A strik­ing bou­quet of pur­ple tube sponges graces Buddy’s Reef in Bon­aire.

FROM ITS LI­CENSE PLATES TO ITS DIVE RE­SORTS, BON­AIRE CATERS TO ALL THINGS SCUBA

Sport Diver - - Contents - BY ASHLEY ANNIN

Be­fore I so much as dip a toe in the wa­ter, Bon­aire treats me with a beau­ti­ful sur­prise. It’s day one on the is­land, and I spot a dou­ble rain­bow stretch­ing across the blue sky. In­stinc­tively, my buddy and I grab our phones to cap­ture this stun­ning scene. The pho­tos catch Mother Na­ture’s aerial art, but I have a feel­ing there’s some­thing even more spe­cial wait­ing be­neath the spot where the rain­bow seem­ingly pierces the sur­face of the Caribbean.

Lo­cated north of Venezuela, Bon­aire is known for its scuba div­ing, par­tic­u­larly its shore div­ing. While non­divers may be more fa­mil­iar with its ABC neigh­bors, Aruba and Cu­raçao, it came as no sur­prise when our plane leav­ing Hous­ton was packed to the brim with dive gear, alive with chat­ter about the ex­cit­ing trip to come.

The Bon­aire Na­tional Ma­rine Park was estab­lished in 1979 to pro­tect the ex­pan­sive, di­verse life that re­sides in the waters sur­round­ing Bon­aire and its satel­lite is­land, Klein Bon­aire. Reg­u­la­tions are strictly en­forced, and con­ser­va­tion ef­forts are funded, in part, by a small fee paid by divers and snorkel­ers who want to ex­plore the gin-clear wa­ter.

It’s not of­ten you travel to an is­land that seems cus­tom-made for divers, but that’s ex­actly the feel­ing I get af­ter spend­ing a lit­tle time on Bon­aire. Seem­ingly ev­ery­one, no mat­ter his or her na­tive tongue, is flu­ent in scuba. As a re­sult, the wel­com­ing feel­ing of ca­ma­raderie can be felt on ar­rival.

“I’ve dived in the Great Lakes, Cal­i­for­nia, Ja­maica, Cozumel, Isla Mu­jeres and the cenotes in the Riviera Maya, and Bon­aire is my fa­vorite thus far,” says An­thony Salza, a 27-year diver from Wis­con­sin. “The peo­ple on the is­land and re­sort are great, the div­ing is awe­some, the reefs are healthy and the crea­tures are plen­ti­ful.”

Salza has come to Buddy Dive Re­sort for the third year with his cousin and dive buddy Laura Hamelink for the shore div­ing and in­cred­i­ble un­der­wa­ter photo ops. He’s one of the many trav­el­ers who’ve come here with a dive-all-day mind­set, and I’m ea­ger to ex­plore for my­self the un­der­wa­ter of­fer­ing that divers hold in such high re­gard.

ON THE HOUSE

Our first day at Buddy Dive — lo­cated in the cap­i­tal city of Kral­endijk, smack dab in the mid­dle of the coun­try’s west coast — my buddy, Michelle Mak­mann, and I join oth­ers who’ve just ar­rived for a tour of the prop­erty and an over­view of the rules and re­quire­ments

for div­ing in the ma­rine park. To pro­tect the reefs sur­round­ing the is­land, there are three sim­ple rules: Don’t touch. Don’t take. Don’t break.

As soon as the meet­ing ends, we gear up and head to our first dive site, Buddy’s Reef, which is con­ve­niently lo­cated a few steps from our rooms. Those who stay at Buddy Dive have un­lim­ited ac­cess to this site, and Salza tells me that Buddy’s Reef is his all-time fa­vorite shore dive. It’s a lux­ury to have full ac­cess to the reef, and one I don’t take for granted.

Past the 40-foot mark at Buddy’s Reef, it’s sen­sory over­load: an­gelfish, straw­berry grouper, squir­relfish, par­rot­fish, but­ter­fly­fish, eels — the list of species we find in the thriv­ing co­ral gar­den goes on. The most ex­cit­ing: a tiny oc­to­pus and an even tinier red-lipped blenny.

