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Bonaire in May 2003


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Bonaire in May 2003

Article by:Jean-Sebastien Morisset
Photographs by:Jean-Sebastien Morisset and Melanie Vallee
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Last Updated on:July 17 2003 at 07:07 pm -0400 GMT


Talk to any diver about their favorite vacations, and you're likely to hear about Bonaire. As Bonaire's license plate boldly states, it's a "Divers Paradise". The dive sites are plentiful (over 80 marked and many more un-marked), most are easily accessible from shore, visibility often exceeds 100 feet, and there's very little current. Bonaire offers some of the easiest and hassle-free diving in the world.

photo: Crashing Waves in Washington-Slagbaai National Park

Crashing Waves in Washington-Slagbaai National Park

Over the years, a few events have changed this once pristine island. In 1999, large waves from Hurricane Lenny slammed into Bonaire's north/west sides, destroying ocean front property and reefs down to 30 feet. In 2002, the Dutch airline KLM moved their regional hub from Curacao to Bonaire, extending the landing strip, building a new petrol pier and holding tanks. Flights have increased dramatically, and large 747s now arrive and depart four times per week. When booking a hotel, you should consider how far you'll be from the airport. Otherwise, you might have to tolerate the window-shaking roar of engines at 4am Sunday morning when KLM's 747 takes off for Amsterdam.

Even with all these changes, Bonaire remains one of the premier dive destinations of the Caribbean. The diving is easy, and many of the southern dive sites were untouched by the waves of '99. The following article will center on the current state of Bonaire as-of May 2003 - recommended Accomodations, Restaurants, Dive Sites, and other activities.





Bruce Bowker's Carib Inn

photo: Back of the Carib Inn

Back of the Carib Inn

This is a charming ocean-front hotel owned by Bruce and Liz Bowker. Originally a residential house, Bruce and Liz purchased the property, and converted it to an Inn catering to divers. A small dive shop offers air and servicing of most major brand names. The compressed air is clean, and the tanks are well maintained. The same can't be said for some of the other dive shops on the island. We actually heard loose metal in one of the tanks we rented from Buddy Dive! Unfortunately, Bruce doesn't offer Nitrox, but we're hopeful that will change in the future as more people request it. For now, only Bruce's tanks are allowed on his boats, and he only offers air. Since most reefs on Bonaire are between 30 and 80 feet, air is usually acceptable, and dives are often 70 mins or more. Bruce offers two boat dives per day, one at 8:30am and another at 1:30pm. The boats are small, with an average of 6-10 people, and fast. The dive site is chosen by the divers on the boat before leaving the dock. The divemasters will do any site within the bay, and special trips to Red Slave or Washington-Slagbaai National Park can be arranged.

photo: The Carib Inn's Pier

The Carib Inn's Pier

If you prefer to shore dive, Bruce's place can be an excellent base of operations. You can use his tanks (clean air, well maintained), or pickup Nitrox from another dive shop. Buddy Dive offers drive-through pickup with unlimited tanks, but prior experience has lead me to doubt the service schedule on their tanks. You'll also need to rent some kind of transportation - I would suggest a pickup since loading/unloading is easier, and pickups are allowed in the Washington-Slagbaai National Park (cars are not). Bruce's Inn offers rinse tanks in the front for shore divers, and rinse tanks in the back for boat divers.

Rounding off the ammenities are a tiled swimming pool (with a turtle design on the bottom), a sandy beach entry, and a common dining & BBQ area on the waterfront. There's a wide selection of room sizes and rates, but the most popular ones are rooms #7 and #8. They are located on the second floor of the original house, and feature large balconies that look out onto the sea. This is an idilic place to have breakfast early in the morning. The rooms offer a complete kitchen, two bathrooms, and a second fold out bed in the kitchen.

Restaurants (North to South)

Donna and Giorgio's

photo: Reading the Bonaire Reporter at Donna and Giorgio's

Reading the Bonaire Reporter at Donna and Giorgio's

An italian restaurant on main street, as you head north our of Kralendijk, Donna and Giorgio's offer the usual italian fair without pretention. The tables are right out front on the patio / gravel, where you can watch the cars go by. On wednesday night, one of the central tables is reserved for a local salsa band. Bring your appetite, because the portions are generous!


De Tuin

One of our favorites! De Tuin (pronounced "The Ton" as-in "a metric ton") is an internet cafe, bar, and restaurant. Several of the locals hang-out here, and it's common to be handed a Dutch menu (they also have English ones). The first time we went, Frank and Phil (our Divermasters at the Carib Inn) suggested we try the ribs. They gave us specific instructions to order individual portions, otherwise they give you fewer ribs and lump all the orders on a single serving plate! The ribs are served with a sour cream dip which is excellent.



Capriccio is located on Kaya Isla Riba, just north of City Cafe on the waterfront. They have an outdoor terasse, but I would suggest opting for the indoor dining room instead. The terrase doesn't receive much wind, there is traffic passing within a few feet, and there's a dumpster accross the road. The dining room is cool, and (if you have the choice) you can sit in one of two cozy alcoves. You can't really go wrong with any of the menu items. My favorite is probably the Gnocchi, which are handmade by the chef. Capriccio's also have an extensive and resonably priced wine list, many of which are private imports from Italy.

