The last stage of our travels this season has taken us from the Eastern Caribbean to the ABCs (as the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are known). These are very parched, arid islands with eastern coasts lashed by Atlantic seas and about the only thing that grows here in abundance is cactus. So much so that they even build their fences from cacti. In Bonaire we then said farewell to Dean and Sue after an enjoyable 430nm crossing from Bequia. Thanks guys!
We’d heard Bonaire offers some of the best SCUBA diving in the Caribbean (if not worldwide), but it wasn’t until we got there that we realised why it’s such a diving Mecca. This is the home of DIY shore diving. The whole island is just one gigantic dive site. In 1962 Captain Don Stewart arrived from California, fell in love with the place and spent the next 50 years both diving on and protecting the reef. His early dive gear is on display at one of the local museums. Complete with his low-tech depth gauge – a red ribbon! Water is much denser than air which means light gets absorbed more quickly. The longest wavelengths of light are absorbed first, so the colour red nearly disappears at around 5 metres. I guess he didn’t venture too deep. Many of the 90-odd dive sites were marked and named by him. Most are accessible straight off the shore. All you need to go diving is to rent a pick-up truck, pick up some dive bottles (with your PADI card), pick a dive site and just wade in. For the sites that aren’t accessible by car, you can do an organised boat dive with one of the many dive operators. Or for the sites close to the marina you just jump in your dingy and tie up to the dive site mooring buoy. Bonaire is so well set up for diving, and the underwater world is quite spectacular. One of the more novel sites we explored was the salt pier. No, that’s not me – the girl at the back of truck. (Image credit to Sanne Wesselman). I pinched a couple of images from the web to give you an idea. (Underwater salt pier image credits also to Jennifer Penner & Angie Orth). The pylons there are enormous and the fish life incredible. We hadn’t done any independent diving before Bonaire so it was good to hone some of our newly acquired advanced diving skills. In Italy there’s the passegiatta, where strolling couples acknowledge each other as they pass on the street. In Bonaire it’s a little underwater wave to the couple scuba-ing towards you. Weird! But depending on the dive site you may be the only ones down there and you often have that part of the reef all to yourselves. Just you and the fish. So many fish! At times I felt a bit like I was in that Monty Python sketch, you know, the one where all the fish are swimming past each other saying “Morning!”, “Morning!”, “Morning!” Some of the fish swim straight at you, not the least bit concerned by the bubble blowing monsters.
We were also intrigued to see the underwater coral nurseries that have been planted and subsequently found an informative exhibition on it at the local museum. I grabbed a couple of stills from the videos. Even though the diving is spectacular, apparently all is not well. The staghorn and elkhorn corals that once offered front line protection to the reefs have been steadily collapsing since the 1980s due to bleaching, diseases, deteriorating water quality and overfishing. There is now a very effective coral conservation push to actively restore the reefs. A couple of people, including another yachtie who is a marine biologist, mentioned the movie “Chasing Coral” which amongst other things is about the drastic bleaching occurring on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We’ve not yet seen it, but both people told us when we do we’ll cry.
Just near the salt pier is the salt mine, that still operates today. The large snowy salt piles stand out starkly against the pink salt ponds and blue sky. The pink colour comes from a micro-organism that thrives in high salinity brine, whose cell membranes contain carotenoid pigments. These “brine shrimp” are a favourite food of the local flamingoes, giving them their brilliant pink plumage. During the slave trade days up to six slaves would be housed in tiny huts, that you or I couldn’t even stand up in, to work in this salt mine. At the weekend they’d then walk for seven hours to the other end of the island to visit their families and collect provisions before heading back to the salt mine. Very tough indeed.
As we’ve travelled throughout the Caribbean I’ve be been surprised by how little commentary/acknowledgement/information there is about the slave trade, given it provided the labour that sustained most of these islands in their early days of development. Here and there have been a few museums, with disturbing images and/or artefacts that tell a small part of the story. The museum at Bonaire has a small section which refers to the more than 12 million slaves who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean, in over 35,000 voyages, to provide labour for the various types of plantations (sugar, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tobacco). The images of slave ships layouts are nothing short of horrendous. It’s said that these were what galvanised the movement to abolish slavery. Although slavery may not exist today, there sure is a heck of a lot of inequality around these parts. Not surprising then that crime is a very real problem.
We reached our final destination a couple of weeks ago after sailing through the openable bridge at Willemstad, Curaçao. This is a town with a definite European feel with quirky street art and colourful, brightly painted buildings. It also feels a lot more like South America too, which is not surprising given that Venezuela is only 35 nautical miles away. There’s a lively waterfront fruit, veg and fish market, where the Venezuelans who’ve sailed across sell their fresh produce.
We managed to get in a dive here also and noticed the artificial coral reef balls. Again, reef renourishment is been actively undertaken here. Afterwards we were somewhat entertained by the local “wild” pigs turning up on the beach. Clearly not very wild!
In Curaçao there are a number of massive gated communities. I guess they’re full of people who are scared of what’s on the outside. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s really going to help solve any problems long term. Doesn’t that just create an even greater sense of disenfranchisement to the people on the outside? Isn’t poverty yet another form of inequality? The Caribbean is a part of the world which invokes most people’s idea of absolute paradise. Soft winds, blue skies, gentle waves on long white sandy beaches fringed with swaying palm trees. Beach shacks selling rum punches and friendly, happy people. Sure, when you travel through here, you see some of that. But there is another side to what’s going in many of these “idyllic” places. It is also the reality of the women washing their laundry in the river, who gave us a friendly wave when we were walking across Union Island. Just up the road from there we chatted to some locals who were limin’ (hanging out) at the local. Really friendly people, happy to chat, interested in where we were from and where we were going. Then there are the store fronts that look more like metal cages. Clearly there are areas you simply wouldn’t venture out to at night. We found the Caribbean to be a really mixed bag. And you just can’t ignore the stark disparity you see here on a daily basis. Hurricanes continue to keep them behind the eight ball also. In some places we’ve encountered plenty of enterprising locals who’ve worked out how to capitalise on the steady stream of passing yachties, offering bread, ice, island tours or laundry services. But of all the thousands of yachts cruising around these waters, we didn’t see too many black people sailing around in their vessels (maybe one).
We’ve now hauled Loki out of the water – at midnight because we needed all of the high spring tide. The cleaning and packing up has been done and it’s almost time to start heading home. We’re looking forward to catching up with friends and family upon our return, but suspect the weather might take a bit of getting used to!
Ciao for now,