Visit Bonaire: Welcome to Diver’s Paradise
In January 2017 Aquatic Adventures will visit Bonaire for the first time in several years. Having been to Bonaire and its close neighbor Curacao many times, I was asked by the staff to write a blog to share a few thoughts about this amazing little island.
Geography and Weather
Bonaire is one of three islands off the northern coast of Venezuela known as the ABC islands. Moving from west to east, the ABCs include Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. Because these islands are outside of the hurricane belt, they are ideal destinations to visit as the weather remains consistently warm and dry all year long.
Bonaire was the first of the ABC islands I visited. I can still recall the surprise I had disembarking from the plane the first time. We had been in Jamaica where the weather was warm and humid. When we arrived in Bonaire, the weather was surprisingly drier. This is because Bonaire is a desert island versus a tropical island. Its annual rainfall is only about 20 inches. More than 65% of this rainfall occurs between October and January.
Temperatures in Bonaire vary very little throughout the year. High temperatures range from 84°F in January to 89°F in July through September with low temperatures never dropping below the mid-70s. The island is also known for persistent easterly trade winds that blow at about 15 mph throughout the day. This and its clear, warm water are why Bonaire is known as a premier windsurfing destination.
I learned very quickly during my first visit that Bonaire is different from the other Caribbean and South Pacific island. Instead of lush jungles or palm trees, Bonaire looks much like the American Southwest. The landscape of the interior is brown and barren. Bonaire is also composed mainly of limestone as it was once a coral reef below the sea. Cactuses can be found in abundance, and sandy beaches are rare on the leeward side of the island.
The landscape is not the only surprise Bonaire holds topside, however. Wild donkeys greeted us almost immediately after leaving the airport. The donkeys of Bonaire where brought to the island originally to work in the salt mines in the 16th century, but eventually they were set free and now roam the island. A visit to the Donkey Sanctuary is a pilgrimage most first time visitors to Bonaire make, although you can see wild donkeys many places on the island.
Bonaire is also home to more than 200 varieties of birds. Among the featured inhabitants are thousands of flamingos. The Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary is one of the few places in the world where flamingos, attracted to the salt ponds, come to breed. Flamingos share the island with a variety of other sea birds like the frigatebird, the brown booby, and the brown pelican. These and many other birds are the reason birdwatchers like my parents come to Bonaire.
While birdwatching and windsurfing may bring some people to Bonaire, most people know Bonaire as “Diver’s Paradise.” This is because of the warm, clear water and Bonaire’s dedication to marine conservation.
Marine conservation in Bonaire began in the 1960s when a diver, vagabond and spearfisherman named Don Stewart arrived on the island. Captain Don, as the locals knew him, came to Bonaire looking for adventure, but his recognition of how fragile the reef eco-system was converted him to marine conservation. He introduced the locals to the underwater world and put Bonaire on the map as a dive destination and marine sanctuary.
Captain Don passed away in 2014, but the impact of his conservation efforts can be seen almost everywhere on the island where a dedication to low impact diving has become part of the culture. First, the entire island encircled by a marine park and everyone diving Bonaire is required to purchase an annual marine park tag ($25 at the time of this writing). In addition, virtually every resort requires a weight check and buoyancy checkout dive before new visitors are allowed to dive the island.
Water conditions in Bonaire do not vary much from month to month. Visibility is generally about 50 to 60 feet. Water temperatures do not change much either with temperatures generally about 78°F to 80°F. Diving is done off the leeward western shore of the island where wave height is seldom more than a foot. Currents are barely noticeable.
Because water conditions are idea, the majority of diving in Bonaire is done from shore. Most dive packages include a rental truck. Resorts generally have drive-up tank services where you pull up your truck and load the tanks you will need for the day. The resorts generally provide maps showing the dive sites on the island, and dive locations are marked with colored stones and numbers that make identifying the dive site easy.
Boat dives are generally done on Klein Bonaire, a small island just to the west. Klein Bonaire has some of the most unspoiled dive sites, so a dive or two on Klein Bonaire should be on every diver’s bucket list. If you are not up to the challenge of dive sites like 1000 Steps, you may want to consider a boat dive on Bonaire as well. In addition, Bonaire’s famous Hilma Hooker is a very long surface swim, so divers interested in a wreck dive may want to consider using a boat for this dive as well.
Because it is easy to do as many as five dives a day in Bonaire and virtually all dives are above 100 feet, divers are encouraged to use enriched air. Bonaire is one of the few places where enriched air is often included in the price of your dive package. If you are not enriched air certified and plan to dive Bonaire, you should consider completing the course before your trip.
No discussion of diving on Bonaire would be complete without mentioning Town Pier. After nearly 3000 lifetime dives around the world, I would still rank Town Pier within the top five. Town Pier is located in downtown Kralendijk. No one is allowed to dive the pier on their own, so planning the dive in advance is mandatory. In addition, the number of divers allowed to dive the pier is tightly controlled, and anyone wanting to dive it must submit a copy of their passport to the harbor master and have a divemaster accompany them. There is also a fee to dive the pier, and dives are limited to one hour.
Nevertheless, the pier is home to some of the most colorful corals and marine life I have ever seen. The pier is dived at night when these amazing creatures come out, and the closest comparison I can make is that diving the pier is like diving through fireworks. You make your way around the pillars of the pier when the corals have attached themselves. Crabs, seahorses, eels, turtles, and drumfish are also commonly found. We even saw several large tarpon on our dive.
The conservation efforts of the people of Bonaire have resulted in a pristine environment with a spectacular variety life. Bonaire is home to more than 300 species of fish and more than 50 varieties of corals. Among fish making Bonaire their home are parrotfish, angelfish, damselfish, pufferfish, spotted drums, and blennies. There are also a variety of eels including the spotted moray, green moray, goldentail moray, chain moray, and sharptail eel. On night dives, divers will find larger fish like the tarpon and common snook hunting on the reef in the beams from their flashlights. Turtles, eagle rays, and stingrays can be found as well, although they are not as common as some other parts of the Caribbean.
While less common, Bonaire is also known for its seahorses and frogfish. It is the only location where I have ever found three seahorses on one dive, and it also the only location where we saw two frogfish on a single dive.
Bonaire is also one of the few places I have visited where I have snorkeled with pods of wild dolphins. On one trip we were able to swim with two pods of Atlantic Bottlenose and one pod of Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins in the space of a week.
The absence of strong currents means that divers can take their time watching these critters and photographing them. A number of years back, I actually made a special trip to Bonaire just to learn to take better pictures underwater. On one of those dives, my instructor actually spent 83 minutes waiting in front of a yellow headed jawfish hole for a picture of the male protecting his eggs by holding them in his mouth.
When I first became an active diver, I visited Bonaire once a year for many years. I always enjoyed the rich marine life, predicable weather, and freedom that came with deciding when I wanted to dive and how often. The island is very tranquil and life seems to pass at the speed you choose. There are few places I’ve visited that I’ve enjoyed more.