of the Caribbean
by Stephen Frink, Nov. 1997
If there is an island ideally suited to virtually all watersport activities, it is Bonaire. In the southern Caribbean, just 50 miles north of Venezuela and 30 miles east of Curacao, this relatively small island (24 miles long by 3 to 7 miles wide) has been blessed by geographic serendipity. It is far enough south to be constantly warm, tropical and insulated from the hurricanes and coldfronts that frequently assault the Caribbean islands found farther north and east. This is an arid island as well, which provides the dual benefits of minimal recreational hours lost to rain and a lack of freshwater runoff that degrades underwater visibility. Average rainfall is only 22 inches per year and the average year-round air temperature is 82°F.
Yet there is another very significant aspect of Bonaire that makes it uniquely suited to wondrous watersports. It's called the lee, 'the sheltered side, opposite to that against which the wind blows,' according to Webster's Dictionary.
Having the entire western shore of the island protected from the wind creates remarkably comfortable conditions for diving and snorkeling. A significant ancillary benefit is that fragile corals are protected from damaging waves and can grow to impressive dimensions even in very shallow water.
Windsurfing: While Bonaire is best known for the watersport activities conducted on the calm leeside of the island, the windward side is quite popular for windsurfing. With water temperatures of at least 80°F and winds that average 20 to 25 knots from January to August and 15 to 20 knots from September to December, the combination of warm water, sunshine and consistent wind are ideal.
There is a large bay along the windward side called Lac Bay. Best known for its conch fishery, Lac Bay has more recently attracted windsurfers. Approximately three miles long by one and a half miles wide, Lac Bay has a coral reef perimeter that breaks the waves and a flat, shallow interior free of obstacles. The more experienced windsurfers can exit the bay at the north end to work the series of long, high waves on the outside. For someone like myself, who can barely stand upright on a windsurfer, it is amazing to watch the jumps and aerial loops the hot boarders can perform here. For novices, the bay is the perfect learning environment. There is even a full service windsurfing facility on Lac Bay to provide rental equipment and instruction.
Sailing: More aggressive sailors may enjoy the windward side of the island but those seeking a less arduous cruise or enroute to other leeside activities, such as diving and snorkeling, will likely prefer to sail from Kralendijk Bay. There is always a sufficient breeze to sail at a gentle pace even near the shore. Many live-aboard sailboats anchor along the sandy bottom of Kralendijk Bay and charter sailboats will pick up guests at all the major hotels for daily snorkel outings or sunset cruises.
The Super Bowl of Bonaire sailing occurs each October as scores of sailboats arrive to participate in the annual regatta. This is a 30 year tradition on the island, with competition classes for monohulls, catamarans, sailboards, Sunfish and even fishing boats. Boats are grouped according to their individual handicaps and vie for the championship in a variety of different races, one of which circles the island. While competition is clearly a part of the regatta, the main theme is fun. At night there are many parties and street celebrations, complete with live music and, of course, grog.
Fishing: The more significant part of the Bonaire fishing scene is probably what is not allowed. There is no spearfishing or hook and line sportfishing along the coral reefs from the high water mark to the 200 foot depth contour. This assures an ample population of friendly reef tropicals. Anglers are restricted to offshore fishing, where less than a mile out Marlin, tuna, Wahoo and Swordfish are commonly encountered.
Kayaking: The ocean kayak is enjoying great popularity on Bonaire, both as a vehicle for exploration and a means to facilitate snorkel and scuba adventure. One fascinating kayak itinerary is a guided tour through the unique mangrove ecosystem. Here, among bird habitats and fish spawning grounds, naturalists explain the crucial interrelationship between the mangroves and the coral reef.
The kayak also allows reef access beyond that available to those tied to the beach. They are obviously perfect vessels from which to snorkel, but Bonaire also offers a creative program that ties the ocean kayak to scuba diving: the PADI Kayak Dive Specialty.
This course is typically two days long and offers two kayak dives. The prerequisite is open water certification. The course teaches basic kayak techniques, how to stow the dive gear, how to use the mooring buoys within the Bonaire Marine Park and, finally, how to use a tethered kayak in a drift dive scenario. There is some classroom time but most of the instruction happens along the sheltered dive sites of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. For those seeking an intimate one on one encounter with Bonaire's coral reefs, the kayak dive specialty is a terrific opportunity.
Snorkeling: Bonaire has been one of the Caribbean's most innovative islands in terms of the promotion of snorkel activities. One obvious reason is that its marine resource is extremely well suited for snorkeling. The calm water on its leeside and its shallow coral reefs combine with clear water and super-abundant reef tropicals to provide a wonderful environment, even given the inherent depth limitations of breath-hold diving. But the perfect environment would mean little if the dive operators were not enthused to share their shallow water splendors; hence, the Bonaire Guided Snorkeling Program.
