By Joe Ross
Images by Buddy Dive
Located just 80km off the northern coast of South America, Bonaire is part of an island chain sometimes called the “ABC Islands” (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), and is a special municipality of the Netherlands. Geologists describe Bonaire as a coral reef that has been pushed out of the sea. Divers simply describe this tiny island as “paradise.”
Bonaire is indeed paradise. It tops virtually every list as the best shore-diving destination. Divers from all over the world are attracted to its warm, clear waters, abundant marine life and accessible wrecks. Strict marine conservation regulations have preserved the reefs and you will marvel at their beauty and vitality.
COMPULSORY ORIENTATION AND CHECKS
Before heading to a dive site, all divers on Bonaire are required to complete a marine park orientation and a buoyancy check. Both our orientation and buoyancy check took place at our dive lodge. The orientation included a tour of the facility, where the locations of the dive shop and locker room were pointed out. We were also shown where to exchange cylinders, among other important points of interest.
Our orientation revealed to us that Bonaire takes reef protection and conservation very seriously. The use of chemical glow sticks, spear guns and even gloves is illegal. We were given a stern warning that a sand-and-coral-sniffing wonder dog would be giving our luggage an olfactory once-over during the customs inspection upon our departure. If the dog were to detect any souvenir sand, coral or seashells, the offending diver could expect a stiff fine, or even jail time.
Finally, our orientation included an explanation that all marine park users must purchase a tag before entering the water. For divers, the marine park tag costs USD25 while all other users pay USD10.
With all the formalities, warnings, tags and threats of jail time, we began to wonder if we would ever get to dive, but the time eventually came. Our first chance to enter the water was from the dock at our dive lodge. Once in the water, I did the same buoyancy check as I would prior to any dive. After that, I helped two other divers in our group get their buoyancy right and we then went on with our dive. Too preoccupied with finally being able to dive, I never noticed the watchful eyes of our guide actually conducting the buoyancy check.
The house reef in front of our dive lodge turned out to be pristine, lush and full of marine life. It felt great to finally be in the water and after all the strict checks, we were on our own to explore whichever dive sites we chose.
CYLINDERS, AIR AND NITROX
Most Bonaire resorts offer unlimited air, and for a modest additional cost, divers certified for enriched air can choose nitrox. Enriched air nitrox allows longer bottom times for any given depth or can add a margin of safety when diving with no decompression limits. The flip side is that there are strict depth limits due to increased oxygen partial pressures. In Bonaire, most dive sites have a maximum depth of about 30m, so using enriched air tends not to pose much of a limit.
Most resorts offer 24-hour access to air and nitrox and allow divers to take two cylinders each on any given outing. At our dive lodge, cylinders were available at the famous “drive-through” filling station, as well as at the same dock where we did our orientation and buoyancy check.
Bonaire is a particularly good destination for both open- and closed-circuit technical divers. Several resorts offer double and decompression cylinders for rent, helium and oxygen blending, and small cylinders and scrubbers for rebreathers. Additionally, technical diver training is available from most popular agencies.
Diving from the shore affords a relaxed pace for technical divers who require methodical pre-dive setup and more space for gear handling. Usually, having a mix of technical and recreational divers at one resort is not practical, as it forces technical divers to limit their deep-diving activities to nearby locations. However, Bonaire is unique. Divers of all gear configurations and skill levels can enjoy her spectacular reefs and 26-28˚C waters however they choose.
Sidemount is a particularly attractive option for air-depth technical dives in Bonaire. A minimalist sidemount harness and wing is compact and lightweight for travel. Add to that a second regulator and the diver is ready to explore whatever depths are within the limits of his training and experience.
THE DIVING RITUAL
It only takes about a day to settle into a ritualistic diving routine on this island. Ours included getting up a little later than planned and making our way toward the breakfast buffet, which was about 90 steps from our villa. We would decide where to go that day while pigging out on eggs, sausages, bacon, fruit, waffles and the best croissants I have ever had in all my years on this earth.
Next, someone would volunteer (or be volunteered) to retrieve the vehicle, while the rest of us readied our dive gear for the day’s adventures. Once that was loaded, we were off to the drive-through fill station for our cylinders. There, we would do pressure checks and, if diving with nitrox, analyse our mixes. We made sure to keep track of whose cylinders were whose, as every diver was responsible for analysing his or her own gas. The standard nitrox blend is 32%, but we found that it varied to as high as 36%, which has a much shallower maximum operating depth.
