It's a fact. The waters around Bonaire are teeming with more species of fish than any other diving destination in the Caribbean. Bonaire's fish species count is at 371 and rising, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), one of the most respected fish watching groups. Five new species have been added to the group's database for Bonaire in the past year. As a result of its rich underwater diversity, fish-watchers from around the world are drawn to this tranquil Dutch enclave nestled in the southern Caribbean about 50 miles from Venezuela's northern coast. But Bonaire has more to offer than just colorful fish and impressive species statistics.Bonaire diving is easy. The majority of dive sites are found on the lee side of the island, which is well protected from wind and waves. The diving choices also are varied and plentiful. Divers can pick from more than 80 sites off Bonaire and the adjacent islet of Klein Bonaire, including many that make for great shore dives. And thanks to a marine park that was created more than 20 years ago, the area is blessed with robust reefs brimming with fish and other types of marine life. Plus, Bonaire is loaded with comfortable resorts and an array of topside attractions. While taking a break from diving, the options range from bird-watching and lounging on the beach to windsurfing and sea kayaking. Hiking and mountain biking enthusiasts will enjoy exploring the island?s picturesque Washington/Slagbaai National Park. There are also plenty of dining and shopping choices in the town of Kralendijk. Add all this up, and you've got a winning combination for a diving vacation and a super site for watching fish. Looking for fishMost fish-watchers will enthusiastically tell you how this activity has enhanced their diving experience. Learning the correct names of common species can be both educational and fun (creole wrasse sure beats ''smallish blue fish''). Once the common ones are identified, the challenge becomes seeking out the shy and reclusive species. For the dedicated fish-watcher, it's a real thrill to add a rare fish to your ''life list'' of all the species that you've seen. If you are new to this underwater hobby, Bonaire is the perfect place to get started.''Bonaire is the fish capital of the Caribbean,'' says Jerry Ligon, Bonaire's undisputed fish-watching king and on-site naturalist at Sand Dollar Dive and Photo. So how do you go about finding fish after arriving in Bonaire? ''You don't have to dive deep to find the most species. The majority of fish are found in the first 50 to 60 feet of water,'' says Eky Allee, a ranger for Bonaire's marine park who spends most of his days on or in the water. ''And, if you want to see a specific fish species, just ask your divemaster. He or she will be happy to lead you right to that elusive frogfish or spot fin goby.'' ''Different reef habitats are home to different species,'' says Ditte Preker, the naturalist guide at Captain Don's. ''To see the most fish species, you need to dive a variety of sites.'' Ditte advises divers visiting Bonaire to sample four separate areas: the northern, southern and mid-island dive sites on Bonaire, as well as some locations off Klein Bonaire. Bonaire's northern dive sites feature many hard corals, even in the shallows. Cliffs, caverns and crevices dominate the underwater terrain. Two sites in this area (Rappel and Ol' Blue) are ideal for fish watching. It's easy to spot tame queen angelfish and Spanish hogfish, but it takes some scouting to find the moray eels hiding among the corals and rocks. The southern end of Bonaire features two reef ridges that run parallel to the shore. Sites like Angel City and Alice in Wonderland offer opportunities to see parrotfish and lizardfish. Search in the sandy channel between the reefs for garden eels. If you dive on the deeper outer reef, look for larger fish like horse-eye jacks, groupers, barracudas and the occasional queen triggerfish. The middle section of Bonaire has a number of easily accessible sites for shore diving. Many of these sites are located near the docks of popular dive resorts and feature two habitats ideal for fish watching: coral rubble and gentle reef slopes. We found an abundance of fish life: creole wrasse, tangs, damselfish, chromis, goatfish and grunts on the reef near Captain Don's. Because we like to watch fish and take underwater photos, the freedom to go on shore dives by ourselves any time of day or night was a real pleasure. The sites around Klein Bonaire are also prime fish-watching territories. We spotted snappers, trumpetfish, frogfish and even a sea horse while exploring drop-offs, slopes, patch reefs and shallows. A Premier Night DiveAnother opportunity for close encounters with fish on Bonaire that should not be missed is a night dive at the Town Pier. Since prior permission is needed from the harbormaster, ask your divemaster to make arrangements early in the day. The adventure starts around dusk when a dive shop truck drops you off at the concrete landing next to the pier. Suit up, switch on your dive light and wade in. You soon see the first of numerous pilings. It's covered with brilliant orange cup corals and yellow encrusting sponges, a superb background for underwater photographs. Small crabs and shrimps are scurrying around while fish dart in every direction. All these critters are looking for a meal, or looking to stay alive. As you move into deeper water, hovering at a depth of about 15 feet, you see more colorful pilings, more fish and more invertebrates. Photo opportunities abound: an arrow crab creeps along a purple tube sponge here; a juvenile scorpionfish is nestled between some corals there. Look down and you see a moray eel poking its head out of an old tire. Look up and catch a glance of an angelfish gracefully flying through the water.Because most of the dive takes place at a depth of 20 feet or so, you can stay under water taking pictures for at least an hour. So consider bringing a second camera.
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