I gotta go where there ain’t any snow
Where there ain’t any blow
I gotta go where it’s WARM.
(Boat Drinks, Jimmy Buffett)
After Nantes we spent a couple of days in Paris and then flew to the States to spend Christmas with Julie’s brother and his family at their place in Indiana. With a ‘once in a decade’ snow storm blanketing the whole of the northern USA, it proved a lot more difficult than it sounds, but we made it in time for the festivities. On arrival it was -15 degrees Celsius, -30 with wind chill.
It was lovely to see the family but we’ve never been in such cold! Like the infamous Canadian snowbirds, we headed south. A long way south.
To Australians, Bonaire may be a brand of air conditioners, but to divers it’s the place consistently rated as having the best shore diving in the world.
80km off the coast of Venezuela, it’s part of the Dutch Caribbean Islands group (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Martin). With a total land area of just 288 square kms and a population of less than 20,000, it has no huge resorts. Just low rise accommodation, villas and bungalows for those who want to explore the surrounding reef.
It’s below the Hurricane Belt, sunny all year with an average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. The leeward side of the island is fringed by one long coral reef. Along much of that coastline, a level, shallow shoreline means easy entry and exit. The ocean temperature fluctuates seasonally between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius. It’s an arid island much of which is rocky, and with minimal agriculture and industry there’s little run off to affect the reef. Visibility is excellent. Which all adds up to some excellent diving.
When local legend Don Stewart, aka Captain Don, arrived in Bonaire in 1962 he was, in his own words “a boat bum who possessed only 63 cents and a 70 foot topsail schooner”. The island was home to a few thousand people, a lot of goats and some donkeys. Recognising the accessibility of such pristine reefs from the shore, he spearheaded scuba diving here. Marking entry/exits points on the shore with stones, he named dive sites all along the coast, many of them after his girlfriends. He must have been quite a lad. Where most dive destinations have a Snapper Point or a Turtle Reef, here you can dive at Jeannie’s Glory, Sharon’s Serenity and Johanna’s Revenge.
And at a time when dive operators across the Caribbean were throwing anchors overboard smashing up coral every trip, he led a campaign to install mooring buoys at the Bonaire sites to preserve the reef, the first place in the Caribbean to do so. In the 1970s, he succeeded in getting spear fishing banned. The entire coastline was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. The result of these early initiatives is that this is one of the healthiest, most biodiverse reef systems in the region.
Bonaire has at least 63 marked dive sites. Just off the coast, 700 hectare Klein Bonaire, the largest uninhabited island in the Caribbean, has another 24. Diving here was a great experience. Healthy coral, good visibility, easy conditions and no rubbish.
The reef has about 60 coral species, including brain, elkhorn and fire coral, gorgonian fans and tube corals. There’s 350 species of fish including sturgeon, parrotfish, angel fish, tarpon and barracuda, as well as moray eels, shrimp and rays. Sea turtles nest on the beaches of both Bonaire and Klein Bonaire so you are a good chance of seeing them under the water. And we did.
We did boat dives with Dive Friends Bonaire at sites around the island not accessible from shore and over at Klein Bonaire. For shore diving, you just throw a few tanks in your pick up, drive along the coast, stop anywhere a stone on the shore states the dive site name (thanks, Captain Don!), gear up and fin out to the reef which is rarely more than a few dozen metres out.
We don’t do underwater photography but Caroline, the wonderful co-owner of Coral Paradise Resort where we stayed kindly gave us some pics she’s taken so we could post them. Here are some that are typical of what we saw.
And a particular highlight – the huge tube coral. We’ve seen them in other places but the sheer size of these confirms what a healthy and protected reef this is. Some were more than a metre long.
And there’s plenty to see above the water as well.
Flamingos live on many of the Caribbean islands and along the north coast of South America. But they are very picky when it comes to choosing a breeding site. Call them the Goldilocks of the bird world. To build nests they need mud that’s not too hard and not soft, lots of salty brine shrimp and algae for food but also access to fresh water, and quiet.
Bonaire ticks the boxes. The bottom one-third of the island is practically one big salt pan. Pekelmeer (which means ‘salt lakes’ in Dutch) is a declared flamingo sanctuary, home to approximately 10,000 birds and one of only four places in the world where the Caribbean flamingo breeds.
Driving the relatively unused road through the area, you can stop and watch them. Painted stones mark the limit of how close you can walk, but there are no fences and the birds are on full comic display.
Most people would know flamingos are pink because of their diet. For Caribbean flamingos, it’s the red carotene in the brine shrimp on which they feast. The shrimp here must be packed with it because the Caribbean flamingo is the brightest in the world – at least according to Bonaire’s Tourism Commission. Maybe it’s true. Some we saw were almost orange.
