Summer scuba with seals at the Isle of Shoals

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Summer scuba with seals at the Isle of Shoals

The Isle of Shoals is a tiny archipelago that straddles the borders of Maine and New Hampshire. About six miles off the New England coast, it's home to a colony of harbor and grey seals and considered one of the best sites in the world for diving with seals and sea lions. So naturally and to our dismay, most of the summer local charters had booked up long before we had any inklings of this secret pinniped haunt so close to home. But with a bit of luck, we found Bob and Jeanne Foudriat, an absolutely lovely couple who just recently started running a boat charter (Cyntillation Aquatics) out of Newington, NH. And they had room. 

It wasn't hard to find a few more divers to join us. With our Bonaire buddies, Grace and Bernd, we piled eight LP80 tanks, 120lb of lead, and sundry gear and camera equipment into our very, very overstuffed Subaru Impreza. A little over an hour later, we passed some stately houses with big green lawns and arrived at a well-concealed marina. Bob and Jeanne were already there, waiting for us to load up. 

The ride out from Great Bay Marina was fairly short but a bit surge-y; some of us felt it more than others. As we pulled up to Duck Island (on which were indeed lots of birds), we could already see dozens of smooth, speckled heads peering out at us from the ocean.

We splashed, and after a bit of snafu on Ann's part (RIP weight pocket), we were underway. Per Bob's suggestion we swam along "Jimmy's Ledge," which probably would have been a really nice site on its own had we not been so distracted by 1. seals, 2. cold (our computers variously recorded ~50-56F) but seals! and 3. the wonderful green algae bloom that makes–oh look a seal!–NE summer diving so special...

These guys were equal part shy and curious, and as Bob warned us, loved to sneak in from behind. It seemed like every time we turned around, we'd just see the pod of stalkers scatter into the green murk. 

By the time we got back up on the boat, the surf had picked up a bit and not all was well... Bob and Jeanne took pity on us and drove over to Star Island (here of all places we met a chatty lama from Tibet... the world has truly globalized) for a nice long surface interval. A stint in the sun and solid ground did wonders to our morale and core temperatures. We were ready to go again!

As the boat cruised towards Eastern Rocks for our second dive, dozens of blobs splayed on the rock wiggled and flopped into the ocean, to form a ring of bobbing heads. Lazy and unwieldy as they seemed they were definitely excited to see us.

The seals here were older and so apparently braver, and not at all shy to approach. They sniffed at their reflections in our cameras and masks, took a light chomp on a fin or finger, and squealed and twirled and blew bubbles as if to show off. They really are like dogs.

We came back pretty exhausted but so happy to have had this opportunity. Many thanks to Bob and Jeanne for taking us on this wonderful trip!

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Bonaire 2017 Part II

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Bonaire 2017 Part II

Continued from Part I

Day 5 Dive 16 Hilma Hooker max. 89ft, 61min

Ann finally succumbed to her morning habits and slept this one out. The rest of us dived the Hilma Hooker, a boat best known for being an abandoned drug mule that eventually sank under her own weight. The southern mooring is a pretty long surface swim out and marks the deeper end of the ship. Mind your depth/bottom time as the Hilma Hooker sits in about 100ft of water. There's a good number of tarpons and barracudas at the site.

Dive 17 The Lake max. 86ft, 49min

This was our BEST. DIVE. EVER. The site itself was beautiful: a white sandy "lake" separating the double reef system, connected by coral bridges, and resplendent with life. We saw tarpons, a Southern stingray, a big tiger grouper, but the highlight, at the top of the outer reef, was this black cloud that materialized out of nowhere. As it caught up with each of us, we each in turn realized that we were about to be subsumed by an incoming, house-sized bait ball of bogas being chased by horse-eye jacks.

And this is the one dive where CHEWIE FORGOT HIS CAMERA.

BOGA BALL! BOGA BALL! BOGA BALL!

