station for the next 5 months and assisting with undergraduate coursework in coral reef ecology and advanced scuba diving.
What does a day of life at CIEE Bonaire look like?
Students wake up at a luxurious residence hall one block from the ocean. My standards of luxury may be slightly different than most but the fact that my plush mattress came with a pad on top, our living space features comfy reading chairs, and we have hot water for showering I feel like I’m living in luxury.
After breakfast I may spend my morning analyzing research data through CPC (coral point count) technology. This program selects random points on a video of the coral reef we take while scuba diving and counts the frequency of live hard coral, dead coral, algae or sand to determine how healthy the reef is. This method is generally more accurate than my coral surveys in the Philippines because in the field we counted only 200 points, but with the CPC computer program here in Bonaire we count 2,250 points per 50m transect line.
After lunch we are likely to walk one block to the ocean and go scuba diving. Bonaire is known for amazing shore diving, meaning that as soon as you step into the ocean you can start swimming and see amazing corals and loads of fish. Bonaire has enforced strict no spearfishing laws and bans on harvesting coral. Its marine park was first established in 1979 and the success of these protective measures are apparent. I could not believe how many fish live on these reefs of sizes large and small. This was a major difference from the highly overfished reefs I typically worked on in the Philippines, where the remaining survivors tended to be small and cryptic.
Students at CIEE Bonaire can complete Open Water, Advanced and Rescue Diver certifications during the course of their semester. Tempted to join?! The program is still accepting students for Spring Semester 2017. If you are an undergraduate its not too late! http://cieebonaire.org/
And in the evening for study hall we read our fish field guidebooks and think of creative ways to memorize the scientific names of all the fish and coral species we see. Knowing what we are looking at is the first step to analyzing changes that may be occurring to the coral reef habitat due to human interference or to ensuring that we can protect and support this beautiful habitat in the future.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17