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
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.
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.