Dive 18 Weber's Joy max. 61ft, 60min

We headed up north for the afternoon dives. The "Witches' Hut" across the road from the dive hut is long defunct. Entry was easy down the steps from the parking lot, though exit slightly rougher with the waves crashing about. There were plenty of invertebrates here that we didn't get good pictures of. The coral-scape itself was quite magnificent with pillars and tall stands, kind of reminiscent of Karpata, maybe not quite as nice.

Dive 19 Bari's Reef max. 54ft, 47min

Despite what we've read on every shore diving guide to Bonaire exalting this site as one of the best for diversity and macro, we didn't have much luck finding things here (highly possible because we aren't very good at spotting critters yet). The visibility was terrible at times (<5ft) but cleared up a bit farther offshore. This would've been somewhat of an unremarkable dive save a spectacle of frenzied dance of the creole wrasses, or as Jenn puts it, "fishes dating."

Day 6 Dive 20 Invisibles max. 86ft, 57min

The rain overnight had made this site "invisible" indeed. In an attempt to find the outer reef we swam what seemed like an endless five minutes into the deep blue with no frame of reference. Heading back, we finally encountered the "islands" connecting the reefs at the southern end of the site, and spotted a big grouper, plenty of chromis, and goatfish. This would've been a beautiful dive had it not been so silted out...

Dive 21 The Lake, again max. 71ft, 53min

Having profoundly regretted not bring his camera, Chewie campaigned (it wasn't very hard to convince us) for another chance at The Lake. We spent a good portion of the dive cruising the outer reef in search of the boga ball, but alas, it wasn't meant to be ...

Still, a beautiful site. On the way out a few of us got smacked hard by the incoming tides, and Ann ended up with >17 urchin spines of various sizes embedded in her fingers. Ouch.

Dive 22 Karpata max. 72ft, 64min

We've done Karpata a few times, but this was the first from shore. The entry, despite somewhat intimidating looking, is actually not at all bad (the concrete block helps a tremendous amount in stabilizing entry and exit). It's such a beautiful site with rolling coral hills and the afternoon sun rays filtering through the depths. A number of anchors mark the return so it's not that hard to navigate if you know what you're looking for. 

Dive 23 Oil Slick Leap, night-ish dive max. 49ft, 42min

From the giant leap we dropped in on a trio of tiny squids and tied one of our lights to the mooring. We circled close to the light and found lots of drums and soapfish on the prow, along with various kinds of shrimps. Another 4-dive day, and we were pretty exhausted and cold after this one.

Dive 24 The Rock max. 78ft, 47min

Two trips ago a kind couple from Oregon showed us this site– a cone-shaped coral mound in the midst of deep blue. It was fantastically clear and in our memory home to a legendarily large eel. Unfortunately, we weren't quite as good at navigating and ended up swimming in the blue, kind of lost, for a long time without stumbling upon the Rock. Will have to try again next time!

On the return, we scooted along the reef and saw the usual creole wrasses and schools of palometas over sandy bottoms. We also happened upon a group of divers (including Ron Wilsey, a part-time scuba-diving resident of Bonaire), who showed us something that we had spent most of the week searching for: a seahorse!

Dive 25 Salt Pier, Reprise max. 42ft, 59min

We had finally gotten to the last dive of the trip. Originally, we had wanted to be more adventurous and visit some of the southernmost sites. However, after driving all the way down, and seeing the pounding surge, we decided that next time we should come to Bonaire in August/September when the ocean is supposed to be calm like glass. As we drove back north, we saw that the salt boat, which had been docked since our dive there at the beginning of the week, had disappeared between in our surface interval and long drive south! Like vultures at the ready, trucks were just starting to pile-up as all divers homed in on the freshly vacated site. A nice, shallow, and beautiful dive to end the week. 

