Diver's paradise in the southern Caribbean
Season: Year-round diving
Water Temperature: 26-30°C/79-86°F
Diving: House reef, walls, coral gardens, Critter diving, shore diving
Snorkeling opportunities available
Bonaire’s vehicle licence plates say it all: ‘Diver’s Paradise’ they proclaim! Its spectacular fringing reef of gloriously healthy coral teeming with prolific marine life, including a variety of most unusual, but easily discovered, marine creatures, makes Bonaire a prime diving destination. Some of the richest diving in the Caribbean, excellent weather, clear and warm waters, superb accommodation and food – it is easy to see why Bonaire has a reputation for excellence amongst well-travelled divers.
Just 50 miles north of Venezuela, 21 mile long Bonaire, together with the its uninhabited sister islet of Kleine Bonaire, is part of the Netherlands Antilles, a self-governing part of the Netherlands. Bonaire is seriously committed to preserving its marine heritage by making virtually the entire diving area a protected marine park with stringent rules for reef conservation. Animals that have been hunted to extinction on some other islands have been protected here for many years. There are dives sites that can only be reached by boat, but a great feature of Bonaire is that many of the best sites are accessible as shore dives, some starting only a few metres from the shoreline.
This fascinating, small, crescent-shaped island is quite different from most others in the Caribbean. Many of the visitors come to Bonaire to dive or to observe the wildlife. There are over 150 species of birds found among the inland lakes and lagoons and along the shoreline. The whole island and its surrounding water to a depth of 61 metres is a protected marine park where nothing may be removed or disturbed, and of course spearfishing has been banned for years. All boats use moorings to protect the coral. The processes of nature created this fascinating underwater world, but it is Bonaire’s serious commitment to conservation and the preservation of its marine life that allows it to remain special.
Several hundred marine species are found in the waters of Bonaire. Giant Caribbean anemones, ancient brain corals, the stinging fire coral and the beautiful and precious black coral grow in profusion. The constant temptation presented by angelfish, Frogfish, Tiger Groupers, butterflyfish and, if one is fortunate, even an elegant but shy seahorse clinging with its tail to a gorgonian makes it difficult for the fish watcher to know which way to turn. The sheer variety of invertebrates invites the diver to stop and spend some time in quiet study of the reef.
Bonaire is an excellent choice for the diver who wishes to take the family along with them. World class snorkeling on the reefs and excellent accommodation (including a very well organised children’s activity club) will mean the whole family can enjoy a Caribbean experience to remember!
Because of the variety of wildlife and the almost perfect conditions, Bonaire is an ideal choice for the marine photographer. Some say that Bonaire is probably the most prolific destination in the world for fish and macro photography and many dive sites have truly wonderful populations of fish and invertebrates which can be studied in just a few metres of water.
For photography enthusiasts, sheltered pool-like Bari Reef, just in front of Sand Dollar, will soon become an underwater studio. Peacock Flounders, parrotfish, Creole Wrasse and tiny damselfish and chromis patrol the reef. Frogfish and octopus are familiar visitors too. Elkhorn, fire and brain corals are found in the shallows and the slope of the reef holds star corals, purple sponges and azure vase sponges. Deeper still are plate corals and barrel sponges, and the reef ends at a sandy bottom which holds a colony of Garden Eels. At night snake eels and Spotted Morays search for food and harmless but large (up to 2.5 metres long!) Tarpon swoop into the beams of divers’ lights to snatch a meal of fish. Bari Reef is a splendid dive site for beginners, for those who need a little easy practice to regain their diving skills after an interval or for those who love to study reef life, simply watching and leaning about incredible underwater creatures. Find a sea anemone and wait quietly before placing your fingers gently close-by. A kind little cleaner shrimp is likely to pop out and give you a personal manicure!
Aptly named Something Special begins with a steep wall that falls to 24 metres. The wall, encrusted with sponge and coral is home to a large population of scorpionfish – masters of camouflage, they appear to be extensions of algae-covered rock as they rest motionless. Mating groups of beautiful Blue-spotted Cornetfish, some up to 2 metres in length, can occasionally be spotted in the deeper waters and individuals can sometimes be seen cruising above the sandy ocean bed. In the sandy bottom of the reef a delightful colony of Garden Eels peep out of their burrows, turning their heads into the prevailing current to catch passing plankton.
One of the most popular dives is the beautiful Forest, named for the luxuriant growth of black coral colonies. Located on the south side of Klein Bonaire, the mooring is in about seven metres of water on the edge of a narrow shelf. The shallow zone has much hard coral and abundant sea fans and gorgonians. The drop-off is a series of buttresses and gullies, some of which are sand-filled. At 15-20 metres there are many spectacular large elephant ear sponges. Divers should remember to bring dive lights, for within the many tube sponges dwell a superb array of splendid little fish. Do not be surprised at the sight of a diver ‘standing on his head’ with a light aimed down a tube sponge! The uncommon Marbled Grouper can be found here along with snappers and filefish.
Washington-Slagbaai National Park occupies much of the northern part of the island, with Mount Brandaris rising high above the sea. The secluded beaches are particularly stunning here, with caves (some still bearing ancient Amerindian inscriptions) and cliffs still waiting to be explored. Many of these beaches provide excellent shore dives and snorkeling opportunities. Wonderful panoramic views reward those willing to hike for short distances and the wild and rugged windward seashore is a delight to explore. Natural freshwater springs attract a host of superb tropical birds, lizards and iguanas. 4000 pairs of tall, slender, pink Greater Flamingos breed in Bonaire and some can always be found at the shallow lakes in the park. The south of the island, which is barely above sea level, is dotted with lagoons and mangroves and covered with aloes, cacti and low, maquis-like shrubs. Old slave huts are a stark reminder of the dreadful days when the salt-working slaves were forced to work long hours in the blazing sun and sleep in hot, cramped conditions. Mangroves thrive in the east of the island at Lac Bay, where those interested in seeing something different can snorkel in the shallows in search of unusual fish and stingless jellyfish. The capital, Kralendijk, can be strolled through in about 15 minutes.
FLIGHTS: Example price: from about $503 return from Miami to Bonaire.