Just a few min­utes from Buddy’s Reef, Some­thing Spe­cial is a house shore dive we couldn’t pass up. Mas­sive schools of blue-striped grunts make sweep­ing passes out of the blue, and the reef is stun­ning.

ADD SOME STRUC­TURE TO YOUR LIFE

The beau­ti­ful un­der­wa­ter scene at the Hilma Hooker is al­most as fa­mous as the story be­hind its sink­ing. The 236-foot cargo ship docked in Bon­aire for a quick re­pair in 1984; that is, un­til au­thor­i­ties dis­cov­ered roughly 20,000 pounds of mar­i­juana hid­den within a fake hull. That was the end of the ship’s drug-smug­gling days, and the start to­ward a new life as an ar­ti­fi­cial reef.

Now, the Hilma Hooker rests on its star­board side, nes­tled be­tween two beau­ti­ful co­ral reefs, and is so pop­u­lar that there are three de­scent points for divers. We en­ter from our dive boat at the moor­ing mark­ing the stern, and as we drop down the line, the near-per­fect viz al­lows us to see the ship in its en­tirety. Once we reach the bow at 66 feet, we fin along the in­tact wreck, where branch­ing tube sponges add vi­brant shades of yel­low and red to the co­ral-en­crusted struc­ture. I keep a close eye on my com­puter — I’m div­ing air, so I know that my bot­tom time is lim­ited — but man­age to get a few mo­ments ad­mir­ing the ship’s prop at 90 feet.

The south­west­ern coast of Bon­aire is punc­tu­ated by slave huts and glit­ter­ing white moun­tains of salt that are in con­trast to the oth­er­wise flat land­scape. Salt is one of the largest ex­ports from the is­land, and

these moun­tains are the re­sult of so­lar pu­rifi­ca­tion. They also sit next to one of the largest flamingo sanc­tu­ar­ies in the West­ern Hemi­sphere, un­mis­tak­able by the pink wa­ter (caused by the al­gae that also gives flamin­gos their cot­ton-candy hue).

Our first stop in the area is Salt Pier, a shal­low dive be­neath the mas­sive struc­ture. The shore en­try can be a bit haz­ardous de­pend­ing on the waves, and we’re grate­ful to meet fel­low divers who help us wran­gle our gear. Af­ter a quick sur­face swim, we de­scend against the cur­rent into shal­low, trop­i­cal waters. Glit­ter­ing beams of sun­light shine down as we weave around the pil­lars that sup­port the pier, each wear­ing an in­tri­cate coat of soft corals and sponges. Bar­racuda keep their dis­tance as we fin down to 45 feet, but dozens of an­gelfish, trunk­fish and but­ter­fly­fish fight for our at­ten­tion through­out the dive. Upon sur­fac­ing, we’re told that ea­gle rays made a pass on the other side of the pier, but it would be greedy for us to com­plain about miss­ing them.

NORTH­ERN HIGH­LIGHTS

Af­ter sam­pling these shore dives, we’re ea­ger to hitch a ride on one of Buddy Dive’s boats to try some sites that are more chal­leng­ing to reach from land.

We sign up for a two-tank dive, strate­gi­cally timed to al­low us to fill up on the break­fast buf­fet

and cof­fee, then gear up for our in­tro­duc­tion to more of Bon­aire’s liv­ing rain­bow.

As we head out with a group on Reef Buddy, the di­ve­mas­ter takes a poll. “Where are we go­ing?” he asks. There’s a bit of de­lib­er­a­tion, and one of the sug­ges­tions is shot down — it was mine, and I’d cho­sen a site with easy shore en­try. Rookie mis­take. We de­cide on 1,000 Steps, one of Bon­aire’s most iconic sites, on the north­ern west coast of the is­land.

“1,000 Steps was named be­cause of the stair­case,” says our di­ve­mas­ter. “There are about 60 steps, but when you’re walk­ing up af­ter your dives you’ll un­der­stand how it got its name.”