Initiated in April 1996, the Bonaire Guided Snorkeling Program offers a series of 12 different guided tours to selected sites around Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. Besides the introductory slide show, presentations explore the coral reef's complex ecosystem, reef fish identification, introduction to corals, the invertebrates, marine life behavior, night snorkeling and the mangrove forest.
However, the real fun of the Guided Snorkeling Program happens out on the reef. Here, snorkelers see a vast underwater realm comprised of elegant Elkhorn Corals, beautifully intact Staghorns, carpets of finger coral, giant seaplumes and gorgonians. At virtually any reef a snorkeler can easily identify a wide variety of marine life, such as Whitespot Filefish, Spanish Hogfish, Barracuda, turtles, French Angels and Creole Wrasse. More observant snorkelers can pick out the camouflaged reef residents such as Peacock Flounder or seahorses. On Bonaire, you don't have to be a scuba diver to enjoy the rich abundance of the coral reef, although the more intimate view derives from the luxury of depth, range and time afforded by breathing compressed air.
Scuba: More than any other island in the Caribbean, Bonaire is dedicated to delivering services to the scuba diver. An extremely high percentage of visitors to Bonaire, some sources indicate as high as 80 percent, arrive specifically to dive.
What makes Bonaire so revered among traveling divers? The excellent weather, consistently calm leeside and warm, clear water conditions. But, in addition, the geological structure of Bonaire has created an environment perfect for the proliferation of coral reefs. Perhaps just as important, the strong ecological stance of the government and the dive operators has helped to preserve this very special underwater world.
Since there are more than 84 moored sites listed on the Marine Park guide map, it's impossible to dive all of Bonaire in a single holiday. In fact, I have been diving Bonaire a couple times a year for more than 15 years and still haven't visited all the sites. Even those I have dived before are constantly changing, keeping the destination fresh and inspirational.
Klein Bonaire is a small island, just 1,500 acres, and in some places is only a half mile distant from the shoreline of Bonaire. The main island is shaped like a boomerang and Klein Bonaire is nestled in the crook of the leeward curvature. This gives the island tremendous protection from the prevailing wind and creates an environment well suited to proliferation of coral. While Klein Bonaire is primarily flat and featureless topside, the entire perimeter of the island is draped with fantastic coral growth. There are moored dive sites surrounding the island but there are no shore dives.
Southwest Corner sits at the very western tip of the island and is often swept by more current than some of the other sites. This contributes to a preponderance of filter feeders, particularly tube and Elephant Ear Sponges. A heading north and east along the island brings some of my favorite dives anywhere off Bonaire. Mythic sites such as Munk's Haven, Sharon's Serenity, Yellow Man and Mi Dushi provide a wondrous combination of a fairly wide shallow reef, resplendent with Elkhorn, Finger, Brain and incredibly intact Staghorn Corals, with an amazing wall rich with all manner of sponges. While the wall is a primary attraction here, I usually try to save at least a third of my film and bottom time for the shallows. But, as a word of caution, the reef is so rich it is difficult to find a place to rest a fin tip while composing an underwater photo. Exemplary buoyancy control is a must to protect this fragile environment.
Along the eastern face of Klein Bonaire, sites such as Just a Nice Dive provide intact boulder corals in the shallows and fascinating marine life along the reef slope. The topography changes dramatically along the southern wall at sites such as Forest, noted for its awesome wide-angle vistas of Orange Elephant Ear Sponges and Black Corals.
The main island offers an even more extensive and varied dive portfolio. At the southern end of the island, sites such as Red Slave frequently experience a current that brings forth an incredible proliferation of filter feeders. Rarely is this current problematic for scuba divers, although night divers might find the combination of current and minimal shore lighting disorienting. Masses of gorgonians, seafans and sponges decorate the reef slope in just 15 to 30 feet. A gradual slope toward the sandy bottom at 100 feet delivers barrel and tube sponges as well.
The Hilma Hooker is Bonaire's premier wreck dive. The vessel worked as a Caribbean freighter for years, although the cargo she began hauling near the end of her career was suspicious. In 1984, she began to take on water at the dock and a search of hidden compartments did reveal a cargo of ganja. The owners abandoned the ship rather than face the authorities and, not surprisingly for an island so motivated to provide dive attractions, the 235 foot Hilma Hooker was cleaned and intentionally sunk. She now rests on her starboard side in about 100 feet of water. Her port rail rises about 60 feet off the bottom. During the 13 years she has been on the bottom, large Purple Tube Sponges have begun to colonize her. The propeller and rudder are cloaked in Tubastrea and encrusting sponges and the rigging along the forward crow's nest is a wide-angle delight.
