Blessed Bonaire

Azure vase sponges decorate the shallow reef at Karpata. Photo by Stephen Frink

Getting better with age

Imagine if the world were just a big blue marble without any land yet, and a cosmic 3D printer could create islands according to parameters entered into a computer. If the computer programmer were prescient and considered that people would want to go scuba diving on this island, what would be the input characteristics?

In this scenario, the island would be well outside the hurricane belt so those pesky seasonal storms would not disrupt people’s vacations or bring giant waves to pulverize the shallow coral reef. It would be an arid, flat island so neither rivers nor runoff from rains would diminish the water clarity. The island would have a vast lee side protected from the prevailing eastern trade winds on the opposite side of the island, allowing delicate corals to thrive in abundance. Another small island about a half mile offshore would have corals growing around the entire circumference.

This ideal location could easily describe the diver’s paradise of Bonaire and the small offshore island of Klein Bonaire. 

Almost all of the scuba diving done on Bonaire is along the lee side of the island, protected from the prevailing winds, which allows for consistently calm conditions, with abundant marine life and healthy coral reefs very near the shoreline. Bonaire is one of the world’s great shore dive destinations. 

Conservation Efforts

Blessed by geographic synergy with the sea and the coral reef, Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands. It has developed in harmony with nature, thanks to its residents’ passion about preservation. 

An octopus glides among pillar coral at Klein Bonaire. 

Klein Bonaire is an example of what has gone right in the evolution of the Bonaire eco ethos. It was privately owned for 131 years, and in 1995 its owners wanted to build resorts and holiday homes, which alarmed a group of local citizens and business owners, who feared the ecological ramifications of such development and in turn formed the Foundation for the Preservation of Klein Bonaire (FPKB). The group raised money and awareness to help save the island. With financial assistance from the Netherlands and other donations, the Bonaire government purchased Klein Bonaire on Dec. 30, 1999. In 2001 the island became part of Bonaire National Marine Park.

A pair of queen angelfish swim near the Salt Pier. 

The first sanctuary of its kind in the Caribbean, the Bonaire National Marine Park was established in 1979 with the goal of preserving the island’s offshore resources. It encompasses almost 11 square miles of ocean from the high-tide mark to a depth of 200 feet. The park prohibits spearfishing, wearing gloves (to discourage touching fragile coral), anchoring, and removing anything living or dead from the reefs. Divers must pay a $45 annual fee that goes toward supporting the marine park, which is a small price to pay for the environmental enhancement the park provides.

The Bonaire government also enacted legislation to protect topside resources. Formerly the site of two plantations on the northern part of the island, the Washington Slagbaai National Park is a 22-square-mile preserve established in 1969. It is habitat for about 340 species of flora, and its beaches are nesting grounds for green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles. Salt pans within the park are home to Caribbean flamingos, a species also found along the south end of the island in the salt pans used for the solar evaporative process that yields the huge mounds of white crystalline salt that is loaded onto freighters at the end of Bonaire’s famed Salt Pier.

Coral restoration efforts are quite successful and have resulted in large staghorn thickets.

Marine and terrestrial parks are only a part of Bonaire’s conservation endeavors. One of the most significant recent efforts is the wastewater treatment of effluent that is collected from the sewers now installed along the coastal areas of the capital city, Kralendijk, and that is also pumped and trucked for treatment from septic tanks and cesspools elsewhere on the island. I have been diving Bonaire since the early 1980s, and the perceptible encroachment of algae resulting from discharged wastewater was gradual, profound and troubling. By the early 2000s it was choking the reef, and the health of the island’s ecosystem was in jeopardy. 

Windsurfing and kiteboarding are very popular due to consistent tradewinds. 

When I returned to Bonaire in 2018 to teach one of my photo classes, however, I discovered the reefs were much better, with little algae, abundant marine life and improved visibility. The dive captain told me it was due to the sewering of Bonaire. Launched in 2014 with funding from the European Commission and the Netherlands, the expensive vacuum sewer system has been an important investment for fish, coral and visiting divers. 

The Bonaire National Marine Park and enlightened sewage treatment have been transformational for the significant beauty of Bonaire’s underwater world, making the island a model for others to emulate if they value dive tourism.

The Diving

While Klein Bonaire is a boat dive destination, the Bonaire National Marine Park features 86 dive sites marked with their names emblazoned on yellow-painted stones, all with easy access from the shore. For the past 25 years Scuba Divingmagazine’s Readers’ Choice Awards have designated Bonaire as the best shore-diving destination in the Caribbean for good reason.

A diver checks out fire corals on Klein Bonaire. 

With so many named dive sites you might assume they are all similar — and there is some broad commonality among the reefs clustered along the north, north central, central, south central, south and Klein Bonaire areas — but each is distinct as well. Even though they are near each other, 1,000 Steps, Oil Slick Leap and Jeff Davis Memorial are all quite unique. Likewise, Just a Nice Dive along the eastern tip of Klein Bonaire is far different from Forest on the western tip. 

A large population of wild donkeys is on Bonaire. 

With only a week to spend on holiday and so many excellent dive opportunities, repeat visitors to Bonaire have learned to be discriminating connoisseurs of the specific underwater attractions of particular sites and pay close attention to the variety of dive options offered daily when signing up for boat dives or planning their shore dives. The following sites are some of my personal favorites.

Jeff Davis Memorial — I have probably dived this site dozens of times over the years, but it wasn’t until my 2018 trip that I was flummoxed by the dense concentration of staghorn coral here. Maybe it was the contrast of seeing so little of it elsewhere in the Caribbean, but more likely it was the combination of the healthy and abundant natural staghorn formations along with the prolific outplanting efforts of the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire (RRFB). Named for dive medicine pioneer Jefferson C. Davis, M.D., the site features a vast reef structure along the shallow plateau and healthy azure vase and orange elephant ear sponges decorating the dropoff.

