We visited Bonaire for a week, to give our snorkel gear and ourselves a workout while exploring the reefs just off the rocky leeward shore and those surrounding the tiny island of Klein Bonaire, a short boat hop away.
I first visited Bonaire in the mid-1990s, when the coral reef communities appeared to be healthy and thriving. Continuing my 40-year quest to experience the “last of the living tropical reefs”, this year I chose a vacay in Bonaire, hoping to share some remarkable experiences with Robin, both underwater and topside.
The Dutch influence is prevalent on the island. The Dutch “took possession” of the island in the early 1600s (read: center of Caribbean slave market and colonial plantations). Visitors should be prepared for the prevalence of the official Dutch language on signage, in grocery stores, restaurants, on websites, etc. In any language, Bonaire is a lovely and unique Caribbean destination.
Our Air BnB roomy home, situated just outside the tumult of the town center, served as a relaxing oasis. Each morning we awakened to the calls of flocks of Amazon Yellow Shouldered parrots and parakeets in the lush gardens surrounding the house. Ground doves cooed, little Quits flitted and hummingbirds darted among the bright flowers near the swimming pool, and even a large green iguana hung out on a tree limb.
Snorkeling the Reefs
The extremely low rainfall on this arid island means clear waters. Generally, the currents on the lee side of the island are gentle, and the fairly healthy reef communities continue to attract divers from all over the world. It’s easy to drive around the island, accessing a variety of dive spots noted on numerous published maps of the island. One can dive or snorkel several spots during the day (or night), and go on to explore other sites or revisit favorite sites, depending on how much time you want to spend in the water.
Island residents and businesses have long catered to divers, with numerous dive operators, shops, and places to stay that come complete with outside fresh water rinse tanks and lockers to store dive gear. Even rental car agencies offer a variety of pickup trucks and SUVs to ease the handling of heavy dive equipment. Such amenities certainly account for the popularity of this amazing destination for divers.
Arid, cactus-y, and sunbaked, the island terrain reminded us of Arizona, but the smaller scale meant that driving around Bonaire gave us ready access to more shore diving spots than we had time to snorkel in our week’s stay. But hey, we did our best, waking before sunrise every day to drive north up the coast, away from the traffic, noise, and cruise ship crowds, to a typically tiny pull-off along the narrow, steep coastal road. Once at our chosen site, we’d don our wet suits, and make our way to the rocky shore below, sometimes down a very long, steep cliff face!
Carefully we’d mince across sharp rocks and with our masks and snorkels ready to go, cautiously make our way through the choppy shallows into water deep enough to allow us to don our flippers and kick away from all those razor rocks waiting to slice our feet, ankles, hands, and exposed skin.
We’d typically spend an hour or more paralleling the shore, swimming against the mild-to-moderate current, in 25-40 feet of water.
Visiting the Locals
Cruising over the reef below, we spotted all manner of fish and other critters in our dives each day. Different spots offered different encounters, ranging from curious large French Angelfish approaching us as if looking for a handout, to spotting various turtles (Hawksbill and Green), some snoozing on the surface mere feet away.
Our quiet and stealthy maneuvering saved energy and allowed us to become a part of our surroundings. Robin often spotted elusive and super-well camouflaged Sharptailed eels, which I kept missing! I did catch a glimpse of a small Green Moray eel as it wove through crevasses in the reef below.
It was a treat to come face to face with an adult Rainbow Parrotfish as large as a throw pillow! And, my talisman the Puffer, came to grin at us several times on one of the boat dives we enjoyed. How I love these cuties, with their little smiles and shy nature. The one we hung out with was the size of a small dog, complete with large, round, dark puppy eyes.
One day we secured a private charter and asked skipper/dive master Ebby to take us to a couple of his favorite reefs offshore of Klein Bonaire and the main island. Those dives were a delight- no getting banged about in the rocky shallows making shore entries and exits. Just jump in, go where we want, and stay as long as we liked, and so we did!
