Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
Wait. Let me re-phrase that.
That seems to be the prevailing wisdom when people talk about diving Bonaire; rent a car (or a truck), load up the back with scuba tanks and dive gear, drive until you find a yellow rock marking a shore dive, and jump in.
I've built some great memories that way. One day, while shore-diving on Karpata, I came upon a moray eel and a Nassau grouper hunting together. Presumably the moray was entitled to anything that tried to escape into the nooks and crannies, while the grouper had first dibs on anything that bolted for the blue. But apparently the grouper didn't like the way the arrangement was working, because halfway down the slope, he darted in and ate the moray. Or at least he tried to. The two were still tumbling along, half the eel in the grouper's mouth, when they disappeared into the depths.
Great stuff. But while it's true that ample shore diving is the icing on the cake when it comes to diving Bonaire, it helps to remember to eat a little cake while you're at it, as well. And on Bonaire, "cake" comes in a dive boat.
"My personal recommendation," says Bruce Bowker, "is to divide your time up between the two."
Bowker, who came to Bonaire in 1973 to work for Capt. Don Stewart with the old Aquaventures dive operation at the Hotel Bonaire, was the first full-time instructor on this Dutch Antilles island. A pioneer who found and named many of today's dive sites, Bowker started his own resort the well-known Carib Inn in 1980, and today is as much a fixture on the island as the iguanas and the flamingos. He notes that some of Bonaire's sites, including Rappel (which Bowker once reached by roping down a cliff) are only practically accessible by boat.
"Then there's Klein Bonaire," Bowker adds. "I'd say that about half of the charters that leave our dock are headed for sites on or around Klein Bonaire."
Klein Bonaire, the smaller sister of Bonaire, is part of the Bonaire Marine Park and is a sea turtle nesting area. Turtles are often seen on dive sites around it none of which are reachable by rental car.
But even on the main island, there are still advantages to be had in boat diving.
"For a couple or a pair of friends visiting Bonaire, diving by boat compares very favorably to the cost of renting a car or truck, and for that, you get local-expert insight on how to dive the site," notes Bowker.
He notes, for instance, that the wreck of the Hilma Hooker (a drug-running freighter that sank at its moorings back in 1984 while the courts deliberated its fate) sits in 100 feet of water, often leading to divers going lower than they'd intended on the wreck.
"Because of the depth, we only dive the Hilma Hooker with our boats in the morning," he notes. "And we also advise people on how to safely navigate the wreck. This is not an artificial reef project that was cleaned and 'safed' before sinking. We advise people on what not to miss and what to steer clear of, so they can avoid entanglement hazards."
Then again, there are some Bonaire classics that preclude the use of a boat. Town Pier, often described as the world's most famous 15-foot dive, has to be dived with the harbormaster's permission and in the company of a divemaster, and rewards the patient with diminutive frogfishes, seahorses and a host of other macro-size sealife.
"Carib Inn gets a lot of return business, and many of our repeat visitors like to visit sites by boat first each season, to see what's new and what's changed," Bowker says. "Then they rent a car and come back to take a second look at their favorites, at their leisure. That's a uniquely Bonairean experience, and one that really helps you to enjoy the character of our diving."
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