Mona Lisa

photo: Melanie at the Mona Lisa Restaurant

Melanie at the Mona Lisa Restaurant

The Mona Lisa was one of the first establishements on main street -- built before there was even a paved runway. It was named after the original owner's two daughters (Mona and Lisa). Since the Mona Lisa has been around for so long, it has a real lived-in feel. There are plenty of dusty artifacts hanging from the ceiling and walls - some of which haven't been painted in a hundred years, I expect. The Mona Lisa is another local hang-out, and before sitting down for dinner, I would encourage you to have a drink at the bar and soak up the atmosphere.

When you're ready, you can move to the dining room or choose one of 3 tables in the bar area. The bar tables offer the same food, but at a lower price. If you reserve early, you can ask for a window table in the dining room. The same lived-in feel extends into the dining room, and with the warm personal service of Rudy, you'll feel at home in no time. Some locals we know come here almost every week. Although the menu doesn't change much, all the plates are absolutely exquisite. Try the shrimp bisque -- I've never tasted a better one.

Richard's Waterfront Dining

Arriving on Bonaire, we like to eat at Richard's that first evening. The restaurant extends onto the beach, and the view is breathtaking - a perfect setting to start a vacation. As you look out onto the bay, you might even see the lights of night divers on the reef. Richard's offers a variety of local fish and some meats. The fish can be a little dry, but the view more than makes up for this.


Washington-Slagbaai National Park

photo: A Goat Resting in Washington-Slagbaai National Park

A Goat Resting in Washington-Slagbaai National Park

There are several places around the
Washington-Slagbaai National Park where you can park and walk down dirt paths to see iguanas, birds, and goats. We stopped at Pos Mangel, halfway around the park, and found several goats relaxing in the partial shade of small trees. Iguanas (often over 4 feet long) are usually present here, and will come looking for food. Be careful - in drier periods of the year, they've been known to use their claws to climb up tourists' legs for food! The same trees which provide partial shade, also prevent winds from reaching far down these paths, so make sure you bring along enough water to keep cool and hydrated.

There are several shore diving oportunities around the park, but very few divers take advantage of them. It takes a good 1/2 hour to reach the park, and almost another hour to reach the dive sites. Some of the sites have moorings, but boats rarely come up here because of the distance and time required. Plan on bringing several tanks and a lunch if you want to dive these sites. See the review of Playa Benge bellow for more information on the park's unique fish and coral varieties.


The Birds of Bonaire

Bonaire has a large number of itinerant visitors. There are about 90 migrant species from North America, 25 from South America and 25 sea birds. Bonaire is a stepping stone between continents for many birds and gives them a chance for a safe place to rest before they continue their migration. A large number of Greater Flamingos make their way from Venezuela to Bonaire, a 50 mile flight, every day. The Flamingos use Bonaire as a breading ground, and young (grey) flamingos can be seen on occasion. After a few months, they'll fly back to Venezuela with the adults, where they'll remain for the next 4-5 years, returning to Bonaire when they reach sexual maturity.

photo: An Orange Trupial

An Orange Trupial

There is also a good variety of local birds; The Bananaquit (also known as the chibichibi),
Ruby Topaz Hummingbird, Ground Dove, Tropical Mockingbird, Black-Faced Grassquit, Caribbean Parakeet, Yellow Warbler, Orange Trupial, Yellow Oriole, Caracara, Pearly-Eyed Thrasher, and many more shore birds...

Bonaire Underwater

Photographer at Salt Pier

Photographer at Salt Pier

The waters around Bonaire are protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park, which actively promotes conservation of the reefs. There are over 80 marked dive sites around Bonaire, most of them accessible from shore. Some of the more popular sites, located within the bay, have seen better times. The bay dive sites are close and have little current, making them perfect for beginners. As you travel further south, the sites become more spectacular. Dive sites past the White Slave Huts (about 10-15 mins from Kralendijk) receive few visitors: the soft corals are plentiful and healthy, and where you would see only one or two fish of a species in the bay, you'll find whole schools of them down south. There are a few sites within the bay worth a visit, such as the Town Pier, Hilma Hooker, and Salt Pier.

If you're going to do any shore diving, get your hands on Bonaire Diving Made Easy - Practical Guide to the Shore Dives of Bonaire, by Jessie Armacost. It's printed in Bonaire and should be available in most local dive shops. In this book, you'll find up-to-date information on the majority of marked and un-marked dive spots around the island.

Dive Sites (North to South)

Playa Benge (Washington-Slagbaai National Park)

Playa Benge is almost half way around the park, and is accessible by shore or boat. This far north, you have a chance to see schools of fish not frequently seen in the bay. The coral formations are also large and impressive. The waves from Hurricane Lenny destroyed most of the coral above 30 feet, but the reef is still in excellent shape down to 130 feet or more, and it's starting to come back in the shallows. Make sure you save some air for the shallows -- the current can move you around a bit, but the juveniles and small creatures you'll see are well worth it. I lost count of how many Yellowtail Damselfish and blennies or every sort we saw.


