Bonaire’s an out-there destination — blink and you’re in Venezuela, just 50 miles to the south — with its wide-open, otherworldly landscape of salt mountains, giant cactuses, rosy flamingos and rugged stone coasts. There’s a freedom here — to go where you will and dive when and where you like, 24/7 — that’s utterly intoxicating.
Average water temp: 77F to 84F
What to Wear: 5 mm in winter, skin or shorty in summer
Average Visibility: 100 feet
When to go: Year-round
Below, four dive operators that can help you experience Bonaire.
Bonaire Dive and Adventure; Kralendijk
Our tires crunch gravel as we pull up to rugged Bonaire Dive and Adventure, tucked in the lee of the hip Den Laman condos. Andre Nahr, a sandy-haired giant, greets us in his open-air classroom under a huge thatch-and-wood umbrella. He’s expecting a group of divers any minute for orientation at the PADI Dive Resort that also caters to mountain bikers and kayakers.
Education and conservation are a big part of Bonaire Dive and Adventure’s approach. Naturalist Jerry Ligon has been here 18 years; birders as well as divers come to the shop because of him. On one wall is a fish-ID chart that’s part of the annual Bonaire Fish ID Challenge, celebrating its fifth year from July 28 to Aug. 10.
Nahr guides us out back to beautiful Bari Reef. Bari, he says, means “barrel” and “barrel sponge” in the local Papiamentu language. Nahr is a bit of a naturalist himself on the subject of Bonaire. He came here from his native Curaçao in 1966 at age 17 — one look at the deliciously crisp waters on a warm spring day might make you want to spend the next few decades in Bonaire too.
A fill station and tank cages at the shore end of the jetty mean you don’t have to lug tanks far to the water, and it’s lined with scuba- friendly custom benches for kitting up.
Almost as soon as you submerge, you’ll notice that this house reef really is a fish playground — Reefnet has documented nearly 400 species on this reef alone. From tiny secretary blennies to enormous midnight parrotfish, there’s something to see on every inch of reef.
Buddy Dive Resort; Kralendijk
Working in paradise, you might be forgiven for getting a little lazy — not at PADI Five Star IDC Buddy Beach & Dive Resort, where something is going on pretty much every minute.
When we arrive, dive operations manager Augusto Montbrun is watching Coral Restoration Foundation’s Ken Nedimyer — recently named a CNN Hero for his work developing coral- propagation nurseries — prepare to begin a project on Buddy Reef.
Why now, and here, when Buddy’s house reef is frankly amazing?
“Why wait until it’s gone?” Montbrun says. “Maybe other resorts will see this and say, ‘Hey, we can do that too.’”
Troll around lovely Buddy Reef and you’ll soon see how decades of forward thinking has paid off for Buddy Dive, and for Bonaire conservation.
Your first surprise might be how pretty and lively Buddy Reef is, given its proximity to so much hustle and bustle. A short sandy roll drops quickly to hard and soft corals descending a sweet slope, where enormous tarpon arrive regular- ly and a couple of mantas have taken up daily patrols here too.
Back topside, there’s a new group of divers in orientation — something taken seriously on Bonaire, which cherishes its 33-year marine-park status — and Buddy Dive’s deck is alive with activity.
At any time, day or night, somebody is heading out of or into the water, often to experience one of Bonaire’s 60-plus marked shore dives, open 24/7.
It’s that ability to choose your own schedule at Buddy Dive and on Bonaire that accounts for what instructor and dive supervisor Tina Wall Nicolaas calls “the repeater” effect.
“It’s the freedom,” she says. “People do what they want here.”
Captain Don’s Habitat; Kralendijk
Captain Don Stewart is a Bonaire icon you’ll bump into as soon as you deplane — a cartoon version of him graces baggage claim. The late captain arrived in Bonaire in 1962 and named many of its nearly 100 known sites.
The resort he founded in 1976 — Captain Don’s Habitat — is a Bonaire icon too, just one with a shiny new face. Dive operations manager Roger Haug showed us around the PADI Five Star Dive Resort, its whitewashed cottages and tiled apartments exuding a Mediterranean feel. On one side of the resort, vacation cottages cluster around a Japanese-style water garden, fueled with recycled water. New two-story apartments with breathtaking sea views separate that area and the bar and restaurant from older, more spacious cottages flanked by full-on rental houses. Its long waterfront boasts an open-air restaurant with a killer view and a central bar adjacent to a pavilion, lined with inviting blue Adirondack chairs where you can watch the action on the long dive dock and house reef below.
Attractive as it is, Captain Don’s Habi- tat is nothing compared to what’s in its backyard. We headed toward nearby Klein Bonaire — a 1,500-foot uninhabited pancake of an island half a mile out — to a site called Hands Off, named by Captain Don. “He thought this was a very beautiful site, and wanted to keep it that way,” our divemaster said. Captain Don was right. From its sud- den drop-off at 15 feet — down to 200 — the site rewarded us with undulating valleys of amazing corals as we flew by in a mild current. Back at the shop, I found I wanted to know more about the man who started it all. When did he die? I asked respectfully, pen poised.
Haug laughed heartily. “He’s not dead! He’ll be here tonight. He’s here every Monday night, at the bar.”
Sure enough, a couple of hours later, there he was, wheelchair-bound at 86 but still a lively, fast-talking, twinkly-eyed ladies’ man, busily talking up his latest cause: going green. Still an icon and, like Captain Don’s Habitat, still beloved.
Toucan Diving; Kralendijk
From divers who have been returning here for decades to local divemasters working here just as long, the feeling of stable professionalism at PADI Five Star Dive Resort Toucan Diving, at Plaza Resort Bonaire, might belie how much fun you can have underwater with these guys.
Or, possibly, by yourself.
The house reef — 18th Palm — is a double reef that comes together in a horseshoe shape and stretches the length of Plaza Resort’s long white beachfront. It ends at a mooring opposite the Tipsy Seagull, a top-notch fine-dining restau- rant (and a spectacular spot at sunset).
“We have divers who never leave the property,” says Toucan Diving manager Alex van der Kroft, explaining that they prefer to set their own schedules on the house reef, relying on one of two beachside tank stations.
But those folks are missing out.
Pop behind Toucan’s large retail and office space to the spacious dive deck out back, and you’ll likely find instructor Peter Crielaard getting ready to head out.
His target was a site called Sharon’s Serenity. “Captain Don named most Bonaire dive sites for his ex-girlfriends,” Crielaard explains. “I wonder about that one called Cliff, though,” he says with a wink. “Maybe he was experimenting?”
Turning serious — sort of — he asks us to point out any lionfish we find, promising to “help it to a better place.” That he does, repeatedly, expertly bagging virtually all that we see. (Plaza Resort will cook them for resort guests.)
A serene spot indeed, it was a sweet drift with enormous lobster, spotted cleaner shrimp playing in anemone, massive mushroomlike coral heads, eels and schooling boca.
At our last stop we hit the jackpot, at a site called North Belnem, uncovering three frogfish, two spotted eagle rays and a couple of small, speedy turtles, a lovely visual souvenir of our time on Bonaire.