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Dive The Bonaire
Marine Park

If you've been a diver for years or just days, I want to share with you some insights on one of the best times to enjoy several days of getting wet.

Upon arrriving on Bonaire N.A., approximately 50 miles north of Venezuela, and 38 miles east of Curaçao, and well outside of the hurricane belt, you will be visiting an island that's perfect for the underwater enthusiast. Each year during June, Air Jamaica, ALM, and American Airlines offer great roundtrip Bonaire fares. You don't have to be an experienced diver; you don't even have to be a diver. You can enjoy virtually all the sea has to offer — even if you just like to snorkel. If you don't have an interest in the undersea world, Bonaire has much to offer for landlubbers as well. (See my story BON BON BONAIRE.) But for now, let's address the world beneath Bonaire.

The visibility is from 50-100 feet; the water temperature stays around 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and that's pretty close to the air temperature year around. If that's not enough to get you excited, the entire Isle of Bonaire hosts an underwater marine park and preserve. The park is entirely protected from the high water mark to a depth of 200 feet.

When you're a diver, and someone says let's go get wet, where does your mind take you? What kind of diving do you think you're up for, or does it really matter? Some of us prefer wreck diving — or wall diving. Others might prefer reef diving and cave explorations. Still, some of us just like to take pictures and occasionally put dinner on the table.

Scuba diving, like any sport, has its share of luminaries. What if someone threw a weeklong party on the Isle of Bonaire and invited a star-studded cast of explorers, scientists, and equipment designers, and said: "How would you like to join us for several days of diving in the southern Caribbean?" Would you go? Well sign me up matey because that's exactly what happens on Bonaire every June.

These festival participants educated divers at the various lectures: Stan Waterman, "JAWS"; Stephen Frink, "White Water, White Death"; Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, 3rd generation explorers and directors of the Philippe Cousteau Society; Osha Gray Davidson, author of "The Best of Enemies," a Pulitzer nominee and soon to be film; Dr. Scott Eckert, senior research biologist at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute; or Dr. David Vaughn Director of the Aquaculture Division at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute — and the list goes on.

You are invited to dive daily with these and other legends in the field of oceanography. No matter what kind of diver you are, you'll find camaraderie within the talented professionals and amateurs.

What does all of that mean? To anyone who relishes the opportunities to visit the true world beneath the sea, it speaks volumes. The Bonaire Marine Park extends completely around the island and encompasses the uninhabited nearby island of Klein Bonaire. Klein sits just off the leeward coast of the main island. With a total area of about 2600 preserved hectares, Bonaire is not just the pioneer around the world in underwater preservation, but represents the largest marine park in the world.

When it comes to ranking by serious divers as a dive location, Bonaire is number one in the world, and most noted for its coral reef diving. I had the opportunity to dive with a fellow writer who had completed his classroom studies at home and came to Bonaire to fulfill his open water requirements. What a fantastic place for a first time diver to qualify for his certification. If that's not enough, Reef Environment Foundation (REEF) has labeled Bonaire as inhabited by more species of fish than any other Caribbean island.

In order to have such a spectacular opportunity, you have to give credit to the Bonairians themselves. Realizing long before others what a gem the reef was, the citizens of Bonaire banned spear fishing as far back as 1971. Permanent moorings, to protect the reef, were installed in the park in 1982. Other legislation was forthcoming over the years, so that today you can dive on the most protected and natural environment. There is a mandatory $10 charge for all divers for diving in the park.

Untamed waters are found all over the world, but can you find the same scenery and luxuries that are as conveniently available in Bonaire? Bonaire has all of the amenities anyone could ask for. From affordable direct, round-trip flights, to approximately 1,200 guest quarters of all types fitting any budget, Bonaire has been working for years to make your first visit, or your next visit a sensational one.

Bonaire itself is a part of the Netherlands Antilles. The official currency is the Netherlands Antilles guilder/florin. It has no link to the euro as does the Dutch guilder and was not replaced by the euro. In fact it is linked to the US dollar, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted. The time is Atlantic Standard Time, one hour later than EST. For those of you interested in renting a car, bring a valid drivers license. There aren't any traffic lights so transporting yourself around is laid back. To visit Bonaire, you'll need to have a photo I.D., and proof of citizenship. This varies from a passport to an original birth certificate. Although there are a few casinos and such great shopping opportunities on Bonaire, don't forget to hold back the US$20 dollar (or equivalent) departure tax.

Bonaire exists as the result of subsurface volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago. The island's surface is the tip of a sea mountain, but what occurs under the surface is what makes Bonaire so special. Just off shore, I like to say 10 kicks, is a deep sloping reef that is accessible with ease. When wearing swim fins, a kick represents about five feet. You do the math. Just under your nose is the most beautiful natural aquarium found anywhere in the world.

