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Bonaire - a diver's paradise

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 67 (February 2000)


Almost every vehicle licence plate on the Caribbean island of Bonaire bears the legend 'Bonaire - Divers Paradise', but can this vain boast be true? Ever since I first began diving in the mid 1970's I had read of or been told by travelling divers that this island offered the best diving in the Caribbean, but it has taken me nearly 22 years of diving to arrange a trip here. I had already dived in the Caribbean in Cuba, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands, all of which have some superb reefs, so I was fascinated to know what was going to make Bonaire so different.

Bonaire is one of the three islands that make up the Dutch Leeward group of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, often called the ABC islands. They lie right at the southern end of the Caribbean sea between 5070 miles from the coast of Venezuela which places them outside the seasonal hurricane belt which can plague the islands further north. Bonaire itself is a boomerang shaped island lying roughly north to south and only 24 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest point. This orientation puts the island directly across the path of the trade winds from the east and so provides a year round lee shore on the western side. Mid way down the island nestled only a mile or so from this lee shore is the tiny uninhabited island of Klien Bonaire. The coral reefs on the western edge are never more than 15-30m from the shore and Klien Bonaire is only ten minutes away by boat. So now imagine that the entire coast and neighbouring island are a protected marine park and that you can choose to dive easily from the beach or from a variety of purpose designed fast and comfortable boats and you begin to realise why Bonaire has built it's reputation.
The diving industry in Bonaire was really sparked by the arrival of Captain Don Stewart whilst cruising his yacht from Miami in the late 1960's. He established the very first diving centre on the island and was instrumental in the establishment of the marine park and fixed mooring system, which has protected the reefs since 1979, when the World Wildlife Fund sponsored the inauguration of the Bonaire Marine Park. Captain Don's Habitat is not the largest centre on the island now, but has the reputation for being one of the best organised whilst retaining a relaxed informality which is what spurred us to book our stay here.

Arrival at any of the diving centres on Bonaire, is followed by an obligatory marine park briefing for all divers. During this the basic rules of the park are explained which are broadly as follows:

o No anchoring is permitted. There are a total of 86 named dives sites to choose from and all have a permanent mooring in place.

o Exercise good buoyancy control and do not touch the reefs or collect living or dead corals or shells (free buoyancy clinics are on offer if you think your skills are rusty).

o Spear fishing is banned and gloves are forbidden on all dives with the one exception of the only major wreck dive here, the 'Hilma Hooker'.

o Do not touch corals or marine life with camera prods or framers.

o Do not feed the fish (however, you can do this with a 'qualified' dive guide).

A $10 annual membership fee is collected from all divers which goes towards the pork's administration costs and funds the rangers who monitor diving within the park confines - this is not high profile, in fact we only saw one ranger vehicle during our one week stay. Some centres follow this with a check out dive with an instructor, but at Captain Don's we were merely asked to make our first dive from the centre's jetty to trim our buoyancy prior to joining a boat or trying the beach diving by ourselves.

Habitat offered up to five boots with three departure times a day (08:30, 11:30 and 13:30) and absolutely unlimited beach diving. The boat destinations were displayed each (afternoon, so it was just a matter of identifying your preferred site, chalking up your name and then turning up 10 minutes before departure time. Boats carry a maximum of 12 divers whilst in fact there is room for more, so crowding is not a problem on the boot or at the selected dive site, as no more than one boot (from any centre) moors at any one dive site. Following an on site briefing from the dive master you were free to do your own thing or follow the guide if preferred - no limits on bottom times and advised maximum depth of 40m. A breath of fresh air compared to some Caribbean dive centres!

Between, or instead of the boat dives you can collect up to three bottles each at any time to dive on the reef in front of the centre, or to load up your hire car and explore the mostly deserted beach sites. Most of the hire companies offer divers Suzuki micro buses which will carry four divers with bottles and kit easily and are an ideal vehicle for exploring the winding coastal lanes - you can also book your car at the hotel, so don't forget to pack your driving licence. The marine park provides a leaflet with all the diving sites marked and this is repeated by yellow painted roadside markers, so finding your intended location is simplicity itself. These identified sites provide some parking and pathways to the beach, but of course you con choose to be even more adventurous and stop anywhere along the road and sample the reef. Although crime is very low on the island, petty pilfering from cars whilst the owners are diving is a hazard so it is best to leave nothing of value and leave your vehicle unlocked.

