Shore Diving in Bonaire

There may be no easier way to reach a coral reef than from the Dutch Antillean island of Bonaire, just north of the coast of South America.
The drill is a simple one: shoulder your gear at the edge of the beach—any beach—lurch towards the Windex-clear water, side-stepping the topless Dutch tourists, and settle into a calm tropical sea that hardly ever seems to break a sweat. Fin out over the shallow reef building corals—elkhorn and staghorn—to where the bottom begins to slope deeper and great colonies of brain and star corals appear. Drop down with it, to the wall-like reef that fringes all of Bonaire. Then enjoy your dive in an exceptionally healthy marine environment where fish and coral have been protected in a park since 1979. Good thing, too, because sport divers from around the world drive this economy; no wonder the local auto license plates read: "Divers' Paradise." (The island is consistently ranked among the top five dive spots in the world.)

Bonaire is volcanically ancient—its 70-million-year-old mountains, now truncated by waves and erosion, were later layered with prehistoric coral reefs, terraced at the shores. Today, the southern shores of the arid island are marked with beaches of coral rubble and limestone sand; the northern with steep cliffs. Although entirely fringed by reefs, the windward side of Bonaire is usually too rough (if not dangerous) to dive—with the rare exception of the site named Lighthouse at the southern end of that coast. Head instead to the more than 90 other tagged sites around the island—Country Garden, Angel City, Ol' Blue, and 1000 Steps among them.
When sport diving began here 30 years ago, it was done from the backs of pick-up trucks, which took divers around the island. While boats run regularly to the reefs today, you can still enjoy the "dive freedom" that Bonaire shops advertise by renting a vehicle and doing the same thing. Many shops, like the pioneering Capt. Don's Habitat, keep tanks available for use around the clock—just pick them up, leave your empty bottles in their place, and off you go. Only the uninhabited Klein Bonaire ("Little Bonaire") just offshore requires a short boat ride; there, you will find a reef just like that which fringes the larger isle. Look for octopus dens (marked by empty shells), seahorses (territorially tethered to one gorgonian or another), eels, and scads of tropicals—including plate-sized yellow tailed snapper and schools of angelfish. Conservation laws keep anchors off the bottom (and use mooring buoys instead), and outlaw any spearing of fish, collecting shells, or harming coral.
PRACTICALLY SPEAKING
Bonaire is part of the three-island Netherlands Antilles chain that includes Aruba and Curacao, way down in the southernmost Caribbean. Although locals speak a Dutch-Caribbean patios, most also speak English, Dutch, and, increasingly, Spanish. Big jets land at Aruba and commuter flights take you on to Bonaire. Almost all hotels here offer inexpensive dive packages—by far the best way to go. Without airfare, figure on $100-$160 per day for a decent room and filled tanks, plus some guided offshore excursions.
Most packagers/guides require a check-out dive, regardless of your experience—but after that, the notion of dive freedom really kicks in. Parking near the shore dive sites is plentiful, and free. There is a one-time $10 fee to use the marine park, good for a year; no one complains because they know it helps fund management of one of the healthiest dive sites in the world.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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