Rock Pile — RRFB has cultivated PVC trees with the fragments of suspended staghorn at this Klein Bonaire site. It is interesting how they grow these small fragments for future outplanting to the coral reef. There are also natural staghorn forests and the typical Klein Bonaire attraction of clear water and a precipitous sponge-adorned dropoff from the 40- to 90-foot range. 

A school of blue tangs swims off Klein Bonaire.

1,000 Steps — This iconic shore dive is really only 64 steps instead of 1,000, but as you hike back up after the dive with your tank, weights and camera you’ll understand how it can feel much farther. The attractions here include abundant star corals and pillar corals along with large schools of blue tangs, parrotfish, French angelfish and creole wrasses. Stony coral tissue loss disease has decimated some regions of the Caribbean, so it is inspiring to see these brain, star and pillar corals in such spectacular shape. 

Forest — Giant structures of orange elephant ear sponges as well as colossal purple tube sponges for foreground color and dimension make this Klein Bonaire site one of my favorites, especially if I am shooting wide angle with a skilled model. A densely decorated wall is in the 30- to 80-foot range, and the black coral clusters that give the site its name are at 50 to 70 feet. 

The Hilma Hooker is lavishly cloaked in colorful sponges. 
The sponge-encrusted propeller of the Hilma Hooker shipwreck is a photographic icon of underwater Bonaire.

Hilma Hooker — The premier wreck dive on Bonaire, the Hilma Hooker is accessible by either shore or boat. Mechanical problems forced this 236-foot Dutch freighter ashore at Bonaire in 1984. While in port, routine inquiries discovered that Interpol and the FBI had been tracking the vessel as a possible drug runner, and inspectors found 25,000 pounds of marijuana behind a false bulkhead. Law enforcement arrested the crew and impounded the ship as evidence. The neglected ship eventually began to take on water while still at the dock and had to be pumped. On Sept. 7, 1984, it was towed to an anchorage next to the Angel City dive site, where it sank several days later, rolling onto its starboard side in 100 feet of water just seaward to the reef slope. While the propeller is a popular subject of photographs, impressive rope sponges adorn portions of the hull, providing a crimson offset to the monochromatic steel. 

Salt Pier — While this pier is inaccessible to divers when a ship is moored and loading salt from the overhead conveyor belt system, it can be dived on most days either from shore or by boat. I like to dive this site from shore because of the many green sea turtles hanging around in the shallows. The pilings that support the pier are richly decorated with sponges and frequently grazed by both queen angelfish and French angelfish. Large schools of French grunts, parrotfish, creole wrasses and sometimes horse-eye jacks are usually in residence. This is almost an obligatory dive when visiting Bonaire. You rarely need to drop below 45 feet to dive the best of it, and most of the action is around 22 to 25 feet deep.

Obelisks were used as navigational markers on Bonaire. The huts in the background used to shelter slaves who worked in the salt ponds; Bonaire abolished slavery in 1863.

Red Slave — Two large clusters of small concrete structures built in 1850 were used to provide sleeping quarters for slaves working in the salt pans in Bonaire. The second set of huts now marks a dive site where divers can see schools of bigeye scads, turtles and horse-eye jacks between 20 and 70 feet. The site is near the end of the island, so be careful not to get caught in the current.

Carl’s Hill — Located at the northwestern tip of Klein Bonaire, Carl’s Hill is notable for the vast coral-covered plateau that has zones of specific coral concentrations. There is very nice elkhorn coral, some of it natural and some recently planted and thriving, probably due to the excellent water quality washing along the face of the dropoff. While it is difficult for me to draw myself away from the pristine pillar corals in the shallows, the vertical wall is impressive for the large orange elephant ear sponges and the blue tangs, barracudas and bar jacks that are frequently in residence.

A filtered red light illuminates the stalactites of the Bonaire cave system. 

Bonaire’s caves — When I recently posted a few images from Bonaire’s wet caves on my social media pages, I was surprised by how many longtime repeat visitors were unaware that the island has an estimated 400 caves, a few of which are open for guided snorkel tours. A certified cave guide will lead you into the correct caverns and make sure you don’t inadvertently damage the delicate stalactites and stalagmites. Using a flashlight, mask and snorkel you can swim through these crystalline waters, which tend to be a mix of both fresh and salt water, revealing frequent haloclines. 

How To Dive It

Getting there: Bonaire is accessible by air from European and North American gateways. Delta offers direct flights from Atlanta, and American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami. It has usually been easy to connect via Curaçao or Aruba, which have more frequent direct flights than Bonaire, but check for the current status of flights since air connections have been in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most hotels offer both 110-volt and 220-volt service. The official currency is the U.S. dollar. 

Conditions: The water temperature ranges from 79°F in February to 84°F by the early fall. The average topside temperature is 82°F. Visibility generally ranges from 50 to 100 feet. Bonaire’s brisk trade winds come from the east, creating great conditions for windsurfing and kiteboarding but leaving the western shoreline in the lee. Wind-driven waves are rare along the coast on the lee side, but it can sometimes be a sloppy ride home from Klein Bonaire without the protection of the main island. Located just north of the equator, Bonaire gets about 12 hours of daylight each day.

Recompression chamber: A recompression chamber is located adjacent to the San Francisco Hospital near Kralendijk.

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Explore More

Watch a video from Bonaire Tourism, and then view Stephen Frink’s bonus photo gallery

© Alert Diver — Q3/Q4 2020