Paradise on a Plate | Sport Diver

Paradise on a Plate

Bonaire's reefs & waters are a paradise preserved Quite simply, Bonaire is reaping what it sowed decades ago. Back then, government, Bonaire residents and the dive industry miraculously focused on their common goals and similarities rather than on their differences. Words evolved into action early, and together they created a successful model for sustainable development that ensured the preservation of the island's gifted environment. The creation of a marine park in 1979 was a key component of this effort. Moorings were fixed to dive sites to eliminate anchor damage; markers were placed to orient boat captains and shore divers; and educational campaigns were implemented to keep the island and its waters impeccably clean. In short, they walked the walk and talked the talk. Today, some 25,000 divers visit this small island every year, yet the underwater terrain shows little if any wear from the traffic. Klein Bonaire Protected on three sides by its big sister's boomerang shape, Klein Bonaire is one of the crown jewels of Caribbean diving. Below the waterline, this flat, parched and uninhabited islet transforms itself into a marine Eden. Hard corals dominate the ultra-clear shallows all the way to the lip of the sloping wall. From there, multicolored sponges - thin ones, fat ones, crooked ones - take over, all the way to the sandy bottom some 140 feet or more below. Crossing the narrow channel to this coral kingdom takes 10 minutes, and the diving schedule is laid back, like all things here. Control freaks are mercifully absent, and there's no diver detention for those who choose to wander. ''Just be back with 500 pounds of air,'' the divemaster chimes every time I roll back into the water. Amen. I drift off, physically and mentally, getting happily lost at Carl's Hill, Southwest Corner, Leonora's, Munk's, Mi Dushi and other sites circling this precious gem. My plan is no plan, and I go where the fish go. Along the way, bullet-shaped bonefish, horse-eye jacks and typical tropical assortments take me over the edge through rocky labyrinths where electric-blue chromis play tag and cleaner shrimp hustle small grouper. In the sunlit forests of elkhorn coral, throngs of blue tangs move like stampeding storms, raining on algae patches to feed, annoying the hell out of grumpy damselfish.However, if your thing is guidance or handholding, just ask. Captains and divemasters earn their keep assisting new divers on their first open-water excursions. The latter are all eyes and bubbles as they gaze at their first moray slow-dancing to the current's beat. Under the Cover of NightIt is criminal not to night dive here. The pool is open around the clock, and operators leave full tanks on waterfront decks, where guests load and reload deep into the night. Wooden stairs with railings make entries and exits super-easy, and with the drop-off just a few kicks from the docks, divers are in the thick of things in minutes. The never-forgotten, often stressful inaugural night dive is a different animal in Bonaire. The diver traffic and loud babble coming from the lockers and docks after dinner are a testament to this. One night, I have to see for myself what the fuss is all about at the legendary Town Pier. In private, I'm told to time my visit for late at night, when normal human beings are going to bed. In the quiet evening, the massive concrete structure is dark and tranquil. The sediment stirred by boatloads of night divers has settled, the orange cup corals are at full bloom and the creepy crawly things that enchant us have resumed their nighttime quests for food, adventure and love. After spending 20 minutes on my first pillar photographing decorator crabs, I look around and realize there must be at least 60 more to investigate. Reaching the surface from 20 feet, each column has a story to tell. For the remainder of the night, I choose the widest one and unveil some of its treasures. A cola-colored trunkfish, marble-size with a sprinkling of yellow dots, leaves the safety of the coral to hover over my extended hand; a juvenile scorpionfish lies frozen anticipating its next meal; and a goldentail moray forages for sleeping fish around yellow tube sponges. The following night I'm back at it again, this time at La Machaca Reef in front of Captain Don's. A friend convinces me to embark on a search for an octopus that lives near Papa Dock, the larger of two structures stretching from beneath the Deco Bar, a colorful watering hole managed by a Dutch ballerina on an extended hiatus. The cephalopod is out for dinner or maybe even became dinner. However, several box jellyfish corralling minnows on the surface make up for the no-show. Also present are Charlie, a 6-foot tarpon with an uncanny ability to stalk and scare distracted divers, and a snook in the 20-pound class that allows me to give it a backrub before I exit the water.''Y'' Marks the SpotWithout a doubt, the long-lure frogfish is one of the celebrities of the sea, and for many, Bonaire is kind of like Beverly Hills - the place to go if you want to see the big names. This species