Another day we joined a bunch of newbie tourist snorkelers aboard “Sea Cow”, for our second visit to Klein Bonaire’s beautiful reefs. The boat crew was capable and knowledgeable, and the safety orientation for the newbies was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed since starting my diving in the early 1970s.
We came well prepared, with wetsuits, snorkel gear, and of course, Spit! Never forget your Spit, LOL.
It was so windy, even close to the lee shore of the island, that the whistling of the wind across my snorkel was a real hindrance to hearing. The currents were also quite high, so the boat drifted along as all snorkelers rode the current in a trail, just off the rocky shore.
Rescue at Sea
High winds often mean a drama or two with inexperienced snorkelers or boat handlers, but this day the drama was all about rescuing a teenage kiteboarder who got blown wayyyy downwind of the beach where he’d set out. We all witnessed his wipeout in the high winds seaward of our boat. The kite went up and away, even as the board and the rider separated in the air.
The teen’s companion was luckily highly proficient and efficiently scooped up the board and delivered it back to his friend, even as the wind blew both of them briskly down-current.
As our sanguine dive master kept the snacks and drinks coming, our skipper maneuvered our boat, skillfully picking up the uninjured but clearly shaken teen and then collecting the kite well downwind. The kid’s pal had already tacked upwind in the gale, back to the beach where, apparently, there was nobody manning a safety boat (!)
We headed for the beach and were intercepted by two inebriated men in a runabout, who accepted the teen, kiteboard, and kite, then skipped across the ever-growing waves to Party Beach. Our skipper commented to me that he was glad to get clear of the area and back to our dock before any further dramas would require his assistance.
The winds continued to build every day that week, so after an early morning snorkel, we’d rinse our gear and ourselves, grab lunch, then drive to different parts of Bonaire.
The southern and eastern coasts can be daunting, with extraordinarily rocky beaches, and windy shallow bays where dozens of kiteboarders and windsurfers catch air.
We tumbled out of the air-conditioned car and into sun-blasted and scenic views that abound along the rugged and inhospitable windward coast. The jumbled coastline was festooned for miles (!) with hundreds of “sculptures” crafted with driftwood, plastic, and all manner of jetsam washed ashore from the open Atlantic stretching some 500 miles to the east of the island.
On the windswept south shore of the island, the 1837 restored lighthouse and ruins of the lighthouse keeper’s home are easily the tallest anything for miles.
Across the single-lane rough asphalt track lie hundreds of acres of salt marsh baking in the sun, where flocks of flamingoes shelter among the stunted mangroves and shallow pits, lagoons, and bays.
As we drove along the desert-like, windward rocky coast, we saw numerous donkeys wandering the scrub. Donkeys were brought to the island in the 17th century to augment slave labor on plantations and salt pans- a common colonial practice throughout the Caribbean. Now they are protected and even have a sanctuary where they get some humane treatment. Many simply roam outside the town and traffic areas.
A signature Bonaire visual is the extensive Cargill saltpans in the south of the island, where massive salt mounds rear above acres of pink-tinted shallow salt pans where the seawater evaporates.
Across the asphalt road is the lengthy Cargill salt pier used to fill salt cargo ships. The massive pier supports festooned with corals and sponges host all manner of sea life and is a key destination for many underwater photographers.
Washington Slagbaai National Park
The northern end of the island is reserved for rocky, arid Washington Slagbaai National Park.
Steep, rugged hills and arroyos, large cactus and tangled low scrub made up of mostly thorns reminded us, again, of the Arizona deserts. Those rough tracks require at least an SUV to negotiate deep potholes and large rocks, and patience is needed to get around the extensive routes in second gear. However, the reward for moving slowly is many opportunities to spot all manner of wildlife, including tens of thousands of Flamingoes that call the island home, tropical birds like parrots and caracaras, wandering (and braying) donkeys, and large (3 feet-plus in length!) green iguanas.
