Bonaire: Macro Capital of the World
Text and Photography by Bonnie J. Cardone
When I think of Bonaire, vignettes of past adventures unfold in my mind's eye. It's not for nothing the island has been called "Macro Capital of the Caribbean."
Night Dive, Town Pier: We had been looking for frogfish and seahorses with little success. While Bonaire is known for them, they are so well camouflaged that they are difficult to find. My friends were on scuba, but I was snorkeling. I had been examining pier pilings with great diligence for about ten minutes when I found it. The pilings were black but on one, in just inches of water, I recognized the outline of an orange tail fin. Orange fin, I mused, what has an orange fin? Frogfish! At the very thought I began hyperventilating. It was a long few minutes before I could calm down enough to start taking photographs. Finally under control, I exposed a dozen frames, then grabbed Mike, the leader of our group and showed him the fish. At first, he wasn't impressed because he didn't realize what it was. So, I carefully fit the framer around the frogfish and fired another shot. After that, Mike's adrenaline kicked in. Good thing I already had my shots!
Carl's Hill, Klein Bonaire: It was our third ever dive in Bonaire. I was swimming among the soft corals in 30 feet of water, looking for wide angle subjects, when I saw a searod colony. Near the center bottom, an irregularly shaped object caught my eye. The sea-rods were a smooth light lavender, this was knobby, with bands of lighter and darker brown. It had a distinctive shape with a long snout--seahorse! Of course, it was six inches long and I had a wide angle lens, but I took several photos anyway. Then I burned the location into my memory and went back to the boat for my extension tube equipped camera. After I took several photos, I introduced my find to the rest of the group, all of whom became extremely excited. It was the first sea-horse any of us had seen in Bonaire. It would be several years before I saw another and truly appreciated how hard these little creatures are to find.
Divi Divi Tree, Klein Bonaire: Divers come to Bonaire to see sea-horses, frogfish, lettuce slugs, cleaning shrimp, cup corals and Christmas tree worms, among others, but that's not all there is. The island also offers the occasional encounter with larger marine life and an abundant variety of photographer friendly fish.
I was following Craig toward the drop-off at Divi Divi Tree when I saw a quick movement in the distance. Must be a shark, I thought, but then I realized sharks don't rocket into the depths with powerful thrusts of their tail flukes. Tail flukes? Suddenly, a large pale gray creature-it must have been eight feet long--appeared in front of Craig. Dolphin! It vanished with lightning speed, reappearing again out of nowhere seconds later. This time it came within yards of Craig and, for a split second, hung vertically in the water like a giant question mark, checking us out. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it disappeared into the blue.
Night Dive, White Hole: This unusual site is off Lac Bay, on the windward side of Bonaire. White Hole is a depression in the reef that reminds me of a football stadium. The rocky sides drop about 20 feet to an oval shaped white sand bottom at 50 feet. I'd been here during the day and found it exceptional. It was even better at night. In places the rocky sides are covered with Lettuce Corals and there are numerous small caverns, home to myriad sea creatures, including some very large fish, which retreat as far in as possible. We started on one side of the oval and worked our way back to our starting point.
The rocks are covered with colorful encrusting sponges and corals, as well as brilliant orange Tubastrea, tentacles extended for feeding. I photographed a Spiny Lobster and two Slipper Lobster, a large cowry with its knobby, mottled mantle extended, several crabs and a large Green Moray. It was an electrifying night dive and one of the best I've ever made.
A Trip To
Some of my very best memories of Bonaire are about our annual trips to the National Park at Bonaire's northern end.
A safari to Washington-Slagbaai requires a little organization. We load two tanks for each of us, along with all of our dive and photo gear, into the rental vans, then make a quick trip to the market to pick up coolers, ice, bottles of water (Bonaire is a desert isle, bring lots) and lunch.
In a rental van caravan, we follow the road north along the coast to the BOPEC oil storage facility, then turn inland. We stop at a viewpoint to photograph the road leading to Rincon, then at Goto Lake to photograph Flamingos. We pass through the little town of Rincon and, a few minutes later, arrive at the park entrance. There we pay the park entrance fee, visit the tiny one room museum, queue up for the one restroom and take a quick tour of the informative dioramas in the park headquarters.
Once again in our vans, we set off for our first dive site. The park's mostly unpaved (and dusty) roads are marked by stones with either yellow arrows (the long route) or green arrows (the short route) painted on them. Since there are overlapping sections with both green and yellow arrows, navigation can be tricky.
Eventually, however, we arrive at Boca Bartol, Bonaire's northernmost dive site. Sometimes there's another van load of divers here, but we're often the only ones. We gear up and head out. A sandy bottomed gully leads from the shore to a 50 foot deep area with scattered coral heads. Some of these are huge and most are mushroom shaped. Boca Bartol's attraction is that its marine life is usually different than that found farther south. On one of our first dives, we found Southern Stingrays in the sand at 80 feet. We've never seen them anywhere else off Bonaire. We often see large groupers and once I came across a shy Coney in its golden phase, the only one I've seen in all my Bonaire trips.
When everyone has returned from the dive, we pile into the vans and head south for Playa Funchi. We have lunch at a table under some divi divi trees here, enjoying the entertainment provided by iguanas, land hermit crabs and a variety of birds.
After lunch, most of the group chooses a fresh tank and makes a second dive. I usually snorkel this site. Wading out from shore into knee deep water, I don mask, fins and snorkel. The second time we visited Playa Funchi I was surprised to find ten tiny eyes trained on me when I put my face in the water. They belonged to Smooth Trunkfish. Seen head on, these little black and white spotted fish have a triangular profile, punctuated with a tiny snout and oversized lips. It's unusual to see more than one of these, yet here were five, right in front of my mask, staring at me expectantly. I stared back. After a few minutes' standoff, I began to kick out from shore. My entourage kept pace with me, swimming so furiously I feared they'd shred their little fins.
When we were about 25 yards out, a Whitespotted Filefish appeared. Presenting first one odd shaped side and then the other, it demonstrated its solid color phase then flashed spots.
I already regretted not bringing my camera. After a few minutes, I continued kicking toward deep water. The drop-off here begins much farther offshore than at most other Bonaire dive sites and I still had a distance to go. My finny friends headed back.
Twenty-five yards farther, I was over a gully. On my right was a shallow area filled with Elkhorn Corals. As I reached it, a school of Barracuda swam quickly by in front of me. This was just too much! Before the last silvery body disappeared, I was swimming as fast as I could toward the beach. I had to have my camera!
When I entered the water again, the Trunkfish greeted me at the surfline. They putt-putted around in front of the camera as I snapped photo after photo. (We later learned some people feed them, which explains their fascination with divers.) Once again, they accompanied me as I kicked out. The filefish made a second appearance and gave an encore performance. The Barracuda, however, failed to appear on cue and the rest of the snorkel, while interesting, lacked the drama of the first few yards!
After the Playa Funchi dive, it's time to head for home. We stop only once, to stretch our legs and photograph the colorful yellow government buildings at Boca Slagbaai. On the wa), back to the entrance that is also the exit, we occasionally see a donkey dart across the road. Because we don't want to stop, we photograph yellowheaded Caribbean paroquets, sitting on the tops of tall cactus, from the vans' open windows. We always get lost once or twice. Finally, however, we're out of the park and tooling for home as fast as our loaded down rental van can carry us. Now all we can think about is rinsing the salt off our bodies and enjoying an ice cold drink.
After seven trips to Bonaire, I have come to think of it as a second, much beloved home. I love the clean air, the warm waters and the cooling trade winds. I look forward to diving our old favorite sites and discovering new ones. And, I look forward to good times with old friends.