It is easy to do five dives a day on Bonaire. Our ritual was to do two early dives, exchange our cylinders, then do two afternoon dives, and finally a night dive. You can do more or fewer; it is completely up to you. This is a key advantage to diving from the shore: You can create your own dive schedule.
BONAIRE DIVE SITES
There are currently 63 established dive sites dotting the western shore of the main island. There is very little diving activity along the eastern shore due to its exposure to prevailing winds and the correspondingly rough conditions.
For the most part, travelling to dive sites on the main island is by rented bakkie. Resorts often include a vehicle in the cost of your stay. Each dive site is marked along the road with yellow-painted rocks that display the name of the site. Finding dive locations is like a very easy Easter egg hunt for yellow rocks.
Although most Bonaire diving is from shore, boats do depart several times a day to Klein Bonaire, as well as to other popular dive sites along the main island coast. It seems most divers plan their activities by selecting dive sites and setting out to find them, or by simply hopping from site to site in one direction or another.
The Hilma Hooker
As many Bonaire dive sites are well-known, our group’s plan was to choose some of these signature dive sites and set out to explore them. For us, it was only natural to visit Bonaire’s iconic wreck, the Hilma Hooker, first. As the story goes, this ship arrived in Bonaire in 1984 with engine trouble. Eventually, the ship was boarded by authorities who discovered tons of drugs concealed behind a false bulkhead. There are conflicting accounts about what happened next, and how she ended up on the bottom.
Regardless, she is one of the Caribbean’s premier wreck dives today. The ship rests on her starboard side, about 30m deep. The reef slopes just about to her stern, although her hull rests in a sand channel. Another 10-15m past the wreck, a secondary reef begins. This double-reef system is common to many Bonaire dive sites.
Much of the Hilma remains intact. There is relatively open access to many areas inside the wreck, but those not specifically trained in wreck penetration diving should limit their exploration to the outside.
The deck of the ship stands vertically and where the gunwale digs into the sand, a 1-2m-deep depression is present. This provides enough darkness and shelter to house about a dozen bold tarpon, which patrol the ship like ghosts. Shine a light in their direction and the fishes’ eyes will reflect an eerie glow.
Alice in Wonderland
Many believe that Alice in Wonderland is the best dive site in Bonaire. We found the entry and exit slightly slippery but manageable; there is also a bit of a swim to the actual point of descent. Underwater, you will find a beautifully healthy example of Bonaire’s double-reef system, teeming with every type of fish you could imagine.
Like the Hilma Hooker, these reefs have a sand channel between them which gradually slopes south and can become very deep. I limited my depth to 33m, the exact maximum operating depth of the nitrox blend I was using. From the edge of the sand, it was mesmerising to observe parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, wrasses, cowfish and jacks go about their daily business of entertaining divers.
Scanning seaward over the sand, I spied two massive, spiny lobsters that traversed the sand before establishing a garrison beneath large cracks in the reef. I could not help but wonder what their fate would have been had they chosen a home without such a strong conservation focus. These two clearly had little fear of divers.
As we made our way back toward the main reef and our planned exit, we saw a small eagle ray feeding among the hundreds of garden eels standing to attention in the sand. Bonaire sea life seems completely tame compared to creatures at other dive locations. That, to me, is what makes Alice in Wonderland so special: You can pick any spot and just hover; within minutes, reef inhabitants will come to greet you.
A MUST-DIVE DESTINATION
Bonaire is unique in countless ways. Locals are welcoming and helpful, yet fiercely protective of their reef ecosystem. Every dive site is unspoiled, and most are appropriate for divers of any experience level. Our group had a mix of skill levels, from newly-certified divers all the way through to technical diving instructors, and no one felt restricted or overly challenged.
It is impossible to cover all the dive sites and all the reasons for divers to choose Bonaire for their next diving adventure. Bonaire is a jewel, rich in history and undisturbed by the thousands of divers that visit annually. So all I will say is Mashi Danki, Bonaire! We will be back.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Bonaire is a very small island, with a population of roughly 18 000 people.
- The currency is the US Dollar.
- There are four languages spoken on Bonaire. Dutch is used for official business, while Papiamentu is used for day-to-day life. English and Spanish are also used by the locals.
- The airport in Bonaire is named after and has the logo of the flamingo as a testament to the thousands that live on the island.
- This island is permanently tropical, with the temperature rarely, if ever, dropping below 25˚C.
- There is a tree on Bonaire that is covered in slops; over 150 of them!