The centre provides excellent facilities for storage of wet kit (large lockers in two spacious rooms opening directly onto the quay) which can be washed off as soon as you return from a dive in several dip tanks, which are emptied and refilled during the day. There even separate rinse tanks for cameras - they take their photographers very seriously here. The photo shop on site con provide tuition if you need it, hire of Nikonos and video equipment and daily E6/C41 processing. There is also a separate dedicated photographer's boat run by the resident photo-pro, Jerry Schnabel.

The reef directly in front of the centre is surprisingly good, although the shallows directly in front of the jetty show obvious signs of heavy trainee traffic. However, swimming 50 metres or so north brings a dramatic improvement with the reef starting in 8-10 metres then dropping shear in a mini-wall to 20 metres or so. In fact here was the only location I was able to find and photograph the elusive seahorse, both a brown and an orange one, and it is an ideal location for night dives. But of course you would not spend your whole stay here, so how did the other sites measure up the proud boosts of the diving centres?

In short they were excellent and exceeded my expectations. The marine park was established before the huge expansion of diver traffic and therefore has managed to preserve the reefs from some of the damaging practices, which have plagued other parts of the Caribbean. The hard and soft corals are lush and healthy and fish life profuse. No spear fishing means that most fish are inquisitive rather than wary which is very encouraging if you are a photographer. Beach diving is particularly attractive to photographers as you con often have the site to yourself and also have the freedom to dive a site repetitively to pursue a particular subject. Whilst my favourite sites were probably found on Klien Sonaire, the sites on the main island were equally good and offered more in the way of variation in topography. So here is a brief summary of my top five sites:

o Munk's Haven (Klein Bonaire): An impressive and undercut wall here is memorable for the variety and size of the colourful sponge population. There are some massive orange elephant ear sponges and many species of tube sponge, most of which appear to be home to either a small hawk fish or pistol shrimp. In the shallows at the top of the wall are forge areas of stag horn patrolled by some very large trunk fish and dozens of large anemones each home to both harlequin and ghost shrimps. You really need to carry two camera systems on a dive like this to cover all the wide.angle and macro possibilities.

o South West Corner (Klein Bonaire): This is the most exposed corner of the island of Klien Bonaire and as such con be a little rough when the trade wind is blowing hard and also has the strongest currents of any of the sites. However, do not confuse the local reference to current with what you might experience in the local reference to current with what you might experience in the UK, water movement is very torne here by comparison. The wall here drops away very quickly and is dominated by huge gorgonians and plate corals. Being (in exposed point it also attracts larger shoals of predatory fish such cis horse eyed jacks and some impressive barracuda. I am also assured that both manta and the occasional whole shark have been seen here, but I had to content myself with several turtles instead.

o Salt Pier: Salt production is one of the major industries on Bonaire and most of the activity is situated a few miles south of Kralendijk. Here there is a substantial salt loading pier for the incoming cargo ships, which makes Q fascinating dive. Under the pier provides shelter for a number of different fish species, including a very large lone barracuda, and the legs and piles are festooned with every variety of sponge and gorgonian from the reefs. The shapes and angles of the pier structure provide a striking and graphic backdrop for wide-angle photography. On your swim out and back along the pier watch out for dive bombing pelicans which sit on the pier top spying out their lunch.

o Ol' Blue: This is one of the more popular beach sites in the national park, but even so it is possible to not see another diver throughout your dive. The entry is easy and a short swim leads you to the garden of gorgonians at the top of the reef. The wall drops away quickly and is covered by large sponges and whip corals amongst the impressive stands of brain coral. A good site for large groupers, shoals of jacks and the occasional free swimming giant green moray eel!

o Cliff: This site is just 100m or so north of the dive centre at Captain Don's, accessed by a short walk along the paved sea front path to a small sandy beach. Here a cut in the reef leads you to the top of the mini wall in 8-10m depth dropping to 20m or so. Good hard and soft corals, plenty of small fish life and abundant gorgonions and sponges. Most memorable for me for the presence of two co-operative seahorses, dozens of tiny secretary blennies, nudibranches and some splendid peacock flounders.

