The trade winds rustle the pages of the guidebook in my lap as we drive our tank-laden pickup truck south to our next destination. We coast along a bumpy road dotted with yellow painted stones, each bearing the name of a dive site scrawled in black paint. Pink-tinged salt flats come into view as we near the pier up ahead.
Beneath the surface, amid the Salt Pier’s iconic pillars, the afternoon light dances across the scales of immense schools of grunts and snappers. Hunting barracudas linger at the fringes, while under the central pillars we encounter one sensational creature after another — a resting turtle, a porcupinefish, an octopus that pauses to put on a colorful light show. We swim to shore under a banner of pink clouds that has settled behind the pier and sit on the rocky beach to watch the sun dip beneath the horizon.
If you were to envision an ideal island destination for diving in the Caribbean, there are a few important characteristics you’d likely include. First, the island should be arid so visibility isn’t degraded by runoff from rains and rivers. Next, it should be outside the hurricane belt. And finally, the best dive sites would be on the island’s protected leeward side. If you were to add one more feature for perfection, you might imagine a small, uninhabited island with sea turtle nesting sites and more excellent dive sites in the lee of the larger island. The island in your mind’s eye would look a lot like Bonaire.
When the Spanish first arrived at Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in 1499, they called them las islas inutiles (the useless islands) because they lacked desirable resources such as precious metals and plentiful fresh water. Soon, however, the islands became valued for their rich salt reserves and strategic importance, and in the centuries that followed they changed hands many times among the Spanish, Dutch and English. Remnants of that history are still visible today: Fort Oranje (which dates back to 1639) as well as slave huts and relics of the island’s time as a penal colony (when convicts were sentenced to the harsh labor of salt extraction). Many of the livestock species found on Bonaire, such as its iconic donkeys and goats, were first imported by the Spanish in the 16th century.
In the past 50 years Bonaire has taken significant steps to preserve its reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and lagoons. The island’s shoreline, now a national marine park, is a narrow fringing reef home to 57 species of soft and stony coral and more than 350 recorded species of fish, including at least 100 that are endangered. Today Bonaire is highly regarded by divers, who find much to love in its approximately 90 dive sites.
The South Side
A few sites north of the Salt Pier, The Lake lies along the southern coast’s iconic double reef. After a moderate surface swim, we arrived at the mooring buoy marking the reef’s edge. The Lake is home to massive schools of black durgons as well as damselfish, whitespotted filefish, various species of butterflyfish and even a few Caribbean reef squid. We headed south along the lower reef, enchanted by the moray eels that peeked out from their crevices.
The site is named for the sandy “lake” that lies between the reefs. As we neared our turnaround point we discovered a spotted eagle ray nestled in the sand. It rose slowly, dusting off its camouflage, and effortlessly glided into the shadows over the bow of the Hilma Hooker.
The wreck is an intriguing dive of its own; it lies on its starboard side and features two large, open holds as well as numerous hatches for exploration by experienced wreck divers. The ship came to rest at its present location after it was towed into Bonaire in 1984 because of engine trouble. When customs officials discovered 25,000 pounds of marijuana on board, the ship was seized and anchored at the spot where it eventually sank because of disrepair.
We returned via the upper reef, and as I bent down to remove my fins in the shallows I found myself eye to eye with an octopus that was busily inspecting my gear. After a few moments the curious cephalopod danced across the bottom and slipped beneath a rock.
Petrie’s Pillar is named for its pillar coral and can be dived by boat or from shore. Our guide, who had been diving the island for 32 years, had a keen eye and the local knowledge to spot some of the reef’s most hidden inhabitants, including several seahorses tucked among the black sea rods between 25 and 50 feet.
I watched as he found the first seahorse and began searching for its mate; seahorses live in pairs and are typically not more than a dozen feet from one another. As we continued along the reef, a clang of tanks announced some visitors out in the blue — a pair of spotted eagle rays.
After we returned from our boat dives we took the opportunity to explore Calabas Reef, the house reef at one of the island’s resorts. The entry at this site is equipped with stairs and a seat to help you put your fins on, making it one of the easiest entries on the island. There are several old anchors at the site, including a very large one bearing a memorial plaque. A small sailboat rests at 75 feet. We encountered a school of squid as we headed back to shore, as well as several shrimp, the usual tarpon and barracudas, and a plethora of small spotted drums.
Later that afternoon, we carried our gear down a pebbled path and followed scuttling crabs to the entry point of Cliff. As soon as we dropped onto the reef wall, we met several large tarpon — the familiar guards of Bonaire’s reefs — and an elegant French angelfish among vibrant tube sponges. After overcoming some uncharacteristically strong current on our return, we came across Captain Don Stewart’s stone memorial to the “divers who have gone before us,” marked with a plaque and a dive flag. We took a brief reprieve at a local dive shop at Hamlet Oasis, switched tanks and asked their friendly staff for tips on where we should head next.
