Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Salt flats, slave huts, and things that come in eights

Salt flats, salt mounds, Salt Pier
Leaning back in the front seat of the pickup truck, I could feel the breeze coming through the window teasing my salt-encrusted hair. The sun heated my legs and my shoulders. To my right, the beach stretched out to the sea, white sand and blue lagoon. To my left, my boyfriend pressed the clutch and shifted gears. We had a truckbed full of dive gear and were on our way out of town.

A few minutes past the airport, I noticed a change in the landscape to my left. The ground looked pink. Large, rectangular pools filled with rose-tinted saltwater stretched for miles inland, and at the seaward edges, the wind tossed clumps of salt up onto the rim like snowballs. The southwestern quartile of Bonaire is one giant salt farm, and we were driving straight past it. In front of us, colossal salt mounds lined the horizon, and a metallic bridge lead across the road to a large pier. The Salt Pier.

The White Slave dive site, named for the old huts that still
stand on the beach.
My boyfriend kept driving, and I noticed a blue obelisk to my right. A bit further on, a white one was visible. The obelisks used to guide ships to the salt port, where they could be loaded with the product by slaves. Near the white obelisk, small huts lined the shore, where the slaves used to live Monday - Friday. We pulled off the road near the cluster of white slave huts, and I noticed one of Bonaire's classic painted-rock signs. With black letters on a yellow background, this one marked our dive site: White Slave.

Climbing out of the truck, we each circled back to the truckbed and started putting on our gear. Just a few minutes later, we were waddling into the surf.

A sea rod (I think it's Pseudoplexaura sp.) at White Slave
Sites on the southern end of Bonaire tend to have more octocorals than reefs in the north. As we swam out from shore, I could immediately notice a difference. Instead of being dominated by reef-forming stony corals, the seafloor was covered in flexible sea fans, sea whips, and sea rods. All octocorals have eight-way symmetry in their polyps, but they're more easily recognized by their flexible growth forms. The octocorals swayed in the current, washing back and forth with the waves.

My boyfriend and I swam along the reef, first doing a deep transect, then coming shallower for our return. We monitored our gas consumption and made sure to stay neutrally buoyant, hovering just above the corals without touching them. We kicked and glided and watched the octocorals sway in the waves. It was heavenly.

Fire corals in the shallows at White Slave
As we navigated back to shore, we could feel the effects of the surf. Slowly climbing shallower, we were carried by the undersurface waves, first surging landward, then holding position as the water rushed back out. The rocks in the shallows were covered in fire corals - not proper corals, but notorious for the stinging rash they leave. We watched our buoyancy carefully and kept our hands tucked in to avoid brushing one of the dark yellow burning creatures. We made it out with no accidents and waddled back to the truck. With my dive gear safely stowed, I settled once more into the front seat. Good dive, I thought. Good dive.

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