Unfortunately that marked the end of our repetitive dives as we had to fly in ~24 hours. On the last day, we paid a visit to the very polarizing donkey sanctuary ... Imagine the Walking Dead, but with donkeys. I guess it's worth a visit if you've never been. Not sure what else to say about it.

All in all, a typical fantastic trip to Bonaire. We did get a bit cold at times (water temp was down to 79F), and came home more tired than at the beginning of the vacation. And now we have a few more friends fall in love with Bonaire. Until next time. Let op, drempels!

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Bonaire 2017 Part I

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Bonaire 2017 Part I

Here's a very belated report from our Bonaire trip in March. This was our fourth trip and we managed to convince five friends to join us at our happy place. Our usual hangout at Blachi Koko was booked up, so we ended up staying at L'Ambiance Villa, a beautiful and well-furnished house with outdoor BBQ grill, swimming pool, and more than enough beds for the whole gang x 2. With two double-cabin trucks, provisions from our favorite Dutch grocery, Van den Tweels, and unlimited air/nitrox fills from WannaDive, we were ready for a week of SCUBA adventure: 25 dives, 22h+ underwater, one aborted attempt, and, sigh, one visit to the donkey sanctuary.

Day 1 Dive 1: Front Porch max. 95ft, 40min

Bernd, being the newest certified diver (yay!) in our group, seemed a bit unsure about this week of diving he'd just committed to. We descend as a group into our first checkout dive. About ~90ft down there's a small barge with a monstrous green moray eel lurking beneath, and in his excitement Bernd totally forgot about this thing called "depth" (worry not, Grace took good care of him). The reef isn't terribly long or impressive, but just past its Northern end there's a huge patch of garden eels that Ann spent a good 5 minutes trying to creep upon.

Dive 2: Windsock max. 68ft, 53min

Easy entry and navigation for our second dive. This place is like Salt Pier-Lite: there's lots of rubble to explore along the pylons, where we found an abundance of grunts and snappers and a very cute juvenile smooth trunkfish. The other thing to know about this site is that it's the home for the Kite City food truck, which has some of the best lunch choices in Bonaire. Check their Facebook page to see if they'll be around! Also good for a pre-flight meal as Windsock as right across the street from the airport. 

In the afternoon Michelle, the last of our group, arrived, so back we went to Front Porch for her checkout dive. To everyone's surprise we found ourselves struggling against a heavy current. Damn tides. After a fruitless 2-minute swim, we called it.

Dive 3: Oil Slick max. 69ft, 41min

This is one of our favorite sites from the previous trips. The reef starts almost immediately from the rocky, critter-filled cliff that lines the iron shore and entry is via a GIANT leap straight into the ocean. Chewie may have given everyone a heart attack with a near-stumble on the cliffs while putting on his fins. For the less adventurous, there is a metal ladder that can used for both entry and exit. It's a very short swim to the drop-off and mooring buoy. Sightings here: creole wrasses, parrotfish, eels, shrimps, drums, and so many sweepers under the ledges. 

Since it's our first full day in Bonaire, we're taking it easy and paying a visit to Van den Tweel's to stock up for the week. 

This is Chewie's dive #100! 

Day 2 Dive 4: Leonora's Reef, Klein Bonaire max. 73ft, 58min

From the docks of WannaDive, it's a ~10 minute ride to the north side of Klein Bonaire. Despite the surface surf (white caps and a steady wind across the channel), the currents are mild and visibility phenomenal here. As with many other sites on Klein Bonaire, the hard corals here are in relatively good condition and homes to shoals of smaller fishes. It's a pretty nice site.

Dive 5: Carl's Hill, Klein Bonaire max. 68ft, 60min

At the NW corner of Klein Bonaire lies Carl's Hill. Apparently it'd been damaged by Hurricane Omar (?) years back but against all odds the coral have been growing back along this GORGEOUS, sea whip and gorgonian-covered wall. In the shallows we encounter soft corals and tons of baby fish darting amongst the fire coral blades.

This is Ann's dive #100! 

