A large marine park surrounds the arid island of Bonaire and includes all of Klein Bonaire, a 1,500 acre islet about half a mile offshore. Klein Bonaire (Klein means “small” in German and Dutch) is fully protected and will never be developed. It is absolutely pristine and appears today much as it did to Bonaire’s first explorers 500 years ago.
My first exploration was a dive among the sloping shallows off Klein Bonaire at a site called Forest. The dive required purchasing my first Marine Park tag, a round disc that clips onto a diver’s BC. It is good for one year and, according to Bonaire regulars, becomes quite the collector’s item.
Following the reef contour, the usual suspects were out in force—munching parrotfish, stealthy scorpionfish, Blue Tangs, Sergeant Majors, Tiger Groupers and an entire reef community going about their daily routine. Protected since 1979, marine creatures off Bonaire show no fear of divers and are old hands at posing for photographers. Colorful coral and sponge growth, including massive Orange Elephant Ear Sponges, light up the landscape. Close observance revealed seahorses camouflaged and color coded to their hosts.
The visual treat continued later at Rappel on the north end of Bonaire and No Name Beach off Klein Bonaire. Frogfish and Spotted and Green Morays lurked among the reef crevices, while Yellowtail Snapper appeared around every corner. The combination of stunning reef, friendly critters and exceptional visibility left me a little hyped and on sensory overload, especially after realizing that these sites were but a token of Bonaire’s offerings. There are more than 90 frequented dive sites around the islands, so there is little chance of exhausting diving possibilities.
But the best part of diving Bonaire is its world-renowned shore diving, which is available 24 hours a day, oftentimes mere steps from the main dive resorts. All of the more than 50 shore-accessible sites are marked with yellow painted stones (with the name of the site in black), which are found along the coast road. Two special shore dives are the Town Pier and the Salt Pier, which require a local divemaster and the Harbor Master’s permission. Both sites are world-class night dives.
The calm, inviting waters of Bonaire's leeward shore.
Town Pier’s 200 pilings extend to the viz horizon and like a mysterious forest they harbor nearly every species and color of sponge found off Bonaire. In fact, all of Bonaire’s flora and fauna flourish between these pilings—frogfish, Banded Coral Shrimp, bristleworms, Orange Cup Corals and more. The human refuse that has gathered in the sand beneath the pier has attracted an entire eco-system of creatures to its man-made hideouts. The Moray Eels in particular appreciate the piles of pipe and old tires, and seahorses can be found dangling on discarded bicycles. Many divers return year after year to Bonaire just to re-explore this fascinating site.
But, just on the outside chance that divers familiar with Bonaire’s coastal waters are looking for something new, tour operators have recently started offering snorkeling excursions through the island’s cave systems. My trek through the caves was one of the most exhilarating and challenging things I have ever tried. Three Caves. Four hours. Millions of stalactites and stalagmites. It was absolutely beautiful in an eerie, geological kind of a way. Braving cactus and sharp igneous rock to get to the cave mouth, I already had battle scars by the time we scrambled into a dark hole. Andre Wiggers, my intrepid guide, calmly instructed, “Watch your head….” The sentence was cut short by a thud and then pain, and then the voice returned, “…don’t bump your head on the cave formations. It can hurt them.” “Hurt them?” I thought. Well, I instinctively knew it was a lose-lose situation to bump into these fragile formations, but it’s always nice to have these things confirmed. The island tourism authorities want to preserve this natural beauty, and excursions to the caves are being reviewed for the safety of the caves, their inhabitants and human visitors. In short, if you go, watch your head.
After emerging from a visit underwater or underground, there are a multitude of opportunities for exploring topside. Whether you start or end in Kralendijk, the island’s town center, you will want to spend some time there. The downtown corridor of Kralendijk is charming with its assortment of souvenir shops, businesses and restaurants. Most of the resorts are found right in and around Kralendijk, and all the views look west toward Klein Bonaire.
Save the Bat Caves
One of the most important aspects of protecting Bonaire’s caves is the resident bat population. Bats are essential to the island as both pollinators of cactus and a consumer of mosquitoes. Tour operators and conservation groups are working on a controlled means to show people the beauty of the caves while at the same time educating them about the roll of the bats and the balance of Bonaire’s ecosystem. BAT, the Bonaire Bat Action Team, is leading this effort and advises all visitors to visit caves only in the company of a local guide.
In many ways Bonaire’s cave preservation efforts parallel the development of the Bonaire Marine Park 20 years ago, a success that bodes well for both the caves and visitors. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the opposite side of Bonaire is Lac Bay and Jibe City—the windsurfing area. The conditions for windsurfing are exceptional and Jibe City has a growing international reputation. The conditions are ideal for both beginners and top-level sailboarders.
At the southern end of Bonaire is the Willemstoren Lighthouse, and further around are the White and Red Slave huts. These huts are testament to a sad past, but also a marker of time and human rights progress. I also visited Lake Gotomeer on a mission to photograph flamingos. It was one more unique and wonderful image my memory banks would store for future fantasies. Only now, my dive fantasies have a place to land.