Their advice sent us to Bari Reef, where we had front-row seats to the curious hunting strategies of trumpetfish, which use large herbivorous fish such as parrotfish and Spanish hogfish as camouflage to stalk and ambush prey. Hiding behind these more innocuous fish allows trumpetfish to get within striking distance of unsuspecting small fish. Trumpetfish also employ another intriguing tactic in which they hang vertically in the water column and create a vacuum, sucking up small prey.
To round out the evening, we submerged at Yellow Submarine for a twilight dive filled with lionfish, tarpon gearing up for their evening hunt, pufferfish, squirrelfish and heaps of nudibranchs. Tarpon are notorious on the island as night dive companions because of their habit of using divers’ lights to hunt. As we made our way to shore, content with a full day of diving, we found a sea snake near a pair of spotted morays that had nestled in a pipe beneath the pier. Even in the shallows, Bonaire’s marine life is abundant.
As we drive north the road dwindles to a single lane. Large rocks mark its right edge, and the shore sharply drops off to the left. We pulled up next to a hollowed-out shack fondly referred to as the Witches Hut; below the surface we find a colorful reef wall teeming with cleaning stations and distinct coral zones. Tucked away amid patches of coral are spotted morays, lobsters and octopus dens.
Directly north of Witches Hut (also known as Weber’s Joy) sits the 1,000 Steps. Though the hike to the site consists of only 73 steps, divers quickly learn how it earned the moniker. Navigating the staircase with a full kit is quite a workout, but it is also worth the trek across the rocky beach and into the water, where we encountered several turtles, smooth trunkfish and schools of horse-eye jacks.
In Bonaire, one quickly becomes accustomed to seeing massive schools of fish along the reef walls, dive after dive. The sheer quantity of fish enables unique opportunities to observe territorial displays and other intriguing behaviors. At 1,000 Steps, for example, we discovered two graysbys in the middle of a bout and paused to watch as they engaged in several boxing rounds, charging at one another with open mouths and colliding with impressive force. After a quick spar, the two separated, rested and then vehemently reengaged.
From 1,000 Steps, we continued north to explore Karpata, whose dramatic terrain features a hilly, sweeping reefscape with ridges that stretch out to a depth of 131 feet, which alone makes for an impressive dive. Within the first 10 minutes of the dive, we had already encountered a huge free-swimming moray, several Caribbean reef squid and no fewer than five turtles. Take note: The road leading to Karpata becomes one way just south of the site, so plan your route accordingly.
If you’re on the island just a few days after the full moon, descend at The Lake after sunset. We joined a group and headed there to observe an ostracod spawning. Also called seed shrimp, ostracods are known for their bioluminescence.
After descent and once we’d acclimated to the darkness, our guide signaled us to cut our lights. We could just make out the outlines of the reef in the light of the waning moon. As we finned forward, flickers of bioluminescence sparkled here and there. Periodically our guide paused, turned on his light and cast it in a half circle around him before quickly shutting it off again. Small bursts of bioluminescence would follow.
Soon I watched as each piece of a bright blue bioluminescent zigzag connected in front of my eyes. Moments later the site exploded in an unbelievable bioluminescent swirl. For the next 20 minutes, I swam through a subaquatic galaxy, witness to a bioluminescent courtship unlike any spawning event I have ever experienced.
These flashes of light, swirls, zigzags and linear patterns are produced by male cypridinid ostracods. The distinct patterns are characteristic of individual species and are released above unique microhabitats to attract mates. As the last flickers faded into the darkness, I reluctantly switched on my light for the swim back to shore.
On our final diving day we take one last trip to the Salt Pier. My ledger teems with notes of things to do next time — Washington Slagbaai National Park and its dive sites, the fluorescent dive, the flamingo sanctuary and more trips to the fantastic little gelato shop. Amid the pillars of this iconic site, I bid farewell to divers’ paradise.
How to Dive It
Conditions: There are sites for all levels of divers. Some offer more challenging entries with rocky footing, sea urchins and surf. Thick boots are recommended; gloves are not permitted. Average visibility is 60-100 feet. Some shore entries can be challenging, but the diving is very accessible. Bonaire’s far northern, southern and eastern reaches may have strong and unpredictable currents that can be physically demanding and require some advanced training. A guide is strongly recommended for diving the eastern side of the island. Water temperatures are 78-80°F from December to March and 81-84°F from April to November. The average air temperature is 84°F year-round.
More Information: Each diver must pay a $25 fee to STINAPA (www.stinapa.org), Bonaire’s National Parks Foundation, for marine park tags. Stop by the tourism office to get a map of the island’s dive sites. Before you go, you may wish to order Susan Porter’s Bonaire: Shore Diving Made Easy and/or Marloes Otten’s Dive Guide Bonaire for information about site access, common marine life, shore entries and currents. Renting a dive-ready vehicle is a must-do for getting around the island. Most operators offer boat dives and unlimited tanks for shore diving.
© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2015