Bonaire. Netherlands Antilles
The license plate for the island of Bonaire bears the slogan “Divers Paradise.” That this slogan is written in English is somewhat curious, as Bonaire is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But considering the great care Bonaireans have taken in protecting their reefs and waters—and that much of the diving is done here from the shore, with divers driving from spot to spot in a rented Jeep or car—it makes perfectly good sense.
“I’d been working in the Bahamas for several years when a client mentioned that I would love Bonaire and its shore diving,” Dee Scarr began. “I talked to Peter Hughes at one of the dive trade shows, and soon after ended up coming to work at Bonaire. I never left. For me, Bonaire means gentle diving and very healthy reefs. A visit to another island a few years back put Bonaire in perspective. I was enjoying my dive, thinking it was a nice spot, when I thought I saw someone coming out of the water with a spear gun. I asked the dive master about it, and he said, ‘Oh yeah. They can use spear guns here.’ It was a shock for me, and a reality check. The presence of spear fishing changes the behavior of fish, as you might imagine. Spear fishing was banned at Bonaire in 1971. The island has been extremely progressive on many other conservation measures. I haven’t dived anywhere else for ten years.”
Though situated just fifty miles north of Venezuela at the southern end of the Caribbean, the island of Bonaire is at first more reminiscent of the American southwest than a tropical idyll—this thanks to a climate that’s atypically arid for this part of the world. Initially settled by the Caiquetios people from Venezuela, Bonaire’s first European discoverers were led by the Spaniard Amerigo Vespucci in 1499. By the early 1600s, the Dutch had captured the island from Spain, and have continued to hold Bonaire (along with Aruba and Curacço) as part of the Lesser (or Netherlands) Antilles. Above water, Bonaire is home to an odd array of animals. Wild donkeys and goats roam the cactus-studded island, descendants of long-ago domestic stock, along with iguanas and a sizable flock of flamingos. Below, it’s home to some of the Caribbean’s most intact and healthy reefs—“the Caribbean as it used to be,” as Bonaire dive-travel brochures like to proclaim. This thanks to conservation measures alluded to above—which included early protection of turtle eggs and nests (1961), banning of coral collection (1975), and the establishment of the Bonaire Marine Park (1979), which extends all the way around the island, as well as around neighboring Klein Bonaire. Thanks to the lack of runoff (due to a lack of rain), visibility is excellent around Bonaire, averaging over one hundred feet, and sometimes approaching 150 feet.
“The thing that makes Bonaire so special, and such an excellent shore-diving locale, is that the whole island is surrounded by a lush, living coral reef,” Dee continued. “It’s anywhere from a two-minute to a five-minute swim from the beach. The reefs shelve off gently to about thirty feet. What I learned at Bonaire is that reefs can be more beautiful if they aren’t sheer drop-offs, as the coral and sponges get more light and become more vibrant. At thirty feet, there’s a more pronounced drop-off. On the shelves and the drop-off, there’s a wonderful assortment of reef fish, though not many bigger animals. In places, you’ll find tarpon to three or four feet long; on night dives, they’ll hunt by your light. But at Bonaire, you don’t go out hoping to find any species in particular; you dive to appreciate the overall picture.”
Dee Scarr has long believed that people can forge a closer connection with underwater creatures if they’re able to physically come in contact with them. “Nothing can touch you emotionally if you can’t literally touch it,” she said. “With Touch the Sea, I take what I’ve learned over my diving career and apply it to help people feel more comfortable touching sea creatures in a respectful, nonobtrusive way. One of the animals I look for is the scorpion fish, which, because of their good defense mechanisms, can be very comfortable around respectful divers. If a diver has good buoyancy control and the fish are not agitated, it’s possible to interact with them. I also like to find sharptail eels. They are also very self-confident, thanks to their defense mechanism—a layer of distasteful mucous that puts off most predators. Of course, this defense mechanism doesn’t affect divers, so these eels are often very comfortable with us, allowing us to gently stroke them.
“There was an occasion a few years back when I was doing a little dive on a stretch of reef just outside Kralendijik. Technically it was the harbor, but hardly anyone dives there. As I was diving, a fish trap came down. (Small-scale fish traps are allowed in the reserve.) I surfaced, hoping I’d be able to get the fisherman to move the trap and was delighted when I saw it was someone I knew—an older fellow named Francis. When I asked if he would mind moving it, he said, ‘Dee, I didn’t know this was your reef. I’d be happy to move down!’ He then pulled his trap up, rowed his boat 200 yards down the reef, and set it again.”
DEE SCARR is a PADI scuba and specialty instructor, an experienced naturalist, and author of three books: Touch the Sea, Coral’s Reef, and The Gentle Sea. Her articles and photos appear in The New Guide to the Bonaire Marine Park, Dive Training, Skin Diver, and other publications. She leads trips to select sites around Bonaire through her company, Touch the Sea (www.touchthesea.com), with the goal of helping guests better understand marine creatures. She has received many honors, including Beneath the Sea’s Diver of the Year award for environment, the Boston Sea Rovers’ Diver of the Year award, and the PADI-SeaSpace Environmental Awareness award. Dee is very active with the Action on Behalf of Coral project, which has the goal of educating divers on how to distinguish live coral, recognize its fragility, and understand its importance to the ecosystem. Dee was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000.
IF YOU GO TO BONAIRE
Getting There: Bonaire is served from the U.S. with direct flights from Atlanta on Delta (800-221-1212; www.delta.com); and from Newark and Houston on Continental (800-231-0856; 1212; www.delta.com); and from Newark and Houston on Continental (800-231-0856; www.continental.com).
Best Time to Visit: Diving is good throughout the year.
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