We saw a white one and wondered why. Was he an albino? Maybe he just doesn’t like shrimp?
No! It’s because he’s a youngster. Flamingos are the bird world’s only filter feeders. When the birds are young, the filter in their bill is very fine and thus they only eat algae. When they reach about three years of age the filter becomes large enough for them to capture brine shrimp. So at that age they not only change from being herbivores to omnivores, they also turn pink!
And here’s a fun fact. What is a flock of flamingoes called? A flamboyance! Perfect.
Locals are understandably protective of these beautiful birds.
Bonaire Wild Bird Rehab looks after injured birds, returning them to the wild once they are well. They are banded so their welfare after release can be monitored. In and around the rehab centre you can see a flamboyance of banded birds. Yes, ok, we just wanted to say that phrase again.
There’s a flamingo on Bonaire car number plates. The airport is officially called Flamingo Airport and is painted hot pink. Needless to say, flamingo souvenirs are ubiquitous.
Locals also love their donkeys. Obviously not native, they were brought to Bonaire by the Spanish in the 17th century as beasts of burden. When modern vehicles made them redundant, they were left to run free. Being an introduced species on an island with limited vegetation, it’s a hard life for them and not so great for the environment.
In 1993, a Dutch couple set up the Bonaire Donkey Sanctuary which takes in sick, injured and orphaned donkeys. After receiving any necessary care, the donkeys stay for life at the open range 60 hectare property where they are provided with food and shelter. Stallions are neutered so the numbers don’t increase but still there are 700 donkeys here. And another 1,100 roaming wild around the island.
You can drive a circuit around the sanctuary to see them. They are so tame they come right up to your car window to see if you have a carrot for them.
You can get out and give them a pat. If you can open the doors. We took this photo from an observation tower where you can look out over the sanctuary. As soon as a car pulls up, they mob it.
Many of the donkeys brought here are pregnant, so the sanctuary has a nursery. At the time of our visit, this cute one week old was in residence. He looked like his mother had stitched his coat together like a patchwork quilt.
We were fortunate also to see Bonaire’s ‘other’ national bird, the rare Amazonian lora, or yellow shouldered parrot. There are only 300 of them left in the wild. They are found only on Bonaire, with a few birds on nearby Curacao and Aruba. One came to visit us, sitting on the roof of the villa across from where we were staying.
Much more common, the fourth of Bonaire’s emblematic land animals is the green iguana. They can be seen all over the island and grow to 2.1 metres in length. As their species name suggests, they are usually green, but they can change colour over time to suit their environment. So ones that live in the grey volcanic rocks near the sea are grey, although still called a green iguana.
They are a traditional food here. We tried iguana stew at this restaurant in the countryside. Lovely views.
And no, it didn’t taste like chicken. It was more meaty, a bit like veal but with lots of fine bones.
Bonaire also has a large mangrove forest within the Bonaire Marine National Park. From the Mangrove Information Centre we did a guided kayak tour through the mangroves. As a protected habitat, it’s prohibited to paddle without a guide.
We didn’t see the prolific wildlife we saw kayaking in the mangroves in Costa Rica (see our post on Manuel Antonio) but the guide had a lot of interesting information about the ecology. And at one point we were able to jump in and snorkel through one of the channels. It was quite murky but there are marine sponges, jellyfish and schools of juvenile fish in there. Very interesting.
If you are looking for waving palms and miles of sandy beaches, Bonaire is not the place for you. But there are a few nice white beaches, like Te Amo.
There’s quite a few food trucks around the island, but the one at Te Amo is curious. Just how did an English double decker bus come to be on Bonaire?
At the top end of the island, the landscape is completely different. Washington-Slagbaai National Park encompasses one fifth of the island and was the first land based nature reserve established in the Dutch Antilles.
The coast is pretty wild, with a rocky coast, rough seas and even a blowhole.
Hiking in the national park is hot. The arid landscape is dominated by cactus and there’s almost no shade.
The kadushy cactus can grow up to 12 metres tall.
It’s prolific in the north of the island and is used to make soup, feed donkeys and as fence palings. There’s also a distillery making a disturbingly green liqueur from it, which tastes a bit like limoncello. They also distil a range of other vibrant concoctions based around the local fruits of the other islands in the Dutch Antilles group.
There’s no shortage of beautiful spots for a sunset drink, like Rum Runners next door to where we stayed.
And on that note, we must make special mention of Caroline and Vincent from Coral Paradise Resort, our home on Bonaire for 12 days, who found us a car and organised our dive package at short notice during the busy holiday season. They even provide every guest with a mobile phone to use during their stay. The resort was perfect – quiet, low key, washing facilities and a lock up for dive gear, a spacious apartment a few steps from the ocean.
Ah, Bonaire. Above and below the water, there’s lots to like. So much more than a brand of air conditioners.