Dive 6: Salt Pier max. 48ft, 77min

This is one of everybody's favorite sites in Bonaire. Home to huge amounts of sea life, it's where we're almost guaranteed to see squid, octopus, tarpons, and turtles on every dive. However, it's only open to divers when the salt ship is not docked, which can take up the better half of a week. Not wanting to take any chances we headed out to it in the first afternoon we could (and not a moment too soon). The viz wasn't actually that great this time, but as expected, the pier was just brimming with life: midnight parrotfish, barracudas (much more than previous years), octopus, cleaner shrimps and arrowhead crabs, and schools upon schools of grunts and jacks and chromis... and turtles!

Dive 7: Bachelor's Beach max. 54ft, 53min

Bernd's been a trouper so far, and (literally) jumped into his first night dive with alacrity. We headed out at dusk, and got in the water ~10 minutes before sunset. Not much was happening until about half an hour after dark, when the tarpons appeared out of the deep and began to hunt by the light of our torches. In a flash an 8-inch long goatfish disappeared into a shower of shiny scales, accompanied by a sickening (or if you're Bernd, exhilarating) crunch...

Day 3 Dive 8: Funchi's Reef (East Coast) max. 82ft, 57min

Right after Ann got her OW in 2012, we did a drift dive from Cai to White Hole. It still counts as one of the most amazing dives we've done in Bonaire (and in retrospect, a bit scary given how green we were). So here we are on a zodiac boat back on the wild coast, braving seasickness and cresting over 8-10 foot waves like it's nothing.

If it weren't for the terrible visibility this would've been a great dive. We passed more than a few groups of eagle rays, a large Southern stingray, a giant black grouper, and god knows what else in the silty waters.

Dive 9: Turtle City max. 55ft, 59min

Well well, didn't this site live up to its name... This place, apparently, is one of the few places in the world where turtles are known to sleep during the day. Bottom topography was really interesting with multiple cleaning stations, free-swimming green moray eels, and just heaps of sleepy turtles.

If we never see a turtle again, we'll be okay. Before jumping into the water we were told to keep a tally of the turtles we saw, and somewhere around 50 everyone just gave up...

Dive 10: 1000 Steps max. 70ft, 65min

This place is another of our favorite sites (really which one isn't??), if not in part because when we came with Matt and Lizzy in 2013 we had a (likely) false shark alarm. By now we're hiking down the 78 or something steps in full gear like pros, and are rewarded with sightings of palometas, way too many parrotfishes to count, Pederson shrimps, crevalle jacks (!), and ah well, a few lion fish :-\

Day 4 Dive 12: Kalli's Reef max. 68ft, 59min

Kalli's is kind of like 1000 steps, minus the steps and by boat entry only. The drop off is fairly steep and descends below 100ft. Along the wall we encountered a school of tarpons and a yea.... the viz sucked. But in the shallows a pair of squids swam over to check us out, so it was all worth it...

Dive 13: Knife, Klein Bonaire max. 64ft, 54min

A bit of current here and there, nice migration of the creole wrasse, large schools of tangs, and Ann's favorite fish, Chubby McChubface.

Dive 14: Alice in Wonderland max. 72ft, 56min

As a part of the southern double reef system this site supposedly has some nice features...? but viz and afternoon nap time for fishes were not in our favor on this dive. The second (outer) reef looks better than the first, but it also goes down much too deep (100ft) for the third dive of our day. On the plus side, there wasn't much current.

Dive 15: Angel City max. 67ft, 54min

Great. Dive. As soon as we descended by the mooring we encountered 3 squids. We swam to outer reef via a coral bridge, and for the first time really appreciated the incredible landscape that's the double reef system. Unfortunately we also saw five too many lionfish.

Three legged turtle... didn't we see him before? We had a terrible time exiting, being tossed about by pounding waves. Still, a great site, and a good sunset.

continuing onto Bonaire Part II

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