THE HILMA HOOKER
Bonaire has over 60 official dive sites—one of the bestknown in this shore diver’ s paradise is the in famous cargo - ship- turned- drug - smuggler Hilma Hooker . T he origin soft his popular dive site are the stuff of diving folklore —you’ ll never heart
The Hilma Hooker is a 236-foot Dutch freighter built in the Netherlands. It was originally christened Midsland on May 20, 1951.
According to the General Marine Merchant Index of Colombia, it was owned by the shipping company N.V. Scheepvaart En Steenkolen Maatschappij for 13 years before being sold to another shipping line and renamed Mistral.
The ship would change hands — and names — multiple times over the next two decades.
On July 18, 1975, Hooker, then known as William Express, foreshadowed its eventual fate when it sank off Santa Bárbara de Samaná in the Dominican Republic. But it was raised from an early grave and sold once more, renamed Anna C.
The last registered company to own the ship, the San Andres Export & Import Company in San Andres, Colombia, purchased Doric Express in 1979 and gave it the now-famous moniker, Hilma Hooker.
Fewer than five years later, in summer 1984, Hooker faced technical difficulties off the coast of Bonaire — whether problems with steerage or an engine failure is a matter of debate — and was towed into Kralendijk. Authorities became suspicious when the crew failed to produce papers for immigration officials, though, depending on whom you ask, it could also have been an inside tip or simply the ship’s colorful name that prompted the increased scrutiny.
According to the National Underwater and Marine Agency, when port authorities investigated, they found that both Interpol and the FBI had been tracking the vessel for months as a potential drug runner. Though tales conflict on what exactly was the key evidence that tipped off authorities, the result of their search is consistent from one to the next: 25,000 pounds of marijuana stashed behind a false bulkhead. The crew was arrested and the ship was impounded on June 6, 1984.
A DELICATE SITUATION
One of the most in-depth accounts of Hooker’s troubles prior to sinking comes from Bruce Bowker of Bruce Bowker’s Carib Inn. According to Bowker, local dive operators were quick to recognize the gift that the tide had brought and appealed to the government to use the ship to create a new dive site. Despite an outpouring of support, nothing could be done. Hilma Hooker was evidence in an active case; if the owners were found not guilty, the ship would need to be returned in the same condition as when the authorities confiscated it — hard to do if the ship were sitting on the seafloor.
Unfortunately for the government,
the owners had no interest in stepping forward and facing charges. Maintaining the ship was quickly becoming costly and potentially dangerous — years of neglect had Hooker poised to go down at the pier. A decision was made to move the ship while the legal proceedings dragged on. The government and Bonaire Tourist Bureau called a meeting with local dive operators to find a more suitable spot to anchor the vessel. That way if — or more likely, when — it did succumb to the sea, it wouldn’t cause a navigational nightmare or crush a coral reef, and would make a suitable wreck dive.
The ship was moved to a new anchorage, next to a dive site called Angel City, on September 7, 1984, where it would struggle to remain afloat for just five more days.
A SINKING, AND A NEW BEGINNING
On September 12, 1984, the ship began taking on water. Its pumps had failed, and the ship began to sink. At 9:08 a.m., it rolled over onto its starboard side, slipping beneath the surface two minutes later.
“There was no fanfare,” Bowker says, “because it was not legally intended that the ship should sink.”
Its location was essentially handpicked for scuba divers: within swimming distance of shore, next to two coral reefs, and within recreational limits. When the ship sank, there was little fuel or oil in its tanks to pollute the surrounding water — fortuitous coincidence or a foresighted conspiracy? Rumor suggests that the pumps that kept the leaky ship afloat didn’t malfunction but were deliberately sabotaged by impatient divers.
Where does the truth lie? Only the Hilma Hooker could say for sure, and it took its secrets to its watery grave.
SCUBA DIVING THE HOOKER
Hilma Hooker lies on its starboard side with its bow facing south and the stern — complete with rudder and propeller — pointing north. With a length of 236 feet and a beam of 36 feet, this wreck offers ample deck space to explore for divers of all skill levels. The shipwreck has two large deckhouses, a galley, crew quarters, a wheelhouse, a chart room and a large, empty cargo hold.
Penetration should be left to experienced wreck divers. Because the ship was evidence in a criminal case, it couldn’t be touched. This meant that it wasn’t prepped prior to sinking to be accessible for scuba divers — furniture, debris, heavy steel doors and other potential hazards wait inside. The engine room, below the aft deckhouse, is especially dangerous due to many entanglement hazards, low visibility and a lack of natural light penetration, and should be avoided.
Marine life can be found all over the wreck. Yellow snapper, parrotfish, angelfish and shrimp can be found on deck. Tarpon and barracuda are also seen. Massive sponges have accumulated on the propeller blades, and large purple tube sponges and tubastrea corals grow along the hull. You can also find garden eels along the sandy ocean floor, and even more marine life on the two reefs on either side of the ship.
The Hooker is accessible by boat thanks to numerous moorings, as well as by shore — just look for the yellow rock emblazoned with its name. If you visit early in the morning before the dive boats arrive, or later in the afternoon after they’ve moved to shallower sites, you’re likely to have the ship all to yourself.
Today, Hooker lies in swimming distance of Bonaire's shoreline. With plenty to explore for all skill levels, it's a divers’ playground.
DEPTH The mast of the ship reaches just shy of 100 feet, while the port side sits about 60 feet below the surface. Usually exceeds 100 feet Averages in the 80s is part of the Bonaire National Marine Park; all park rules and regulations must be followed...