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Bonaire is diving freedom

by Len Deeley

Reproduced from in focus 70 (February 2001)

'Where are you going?'


'Going where?'

'Bonaire, in the Netherlands Antilles'

'Where's that?'

'The Caribbean'.

Although Bonaire is now well known to divers all over the world, it's amazing how many times I had the above conversation with non divers before my trip in October of this year. That is not surprising really as Bonaire is diving and diving is Bonaire.


Longlure frogfish © Len Deeley

When Captain Don made landfall in May 1962, there were only about 4,000 people living on Bonaire. There was no compressor and there were no tanks. Captain Don had a compressor (now on show in the reception of Captain Don's Habitat) and six tanks and after diving the virgin sites around the island, made it his home. He is still there now and you will meet him without fail if you visit Captain Don's Habitat as he gives a show each week and props up the bar on many evenings.

Captain Don's history is colourful and you can read about it in the small book under the title of 'The Adventures of Captain Don. Tales of Bonaire Diving (Guaranteed 85% True)' That is another story but importantly it was Captain Don (Donal A. Stewart) who first appreciated the potential of Bonaire as a location for sport diving and from the earliest days encouraged good diving practices and reef conservation to ensure that this underwater treasure was not ruined.
Bonaire tourism is now the primary industry with some 70,000 visitors a year, most of whom are divers, although cruise boats now include it on their itineraries. The island is located 50 miles (80km) north of Venezuela and consists of 112 square miles (290 It is 24 miles (37 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide at its widest point. To the west of the island is an uninhabited islet of 1500 acres called Klein Bonaire.

With prevailing easterly winds, the west side of Bonaire and the whole of Klein Bonaire is one big dive site with about 60 mooring points, the only means of mooring permitted. All dive sites on Bonaire (but not Klein Bonaire) are also accessible from the shore, with the dive sites marked from the road with yellow obelisks containing the dive site's name.

Captain Don's Habitat calls itself the 'home of diving freedom' and my four diving buddies and I who had made the trip wondered what that meant. We were soon to find out as the whole approach to divers is a mature one based on the belief that if you have achieved qualifications, you are responsible for yourself and do not need to be wet-nursed by over zealous dive guides.
This become clear at the initial briefing, where the basic rules are spelt out. We all know them, look, don't touch; leave only bubbles, take away only photos and memories. I asked whether I could take my camera on the first familiarisation dive. We were told that we could do what we liked as the dive was not accompanied by a dive guide but was simply for the individual to check buoyancy. How refreshing. Many of us have experienced the zealot dive guides prancing and preening and insisting that you follow them, while they check out whether you can survive in the warm tub of a sea with 30m vis. Oh, how I'd like to introduce them to the English Channel on a wet weekend!

Dive boats go out 3 times a day, at 8.30am, 11.15am and 2pm. You simply put your number down (yes, you all get a number) on a board and turn up. Tanks are on board waiting for you. You can accompany each dive trip, but may have to pay for trips over and above those booked as part of the dive package. We booked two dive boats a day and unlimited shore diving.

At Captain Don's you can literally dive 24 hours a day. Tanks are always available and you simply take them and dive. The house reef is teeming with marine life, including Queen and French Angelfish, Trumpet and Puffer fish, Barracuda, Spotted Morays, grunts, snappers, wrasses, parrotfish, scorpionfish, Peacock Flounders, Squid, Octopus and many others.

For the photographer there are some 'exotics' that are particularly worth searching out, including sea horses, frog fish, flamingo tongue snails, decorator crabs, lettuce slugs and Spotted Cleaning Shrimp in anemones. The reefs are rich with corals and gorgonians, although not particularly colourful. However, there are some impressive and beautifully delicate sponges. Turtles breed on Klien Sonaire and sharks con also be seen, although these are more likely on the windward side of the island, where dive boots seldom go and shore entry is hazardous.

If you want you can hire a vehicle, load up with tanks, and set off to shore dive. The sites ore easily accessible and the fringing reef drop off is near to the shore.

A night dive under Kralendijk town pier is a must. It is the only place where you need to be accompanied by a guide and a permit is required, which the dive guide will obtain for you. It normally costs £15 per diver to arrange. However, the wonderful colours of the cup corals, the encrusting sponges in red and orange and invertebrates, such as arrow crabs and masking crabs are amazing.

It is worthwhile also taking a day out from the diving, hiring a car and seeing the island. Krolendijk, the main town on the island, is only about a mile south of Captain Don's and has a limited selection of shops and restaurants. Head south and you come to the salt flots, with wonderf ul colours of the various salt pans. Stone huts, which used to house the slaves who worked the salt pans until slavery was abolished in the 1900 century, are a haunting reminder of this trade in human souls.

Pink Flamingos are found in the south and in the north of the island as it is a breeding ground for thousands of nesting pairs. Their pink colour derives from the natural substances in their food source that is filtered from the bottom sediment of the lagoons and salt pans. On the east is Lac Bay, where mangroves thrive.

Drive north through a landscape of scrub brush, cactus and aloe plants and the land becomes more hilly. The highest point is Brandaris Hill in the Washington/Slagbaai National park which is 784 ft (238m) above sea level on the north of the island.

Captain Don's Habitat more than lived up to its claim to being the home of diving freedom. Yes we did meet the odd diving fundamentalist, whose bible obviously states that divers must go no nearer than 6ft from the reef. Therefore, they became apoplectic when we interpret that flexibly to take macro photos. I don't doubt they have coffee table books full of wonderful macro pictures and never give a thought to how hypercritical they are when they chant their mantra 'don't go near the reef*. There was also the dive guide who liked the sound of her own voice and made her opinion clear about underwater photographers when she spouted on about no touchy, touchy, feely, feely, with the phrase 'now I have nothing against photographers, but'. Needless to say, we saw the occasional less experienced diver accidentally coming in contact with the reef. Interestingly though, they did not have cameras in their hands (yes, this is a plea for the oft persecuted underwater photographer).

Bonaire is one of the great dive locations of the world. One trip is not enough and I will certainly return. And Captain Don's Habitat has got it about right with its grown up attitude to divers that automatically encourages you to take responsibility for yourself and protect the wonders that we are fortunate enough to see. And Captain Don? WelI at 75 he still looks like a dashing pirate and the women just love him. Makes ya sick doesn't it?

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