The Longlure Frogfish is nothing like your typical fish. I studied this small, bulbous, mottled orange creature, which resembled a fist-sized gob of putty, as he sat motionless amid the Star Coral’s lumpy terrain. In the world of reef fish, “frogs” are the true kings of couch potatoes. On an activity scale of 1 to 10, the frogfish would most likely receive a rating of 1. If and when the desire to relocate strikes it, the frogfish will walk instead of swim, hobbling with all the grace of an arthritic bulldog. Granted, they may not be the swans of the reef, but frogfish certainly make for some great fish finds and photo opportunities. I’ve often heard divers say “you really have n’t been to Bonaire unless you’ve seen at least one frogfish.”
Watching a Tiger Grouper hover nearly motionless above a cleaner station while a pair of juvenile Spanish Hogfish removed troublesome parasites, I was reminded that a great dive need not be some momentous quest or unique adventure. It can simply be a dive to enjoy and remember fondly.
A large part of Bonaire’s special magic, indeed, is its selection of easily accessible shore dives. The bulk of Bonaire’s divers come here to spend as much time as possible underwater. To some, eating, sleeping and offgassing are inconveniences that stand in the way of the next dive.
Along with its tiny sister island, Klein Bonaire, less than two miles off its western shore, Bonaire offers some 30 miles of dramatic dive sites accessible by boat as well as beach. Surf conditions are close to that of a pond.
Bonaire’s reef topography falls off rapidly from the edge of a narrow terrace, 30 feet below the surface, to depths often greater than 300 feet. The distance to the edge of the plateau is seldom more than 90 feet out. Down their sharply descending slopes, diverse Caribbean corals and sponges set the stage for a hodgepodge of shapes in assorted pastels. With Bonaire’s bounty of schooling Creole Wrasse and Bogas, sponges and Orange Cup Corals, the colors purple, orange and yellow are everywhere.
Bonaire’s Marine Park
In 1962 Bonaire was the first country in the Caribbean to implement mooring buoys on dive sites to prevent boats from damaging the fragile corals. By 1979, long after outlawing spearfishing and coral extraction, the World Wildlife Fund recognized the ecological value of Bonaire’s underwater preserve, and Bonaire’s Marine Park was established.
Today, the Marine Park encompasses both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire from the high watermark to the 200-foot mark on the sea floor. Each year, 50,000 divers and snorkelers will visit Bonaire. To maintain this marine wonderland, a $10 admission fee is collected from each diver upon arrival. In return, they are provided a plastic, color-coded disk to be tied to their BC. This is valid for the entire calendar year, regardless of the number of visits.
Diving “Off the Road”
With some 80 officially named shore dive sites shown on the map, there are more diving opportunities than you could possibly hit in two straight weeks. If you can get to the water’s edge, there is a dive site just a short distance out. Finding the sites fringing the island’s coastal roadway is easy, as most feature a large painted rock designating the entry point; most have distinctive names such as Alice in Wonderland.
Of course, a few of the sites require a little more exertion. A classic in this group is 1,000 Steps, which starts below a towering shoreline bluff with a shallow coral garden filled with tall Staghorn and Elkhorn Corals amid round heads of Brain and Star Corals. From the top of its scenic overlook a stone and coral pathway of 64 steps leads down to the beach. Just thinking about carting both dive and camera gear up and down the steps was enough to make me groan.
Feeling less adventurous (or just plain lazy) I set out in a small Boston Whaler to Bon Bini Na Cas, just north of 1,000 Steps. Like its northerly neighbor overlooked by the shoreline’s tall bluff, the site begins with 10- to 20-foot shallows mottled by seafans and other soft corals with a sprinkling of large, round Star and Brain coral heads. Down the seaward slope of the reef at depths of 60 feet and beyond, the steep bottom profiles become more colorful with long, winding strands of deep maroon wire corals and tall sprays of Purple Tube Sponges.
Most often associated with Bonaire’s shore diving is the Town Pier near the center of Kralendijk. While the reefs provide a rich supply of reef residents, almost none can surpass the Pier’s extravagant display of small, colorful and wonderfully bizarre marine life. The best time to be there is at night, when the Pier turns into a carnival fun house. Embellishing the majority of its pilings (to the point of smothering them), colonies of Orange Cup Corals (Tubastraea coccinea) set column after column ablaze with dazzling shades ranging from bright orange to deep yellow. Closer inspections of individual columns reveal assorted blennies, tube worms and crustaceans such as flamboyant Gaudy Clown and Cryptic Teardrop Crabs. Around the base of the pilings, juvenile angelfish, butterflyfish and Spotted Drums, as well as numerous small Spotted, Chain and Goldentail Morays, rule the Pier’s debris field of tires, bottles and cans strewn across the 12- to 35-foot deep sloping sand bottom.
One risk to keep in mind: Town Pier is still in active use. Be sure to ask a local guide to take you there. Bonaire’s dive operators know both the procedures and appropriate times to safely dive the Pier.
A Special Dive
A shore site called Special is the hot new spot (second only to Town Pier) for small fish and invertebrates. Frogfish, seahorses, small morays, Spotted Drums and Scarlet Lady shrimp live among the reef’s small protective nooks and crannies and finding them is a breeze.
Along the southern half of the island are some of Bonaire’s most striking shore dives. Red Slave is out from the second set of slave huts down near the southern tip of the island, while the famous wreck of the Hilma Hooker is three-quarters of the way back to town. Featuring a girth of 60 feet, the 235-foot freighter overwhelms the clear waters with its monstrous proportions. Sent to the bottom in 1984, her frame is still fully intact, rising as high as 45 feet from the surface on her starboard side. Surprisingly, even after 15 years of submersion, there is still only moderate coral and sponge growth. Orange Cup Corals and red encrusting sponges are the thickest and most colorful, adorning her giant propeller and rudder.
Coming back to the southern region offered me the opportunity to dive Salt Pier, a site I hadn’t been able to dive before.
Extending more than 120 feet out to sea, the end of Salt Pier’s massive concourse of concrete and steel pilings breaks to the north and south, forming a giant T. Below the water’s surface, the Pier’s assembly of three-foot-diameter columns creates a vista resembling a forest. Hanging from their round supports are a fantastic accumulation of corals and sponges, making each column appear to drip with a bold, bright montage of colors.
Bonaire is a prime location for outdoor sportsmen and nature lovers. In addition to diving, snorkeling and windsurfing, the island offers fishing, sea kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.
This last year of the millennium is also the anniversary of Bonaire’s discovery 500 years ago. Although New Year’s Eve would be a smashing time, just about anytime is right to visit Bonaire. There’s adventure and leisurely fun for everyone.