Rays of sun­shine il­lu­mi­nate the turquoise sea as we head north to­ward the site, where sheer cliffs that span across the coast­line pro­tect a pic­turesque beach. The dive, he tells us, be­gins at the shoul­der of the wall — roughly 40 feet down — and he en­cour­ages us to stay be­tween 40 and 65 feet to make the most of our bot­tom time. He re­minds us of the three golden rules and tells us to fol­low his lead and dive slowly so that we don’t miss any of the ac­tion. This brief­ing is stan­dard for vir­tu­ally all of our guided dives on the is­land be­cause Bon­aire is sur­rounded by co­ral walls that drop off at roughly the same depth. Dur­ing our dives at 1,000 Steps — as well as our shore dive at nearby site Karpata — we spot many fa­mil­iar faces: an­gelfish of the gray, French and queen va­ri­eties, squir­relfish, spot­ted trunk­fish, but­ter­fly­fish and, for the grand fi­nale, a friendly sea tur­tle that hung with the group on our safety stop.

Not far from 1,000 Steps, Karpata — where we dive from shore on a mis­sion to find the famed an­chor — is equally stun­ning. We ar­rive early in the day, fol­low­ing the guid­ance of our friends from Buddy Dive, but it’s clear from the trucks parked near the yel­low dive-site marker that we aren’t the only divers who’d de­cided on Karpata to­day. We’re

greeted by friendly waves and brief small talk be­fore head­ing in. From the shore-en­try point, we de­scend to 45 feet and head south be­fore we spot it: Wear­ing a coat of corals all its own, the an­chor was al­most hid­den within the thick reef cov­er­ing the wall.

Lin­ger­ing to grab a photo or two, we de­cide to turn back once the cur­rent kicks in — we don’t want to waste our en­ergy and miss out on the sched­uled night dive back at Buddy’s Reef.

NIGHTTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME

We re­turn to the house reef again for a night dive — a first for me — and I’m a bit ner­vous, but grate­ful when I re­al­ize how clearly I can see the line lead­ing to the dock. Worst-case sce­nario, I know how to get back. Af­ter many of the reef res­i­dents we met ear­lier have gone to bed, Buddy’s Reef comes alive with noc­tur­nal ma­rine life such as eels, oc­to­puses and, best of all, tar­pon. The sun has com­pletely set when we spot our first mas­sive tar­pon, its sil­ver scales cre­at­ing a disco-ball ef­fect when ex­posed by my dive light. One turns to two, then four, then eight — our dive lights at­tract tasty fish, putting them right in the spot­light as an easy meal for the tar­pon. It’s an adren­a­line rush: The tar­pon move so quickly that it’s like they’re sneak­ing up on you. One minute, it seems like we’re alone in the dark wa­ter. The next, we’re sur­rounded. Be­fore the end of the week, we’d spent four nights play­ing with our new fishy friends, each en­counter as ex­cit­ing as the last — and worth skip­ping happy hour for.

Bon­aire has a cer­tain charm — a blend of his­tory, wildlife and, of course, div­ing that makes it unique among its Caribbean kin.

There was no doubt by the time our plane was stuffed with dive gear and sou­venirs once again for the trip home: That rain­bow I saw on our first day led to some­thing worth far more than any pot of gold.

From left: A diver ad­mires the pur­ple tube sponges on Buddy’s Reef; kayak­ers rest on the shore of Klein Bon­aire. Op­po­site: School­ing bluestriped grunts add to the lively scene at Salt Pier.

From left: A diver fins be­hind the prop of the Hilma Hooker; at­ten­tive passers-by might spot frog­fish like this on the reef. Op­po­site: Mo­ray eels on the hunt are a com­mon sight off Klein Bon­aire.

Clock­wise, from left: School­ing scad come to­gether at Bach­e­lor’s Beach to pro­tect them­selves from tar­pon; salt moun­tains line the hori­zon in Bon­aire; a yel­low­line ar­row crab peeks out at Oil Slick Reef.

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