The accommodation range at Habitat offers a choice of cottages tucked away in the tropical gardens, poolside and beach-front apartments or the luxury of a villa complex. All provide space for at least four people and self-catering facilities. Eating out here can be a little expensive compared to the UK, so if you are on a tight budget either plan to use the well stocked supermarket in town or pre-book a meal package with Habitat which is very reasonable.

Although the majority of the island's tourist industry is dedicated to the visiting diver, there are other attractions by day and night if the diving becomes too much for you. However, don't expect a cosmopolitan nightlife here, although there is a night club and casino in the capital entertainment is largely relaxed and low key. There is a huge variety of restaurants to choose from fast food to sect food - but some are expensive and you can all too easily run up a nasty shock on your credit card bill! The capital of Kralendijk is the size of a small seaside town in the UK, but definitely has the imprint of Dutch colonialism on it particularly in its brightly coloured (architecture. rhere is everything from supermarkets to high chic boutiques here but most of the shops are geared to the tourist souvenir market aimed towards American tastes.

If the pace of the diving becomes wearing or you are staying for two weeks then take the opportunity to investigate a little of Bonaire's other attractions. There are two other nature sanctuaries to explore on Bonaire, the Washington-Sictgbaai National Park at the northern end and the flamingo reserve at the southern end. In fact the bird population is very varied and prodigious and, surprisingly to divers, some tourists visit only with bird watching in mind! The northern end of the island is surprisingly rugged and hilly with lush vegetation and hides a number of secluded beaches and coves ideal for a lazy picnic watching the island's flamingos and crash diving pelicans grabbing their lunch. At the southern end of the island you will find the salt pans, which is what attracts the flamingos to the breeding sanctuary, and evidence of the history of the island's use of slave labour to harvest the salt. Tiny slave worker's huts which dot the coastline are a harsh reminder of the common use of slaves throughout the Caribbean.
There are a variety of ways to travel to Bonaire, all of which require at least one change of aircraft en-route. KLM fly direct from Amsterdam or you can fly with a number of carriers through Miami and onward with the local ALM airline (our choice) or there are alternative routes via Lisbon in Portugal, Caracas in Venezuela or several other 'gateway' cities in the USA. The good news is that most transatlantic flights offer greater baggage allowances than far-east bound flights, a boon for divers particularly photographers.

Each diver's personal vision of paradise is bound to be different, but the ease and quality of the diving in Bonaire go a long way to meeting their claim. If you want diving freedom in a relaxed and informal location without the glitzy attributes of some other Caribbean destinations then Bonaire should move to the top of your list.

Information:

Currency: Local currency is the NAF Netherlands Antilles Guilder - but US dollars are accepted everywhere as are all major credit cards.

Language: The official language is Dutch but most locals speak Papiamento, a mixture of several colonial languages. Most locals also speak English well.

Voltage: 110v is standard, but can surge. Bring a transformer to boost and smooth the current to 240v or charge batteries at the dive centre.

Water: All the tap water on the island is produced by a desalination plant just north of Kralendijk. The quality is excellent and can be drunk from the top without a worry.

Medical: The main well equipped hospital is St. Francis Hospital. There are also local doctors and medical centres.

Recompression: A recompression chamber is situated at St. Francis Hospital.

Climate: Truly tropical. Temperature a Steady 80-85° with a constant trade wind from the east which get somewhat stronger during July and August. Rainfall is 10-15' per year in short showers generally in the winter months. Water Temperature: Between 78-84°, warm enough for a shorty or dive skin if you swim about during your dives. For photographers I recommend a 3-5mm wet suit. Visibility is normally around 30m.

Bonaire Tourist Office:

Interreps BV
Visserringlaan 24,
2288ER Rijswijk
Netherlands.
Tel. 003170 3905
Fax. 003170 3368333

Captain Don's Habitat

PO Box 88
Kralendijk
Bonaire
Netherlands Antilles
Tel. 00 599 7 8290
Fax. 00 599 7 8240

Reproduced from in focus 67 (February 2000) with kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk/)


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