A scuba Xmas in Bonaire

by Rob Tiller

Bonaire is a small island is in the southern Caribbean about 60 miles north of Venezuela. It does not have pretty beaches or glitzy nightlife. It does, however, have a thing that make it world famous among scuba divers — fantastic coral reefs. Sally and I spent Xmas doing lots of diving there, and I can affirm, the coral is healthy and gorgeous.

This is no small thing. Coral all over the world is under stress from global warming with rising ocean temperatures and acidification, as well as pollution, industrial fishing, and various poorly understood diseases. At the same time, a significant percentage of creatures in the ocean life depend directly or indirectly on the reefs for food and shelter. They are the rainforests of the ocean. From a human perspective, they have an additional important attribute — incredible beauty.

It is hard to believe that simple, tiny animals do what coral do. Over long periods they form large structures of great complexity, with each new generation building on top of its predecessors, layer upon layer. The structures have many colors, textures, and shapes. They may resemble cacti, ferns, mushrooms, pillars, antlers, flowers, bowls, or giant brains. In Bonaire, there is a band of coral reefs around the entire island that starts in water about 20 feet deep and goes down below 100 feet.

The reefs of Bonaire are teeming with thousands upon thousands of tropical fish and other creatures. From time to time, we were engulfed in enormous schools. We brought along our copy of Reef Fish Identification, and identified a number of species new to us. Many of them are not at all shy, and some are actually interested in examining humans. On one of our night dives, there were five tarpon that followed us about like large, curious dogs, circling and gliding up from behind close enough to touch.

Close encounters with so much exuberant life was inspiring, though not without some drama. We did some dives from boats run by the operation at our hotel, Divi Flamingo, which generally were delightful. The water was a pleasant 81-82 degrees, and visibility around 60 feet. This visibility is not especially good by Bonaire standards, but we were not complaining.

We had more drama on the shore dives, for which Bonaire is famous in dive circles. Sally and I served as our own guides and safety checks for these, and generally there were no other divers nearby. I enjoyed the solitude, but it also increased the risk level. The reefs are generally only a short swim from shore. However, getting to the water over the uneven volcanic rock with heavy dive equipment can be difficult. At times the ocean surge makes entry and exit dangerous. We got stung by jellyfish and fire coral and sustained minor bruises, cuts, and scrapes from being tossed about on the shallow rocks. Once we made a navigation error because of a strong current, got lost, and I ran uncomfortably low on air. But it was all worth it for the amazing beauty.

Out of the water, we saw flamingos, magnificent frigatebirds, parrots, and various warblers. There were also wild donkeys. The predominant European language of the island is Dutch, followed by Spanish and English. The vibe of the island residents had a strong dose of Dutch reserve along with the Caribbean relaxedness. We were sometimes surprised at the slowness of restaurant and hotel service, and equally surprised that the dive boats always left on schedule, or earlier. Among the tourists the Dutch were predominant. They seemed unusually handsome as a group, though unfortunately a surprising number of them smoked cigarettes.

Bonaire has character and charm, and, as I say, those incredible coral reefs. We’ll likely go back, but I hope next time we can find direct flights. Getting there went smoothly, but getting home ended up taking 31 hours, rather than 9 we’d expected. The customs process in Curacao was amazingly slow, and so we missed our flight to Miami. So, stuck on Curacao, we found a cheap hotel near the airport, took a cab into Willemstad for a walkabout, and ate a good meal. The next day we finally made it back to Raleigh to find snow on the ground.