is common here. Well, come to think of it, they are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. If you find one on your own, without local assistance, you deserve to have your mug up on Mount Rushmore or at least a Congressional Medal of Honor. Undisputed stars in the greatest disappearing act of all time, these charismatic little villains fascinate me. Since I'm running on a tight schedule, upon arrival I leave my ego at the hotel room and immediately start working the rumor mill, looking for directions, assistance - whatever - to find a ''froggie'' during my weeklong stay. Jerry, a knowledgeable UW naturalist at Sand Dollar Resort, comes to the rescue. Incredibly, the guy puts me in front of one in minutes at Bari Reef. ''We call this guy the Stevie Wonder frogfish,'' he begins, pausing to rinse his mask while sitting on the dive deck, ''because even Stevie could find him. See that ketch, the Sea Witch? Follow its mooring rope underwater until it forms a Y, then look down among the sponges.'' As promised, at 58 feet the object of my obsession glows like a ball of fire. Bright yellow and only 3 inches long, it watches a shoal of glass gobies approach. When the unsuspecting prey are almost within range, the immobile predator lowers a translucent appendage from its nose. From this ''fishing pole'' dangles a whitish lure, known as an esca, which attracts the gullible gobies. Fetus-like hands steady the frogfish in preparation for the blurring attack, and I back off and let the hunt proceed. Whoever said observing frogfish is like watching paint dry?The Western FrontNature must have created the leeward side of Bonaire with divers in mind, especially those with a predisposition to seasickness or an aversion to crowded boats. For most of the western coastline, reef and road are separated only by a narrow gravel beach. Markers bearing names like Nukove, La Dania's Leap, Winsock and Angel City, among others, point toward the sea and lead me to fields of staghorn coral, tree-size sea plumes, curious tarpon, clouds of brown chromis and burly tiger grouper. To the south, the Salt Pier literally stands head and shoulders over the 60 or so shore-based sites. Its spider-like legs enter the water in tight clusters and gradually spread out toward the bottom at 45 feet. Its concrete limbs are now covered with yellow, blue and red invertebrate growth, and around them, I see a school of yellow goatfish play a high-stakes game of chess with a large barracuda. Tiny secretary blennies watch the drama unfold from their equally tiny homes in the abundant and undamaged brain coral. While a map and rental car are indispensable to dive these sites, I luck out because instructors at Bon Bini Divers, Buddy Beach Dive and Toucan Diving take me under their wings and show me their favorites. On all shore dives, we leave our van wide open, semi-abandoned along the road. Auto theft is apparently not an issue on the island. Later in the week, I do experience a small but annoying loss. An old pair of Nikes, a priceless accessory in a place infested with thorns of every length and width, is missing from my entry point at 1,000 Steps. At first, I don't think it's a big loss. But as I climb back up to the road, the camera gear and the dive equipment on my back get heavier by the step. ''How many left?'' I wonder. 10? 100? 10,000? At this point, it doesn't make a difference. Finally by the car, I throw back two Cokes and a bottle of water, and in anger feel like adding a few more zeros to the yellow rock identifying the site.Washington Slagbaai National ParkOn my last day, I head north to the 13,500-acre Washington Slagbaai National Park. Originally established in 1969, it is the combination of the Washington and Slagbaai plantations and covers the northern tip of the island. The preserve is straight out of a western movie. Rocky ledges, cacti, prickly pears and scrub create a landscape wildly out of place on an island just 40 miles from Venezuela. I circle the park on a punishing dirt road and end up at Slagbaai, a defunct seaside slaughterhouse situated on a pretty beach sheltered by limestone cliffs. This place is so picturesque that goats and livestock must have thought they had arrived at an oceanfront spa. Barefoot and shirtless, I climb a path along a cliff to photograph the old structure. The coral rock and thorns hurt my feet, and after every step, I curse the thief who walked off with my old sneakers. I reach my objective, turn around and completely forget the pain and suffering endured conquering the lookout. The mustard-colored building blends smoothly with the arid terrain and nicely complements the shades of beige, brown, yellow and olive found on nearby hills and vegetation. The aquamarine sea bathes the rocky beach and cools a group of children, who are led by inquisitive minds toward a large pen holding live fish, which in turn attract hungry pelicans and irate fishermen. Yep, divers' paradise. For more information about diving Bonaire with Toucan Divers, click onto the Plaza Resort home page below. For general information about visiting Bonaire, click on the home page below.