The Salt Pier is another dramatic setting for wide-angle images. Although the dive can only be done when no boats are loading at the pier and at the dispensation of the salt company, it is definitely worth having your local dive operator arrange. The pilings drip with color and the vision of the sun silhouetting the convoluted legs of the pilings is an icon of underwater Bonaire. During my last visit to the Salt Pier, a huge school of mas bango (the local name for Bigeye Scad) was congregating just in front of the pilings with predators such as jacks and Blue Runners keeping the massive school tightly balled.
Of course, the big kahuna of pier diving on Bonaire is the famed Town Pier. In the central business district of Kralendijk, the Town Pier is also a busy commercial dock. Therefore, permission from the Harbor Master is required to dive the site, but it is easily obtained by your local dive operator. The depth here is just 15 to 25 feet, yet each of the pilings and support structures has become a fabulous ecosystem in itself. Massive yellow and Purple Tube Sponges jut out from the pilings and vibrant encrusting sponges cover virtually all submerged surfaces. A constant stream of night divers investigates the minute invertebrates and rare fish that congregate here. Decorator Crabs, frogfish, seahorses, Flying Gurnards, Sharpnose Puffers and many Trumpetfish are revealed by dive lights. Yet, as exceptional as night diving is at the Town Pier, I actually prefer it during the day. A large school of grunts is always found at the southwest end of the pier and Spotted Drumfish, Lizardfish and both juvenile and adult French Angels are regular visitors as well. At times there are even unusual critters such as Snook found here.
Much of the diving along the main island is easily accessible by either beach or boat dives. Yet some are actually better done from the shore, as they are in front of the major dive resorts. Guest gear storage rooms are nearby and typically the tanks are ready for the taking. Docks, ladders, freshwater showers and camera rinse buckets have been installed to facilitate access and convenience.
For example, Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and Casino's Calabas Reef, Sand Dollar's Bari Reef, Sunset Beach Resort's La Machaca and Captain Don's Habitat's Front Porch are all excellent dives with abundant, easily approachable marine life. These fish are well used to the presence of divers and rarely flee at the sound of exhaust bubbles. There is a certain etiquette suggested for diving these sites that is well summarized in Diving Bonaire by George Lewbel and Larry Martin. 'Before you use a hotel's facilities, take a moment to ask how they prefer to handle visiting divers. Chances are excellent that you'll be welcomed and treated with more respect than if you just barge in.'
The entire shoreline between Karpata and Oil Slick Leap are personal favorites as well. This includes famous Bonaire sites such as Rappel, Bloodlet, Ol' Blue and 1,000 Steps. While each of these sites has its own distinct identity, I admire them for their diversity of hard corals and abundance of reef tropicals. Sheet corals punctuated by seawhips and tube sponges line much of the drop-off, while the shallow plateau is a fishwatcher's delight.
Farther to the north and then hooking around to the east are the dive sites of Washington-Slagbaai National Park. Visitation is far less frequent because of the distance involved, either by car or by boat, and there is a sense of marine wilderness here. Classic spur and groove coral formations define sites such as Playa Benge and Boca Bartol. The bottom profile and even the common marine life are different here. Southern Stingrays hang out in the sand, Midnight Parrotfish nibble algae and Ocean Triggerfish search for prey in mid-water. There are, of course, the Tiger Groupers, Barracuda, moray eels and angelfish common at other dive sites around Bonaire and Klein Bonaire, but there is something indefinably different and rewarding about an expedition to the dive sites of Washington Park.
Topside Bonaire: For the first few years I visited Bonaire I was so absorbed in the underwater world that I rarely stepped beyond the confines of the resort or the deck of the dive boat. I now know that by so doing I was missing an opportunity to get to know one of the Caribbean's most fascinating isles.
Bonaire offers beaches, wild desert landscape and unusual industries such as salt harvesting. It is a great opportunity for birdwatching, especially the flamingoes found along the salt pans at the south end of the island and near Lake Gotomeer to the northwest. The 13,500 acre Washington/Slagbaai National Park occupies much of the northern quarter of the island. This wildlife preserve offers more than 100 species of indigenous birds, native iguanas and goats that wander freely through the cactus studded hillsides. At 784 feet Mount Brandaris is the highest point on the island; the small village of Rincon, just outside the park, is the oldest settlement.
The main business district and seat of government is in Kralendijk. Featuring a picturesque blend of Dutch Caribbean architecture and offering excellent shopping and dining options, Kralendijk is just a short walk from many of the island's resort hotels.