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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Seventy-Three

Aves Sotavento is the western most group of Venezuelan islands. They are small islands and like Aves Barlavento, they lie in a classic atoll shape, as an almost complete circular coral reef surrounding a shallow lagoon. There are a dozen small islands on the western and southern side of the reef. Because of the almost constant trade winds, most cruisers anchor off the western side of one of the islands or go into the lagoon and find a convenient spot to anchor. Navigating in the lagoon is a slow process because of the coral. One must keep a sharp eye on the depth and find an open sandy spot to drop the anchor. Depths range from a few inches to fifty feet. Our GPS proved invaluable when we went into the lagoon, because it maintains a precise track of where we went, so we could easily back track our way out. A much better system than dropping breadcrumbs a la Hansel and Gretel. A Guarda Costa station is maintained on the largest of the southern islands. We expected to be visited by Guarda Costa officials, but we learned from other cruisers that they either had no fuel or their outboards were not working. So, we had no contact with them. We spent the first three nights anchored off Isla Las Palmas, so named we figured because of the two palm trees on the little island. We met another cruising couple who had been to Sotavento many times before and we followed them into the lagoon and anchored not far from the eastern side of the reef. Eventually three other boats joined us, so we had lots of socializing and group snorkeling.

Although the water is very clear at Sotavento, there are not many fish, conch or lobster to look at and the fish that were, there were very leery of letting us get close. We and the other cruisers were of the opinion that the area had been over-fished by Venezuelans. As evidence, we could see huge piles of conch shells on the islands. Most of the piles were well over ten feet high. The conch shells must have numbered in the millions. As for the fish, we had seen Venezuelans fishing in teams with nets and spear guns for days at a time, taking any and all fish available. As for living conch, we saw one while we were there and no lobster. Still, it is a beautiful setting and a wonderful place to hang out. One of the cruisers, who had visited Sotavento many times volunteered to show us the cannons and anchors on the outside of the east side of the reef where a French armada had sunk in the sixteenth century. However, the wind was a bit stronger than we felt comfortable with so we did not snorkel that area. Besides, getting outside of the east side of the reef is a real challenge as breaks in the reef are infrequent and difficult to spot. As interesting as Sotavento was, we were anxious to visit Bonaire, so on 28 September 2003 we departed Venezuelan waters for the Netherlands Antilles.

It was an easy one-day sail to the island of Bonaire, some 35 miles west of Sotavento. Bonaire and its two sister islands, Curacao and Aruba are part of the Netherlands Antilles group of Caribbean islands. The other two NA islands, St. Marteen and St. Eustace, lie in the northeast Caribbean. Bonaire is dramatically different from the Venezuelan islands. First, there is no visible poverty. Buildings and roads are in good repair and kept very clean. And it is very safe. No stolen dinghies, no break-ins, no pickpockets. Every effort is made to make tourists feel welcome. The offset is higher prices. Food and beverages are more like stateside costs and fuel is astronomical compared to Venezuela. Gasoline and diesel fuel at the marina were $4 and $2 a gallon respectfully. However, we used diesel only to keep batteries charged and to make water and our outboard does not burn much gas. We did have to pay $5.64 per day for a mooring. No anchoring is allowed in Bonaire. Also, once ashore, everything was within walking distance, so we did not need taxis. The population of Bonaire is about 20,00 permanent residents and most amenities are available including a variety of grocery stores, lots of restaurants, lots of gift shops, a movie theater and many, many dive shops.

Bonaire bills itself as one of the premier dive sites in the world and indeed it seems to be. The water is crystal clear and the coral and fish populations look very healthy. A fellow cruiser and diving instructor persuaded us that we would never have a better opportunity to become certified scuba divers. So, with his instruction and diligent study, we became PADI certified advanced open water scuba divers in less than two weeks. That of course required lots of rental equipment, which is not a very economical way to dive, so with a lot of creative accounting with the budget, we bought used equipment for each of us, which included regulators, buoyancy compensation devices, weights and various attachments here and there. Thank goodness we already had fins, goggles, snorkels and small wet suits. However, I must say that scuba opens an entirely different world. We can jump off the stern of Sojourner, which hangs within a few feet, or depending on the wind, hangs over a wall that drops from 20 feet to 130 feet almost vertically. The fish and coral that hang out on the wall are truly fascinating.

Most of our diving is during the day, but in order to get our advanced rating we had to do at least one night dive. That was really something. We were along the wall at about 65 feet, when two large tarpon cruised out of the inky blackness into the field of our lights. One was over three feet long and the other was close to five feet. They stuck close to us and if we illuminated a small fish with our lights, they would instantly swallow it. We tired of that game rather quickly and tried to ignore the tarpon and look for other night creatures like crabs, lobster and eels and try not to dwell on what else was in the water with us that we could not see. It is the art of imagination suppression. Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, who lived from 1623 to 1662 put it very well. "While reason will never entirely succeed in overcoming the power of the imagination, the reverse is quite common."

There is really no easy way to rationalize spending money on scuba activities. But it is lots of fun. Now we have to figure out where to store all this new "stuff." Besides diving, Bonaire has an active salt production plant that exports salt by the shipload. But, the real business is tourism. KLM Jumbo jets arrive daily from Europe with hundreds of chalk white visitors looking for fun in the sun. An occasional tour ship also arrives to liven up the waterfront. We could get real attached to this place real fast. It's fun, it's clean and it's safe. Plus just about everyone speaks English as well as Spanish, Dutch and their own concoction of all of the above called Papiamentu. Stay tuned.

Dates: 2003-09-28,
Locations: Bonaire
Keywords: Pascal quote,

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