Then there are the pristine coastal bays and inlets, beckoning adventurous snorkelers and divers. When the winds are from a favorable direction these bays can be quiet, amazing spots full of fishy life.
Isolated and uninhabited, the park is an ideal day trip for those who come prepared for no shade and no services. Each vehicle is given a limited amount of time to complete a drive loop of the park, so one must plan stops carefully to squeeze in time for snorkeling. We chose to leisurely drive the coast to view each of the eight beaches and bays. On a previous visit in the 1990s, I found a 1600s ship’s cannon in 25 feet of water, mostly covered by encrusting growth and sand. I figured it was a well-known artifact, but still, it was a cool thing to spot on a leisurely snorkel.
Ostracods Night Snorkel
On our last night, we boarded Ebby’s boat again, this time at sunset, for a private night snorkel to see a rarely-observed phenomenon: watching Ostracods light up after dark.
Only 2-5 days after the full moon, hundreds of tiny shrimp-like animals rise from the sand, light up, mate and return to the sand. This cycle of rise-and-shine lasts about 30 minutes.
As we three floated beside the boat, silhouetted by the lights from homes along the shore, our eyes became accustomed to the dark. It was quiet enough that I could hear my own breathing through my snorkel, the gentle ocean waves slapping against the hull of the boat, and the sounds of a party going on at a waterfront home less than a mile away.
Suddenly the sea floor some 30 feet below us lit up as Ebby briefly swept his dive light across the sand. Then he quickly turned off the light.
Within seconds, the surrounding blackness was pierced as ostracods rose all around us, their electric blue bioluminescence streaking and twinkling as they gyrated and danced against the pitch-black backdrop. I felt like I was suspended in a starfield. Our flippers and hand movements stirred up microscopic bioluminescent microorganisms at the surface, so we had fairy dust too!
Ebby lit the stage and the ostracods danced several times over the next 25 minutes. By then, we were chilled in spite of our full wetsuits and Ebby said the height of the mating was done for this night, so we packed it in and headed the short ride back to the boat dock.
What a magical experience, to be in the right place at the right time, at one of the few places on the planet to see these minuscule shrimps glowing and twinkling in an ancient mating cycle.
Our week seemed to fly by and the next thing we knew we were gaining altitude as the islands of Bonaire slipped under our plane’s wings. I’m glad we snorkeled as much as we wanted, and that Robin got to experience yet another of the remaining living tropical reefs in this hemisphere. That and the warm welcome the folks on Bonaire extend to visitors, make a visit well worthwhile. But, if you plan to visit, I suggest you do so soon. And not during the height of cruise ship visits, if you want to experience a more laid-back, less frantic Bonaire.
Today the islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius, and Saba are jointly referred to as the Caribbean Netherlands or the BES islands. Many Caribbean travelers may know the term “ABC islands”, denoting Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Dutch remains the official language, and a lot of signs and foodstuffs in the stores and restaurants carry only Dutch labels, which can be fun to navigate. Still. English is widely spoken, as are Spanish and Papiamento.
A Rocky Future?
Roughly 7 miles wide and 24 miles long, Bonaire is filling up with people, cars, cruise ships, and other certain signs of unstoppable development we’ve witnessed in our travels throughout the tropics over the past 20 years. While the population of Bonaire is fairly constant at 22,000 residents, the sheer weight of rapid development (and the runoff and pollutants created), is exacerbated by the impact of over 470,000 (!) cruise ship passengers visiting the island each year. Add in global warming and acidification of the seas, and you can understand how this formerly pristine underwater preserve is suffering like all tropical reefs around the planet.
Coral bleaching means dead coral, which means the loss of herbivore fish that graze the algae, which overgrowth smothers and kills live corals. If the herbivores go, and the fish that need a live reef to hide in and feed around go too, then the predators and the turtles and other pelagics don’t visit or nest, and you know the rest of the story.