Town Pier

Orange Cup Coral at Town Pier

Orange Cup Coral at Town Pier

The Town Pier of Bonaire is a classic night dive. Orange Cup Coral adorns almost every surface, and you're likely to see Frog Fish, Seahorses, many Eels and Crabs of all sorts. Dive shops and resorts organize dives to the pier once or twice per week, so crowding can be a problem. When making a reservation, make sure the dive starts after 8-9pm (later is better), and there are no more than 6-8 people. Good buoyancy skills and finning technique (frog kick) are essential, especially if there are photographers in the group. Since the pilings are made of iron, your compass will be useless. Follow the divemaster, and pay attention to where you're going. It's rather difficult to get lost, unless you're a photographer focusing too much on all the creatures and coral.


Hilma Hooker

photo: Propeller of the Hilma Hooker

Propeller of the Hilma Hooker

The Hilma Hooker is another classic dive for Bonaire, albeit during the day. No doubt this would make an excellent night dive too. There are three moornings on the Hilma Hooker and an easy shore access. This site can be fairly busy, so you might want to dive it outside of the peak boat diving hours (about 8:30am to 10:00am and 1:30pm to 3:00pm). This is especialy true for photographers that want to take wide angle shots without other divers getting in the way. A typical dive on the Hilma Hooker starts from the bow (south) to the stern (north), and finishes on the reef (east).


Salt Pier

photo: Backlit Salt Pier Pilings

Backlit Salt Pier Pilings

If you want to dive the Salt Pier, you or your dive shop should fax a request to the Harbor Master one or two days before. This insures that divers are not in the water when there is a ship coming in or out of the pier. Practically speaking, no-one really does this since it takes too long for the Harbor Master to fax back an authorization.

If you dive the Salt Pier by boat, there are two ways to do it. The dive boat can drop you off at the pier, and then go tie-off at Jeanny's Glory, just north of the pier. You swim along the pier (going north), and eventually arrive at the boat. The divemaster will certainly brief you on the markers you can use to find your way back -- this includes a huge chain and floating drum (must be 20 feet accross) which is located between Jeanny's Glory and the Salt Pier. The other way to dive the Salt Pier from a boat is to tie-off at Jeanny's Glory, and then swim south to the pier, turn back, and swim back to the boat. To conserve air, you should stay shallow between Jeanny's Glory and the Salt Pier.

The prefered mathod of diving the Salt Pier is from shore. You can park on the north side of the conveyor which crosses the street. There's a small parking lot, but you can (and should) park closer to the shoreline. The swim out to the pier isn't very long, and there are plenty of small criters and fish in the shallows. When you reach the pier, you can swim from one group of pilings to the next. There are usually large Tarpons, Baracuda, and Jacks hanging around, but there are plenty of small critters too, including Seahorses.


Fish Hut South

photo: Giant Anemone at Fish Hut South

Giant Anemone at Fish Hut South

This is an unmarked site just south of the Fish Hut (it's really just after the fish hut). There's a 2 foot brain coral at the edge of the shore that marks a good entry point. The smooth rock botton has many holes filled with Sea Urchins, so be careful where you step! There are lots of healthy soft and hard corals on this reef. If you're looking to take a picture of large Purple Sea Fans, this is your site. We also noticed a higher than average number of shrimp and anemones. Melanie found her first Sea Horse on this reef.


Vista Blue

photo: Green Turtle at Vista Blue

Green Turtle at Vista Blue

Look for a sandy area to enter and exit. The hard bottom has many holes and gullies, so watch your step. It's a fairly good swim out to the reef, but the shallows can be the most interesting part! On one dive, we saw a Green Turtle, a Hawksbill Turtle, a Southern Stingray, a Spotted Eagleray, a couple of Blue Parrotfish, and lots of Cowfish -- all in the shallows!


Sweet Dreams

The entry here can be a little tricky -- there are holes with small Sea Urchins to avoid as you walk through the waves. Once you reach the sandy area, the swim out takes a few minutes. There might be some current in the shallows, but this will let up as you swim out towards the reef. There are small coral heads and soft corals to examine on the way out. On the reef, you'll see lots of schooling fish, soft corals everywhere, large and curious baracudas, and probably one or two turtles. If you're a photographer, this site is excellent for wide-angle shots.


Red Slave

photo: Willemstoren Lighthouse at Sunset

Willemstoren Lighthouse at Sunset

Red Slave had a mooring, but since dive operators don't like to come out this far, it wasn't properly maintained. Eventually, the rope broke and the mooring disapeared. So for the time being, Red Slave is only accessible from the shore. The shoreline is a little steep, and covered in small rocks which extend down into the water, so watch your step. The swim out to the reef is a little long, but like all other sites down south, you'll be plenty rewarded once you get there - schools of fish and soft corals abound.

More photos of Bonaire...



















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