There are approximately 86 listed shore dives in Bonaire. That's not to mention the numerous fully-equipped dive shops with their own flotillas that take you anywhere else that you may like to dive. Upon arriving on Bonaire, acquire a copy of "Bonaire Diving Made Easy." It sells for US$10, and can be purchased in almost any dive shop. Another text you might consider is the "Dive Vacation Planning Guide," sold on-line through Rodale's or call 800/666-0016 from the USA to make an inquiry. Perhaps the most widely known dive magazine today, Rodale is also one of the sponsors of the Bonaire Dive Festival. Both books are small paperbacks and well worth the few dollars investment for serious and safe Bonaire dive planning.

When packing for your trip, establish in advance whether you will rent from one of the numerous dive shops or pack in your own equipment. A shortie is fine for most divers. I only suggest it because of the many repetitive dives you will be making. Over time, the body looses heat so some insulation is recommended. You may want to bring along your own fins and mask, snorkel and B.C., simply for the convenience of fit. If you accidentally leave something behind, rest assured, you can find a replacement on Bonaire.

Before you drop in for your first dive anywhere on the island, you will be briefed on the precautions and standards that are acceptable for diving the marine park. A brief check-out dive is required of everyone to set your buoyancy compensator. This of course provides you with a safe and effortless dive. Gloves and kneepads aren't necessary. Divers are not permitted to remove any of the coral, and it is recommended that you avoid settling down on the reef itself. This may be routine for some places, but it is the rule in Bonaire.

For shore entries follow the coast road to almost any point on the island and locate a dive site. You can't miss them. Look for the sets of numbered yellow stones placed adroitly along the shore. All of these dive locations are reached with little effort from where you leave your transportation. When diving the Bonaire Marine Park, the number of sights are so staggering that you may not know where to begin. This dilemma has been made easier with the help of the dive community on Bonaire. Before you enter the water, you will already have been advised as to your dive degree of difficulty and what you might expect on that particular site. Of course, every diver knows to be prepared for the unexpected and any dive can offer a number of surprises. With our limited down time, advanced knowledge will help you to get the most out of each and every one of your dives.

A new service started in 2001 is simply called the Dive Bus. This is a posted route that takes a pink painted support vehicle, the Dive Bus, to different locales and dive sites daily. This is noteworthy because the Dive Bus not only serves lunch to those who want to stay out for multiple dives, but spare dive parts, rentals, and tank fills can be acquired for the entire day. So, if you really want to look over an area of the bottom, keep your eye on the schedule for the Pink Bus and try to work a dive site into it's schedule. Nothing like having concierge convenience at your fin tips. If you're wondering, like I did, why pink? It's named and colored for the famous pink beaches of Bonaire. When the sand turns wet on the south end of the island, the beaches turn pink. What a great place to dive and watch a setting sun after a lwonderful dive day.

Another unique new service is the Green Submarine. No, it's not named after a green beach. It's a small family-owned dive operation in Kralendijk, the capital of Bonaire, and it has introduced a drive thru tank exchange and filling station. They also offer custom-guided boat and shore dives like most of Bonaire's dive shops. Can you see yourself pulling into the store and asking for a cold one, a couple of sandwiches, and oh yeah, stack on a few more tanks in the back, and here's a few deposits for the fills. Now are you convinced that these islanders are serious about diving?

Now that we've gotten you to the water, either by land or by dive boat, it's time to drop onto the reef. Don't hold your breath, even if you may want to. It's that spectacular. Most divers know that it's really the sunlight playing through the water that lights up all of the colorful coral. It stands to reason that since 30 feet or less is the most illuminated area that the sun penetrates, even snorkelers can revel at the sights beneath the surface. You'll be delighted when diving such shore entries like, "Alice In Wonderland," "Hilma Hooker," or "Thousand Steps." Well, maybe not this last one, because it will literally feel like a thousand steps when you get your gear down to the water's edge. Nevertheless, these sites and more await you. Some are for beginners while others are only for the advanced diver. In order to really visit the reef, remember, "It's not how fast you go, for you could miss the show." A little something for everyone is found along the shores of Bonaire. Take your time, dive safe, and you will definitely enjoy the experience.

What is it that draws attention to the reef systems along these shores? There are almost 80 million square miles of coral reefs on our planet, all built by tiny polyps. A reef is comprised of many thousands of species closely intermingled. They have been called "nature's cities" because of the close resemblance to man's own metropolitan communities. Their enormous rates of organic production even rival the efficiency of civilized agriculture.

The coral reefs provide food and shelter and protection for millions of marine creatures. These barriers, protecting the coastlines, are continually swept clean by outgoing currents. This interaction, among other things, prevents the reef from becoming buried in its own debris. When you swim among the inhabitants of a reef, don't just look at it as though it were a pile of colorful undersea rocks. Realize that you are a visitor and that this is a complex ecosystem thriving like your very own community back home. This is the reef that surrounds Bonaire.

Prepare yourself to be visited by the local inhabitants. One of the largest local visitors you will see is the tarpon. They typically appear to be 6-7 feet in length, but don't worry. They aren't interested in you. Always keeping a safe distance from divers, they remain intrigued just by your presence. Usually, as in most cases with reef predators, they are hoping that you'll kick up some morsel or two that otherwise wouldn't appear until much later in the night. By the thousands, you'll swim amongst fish of all sizes and colors. Groupers, red snappers, schools of grunts, butterflyfish, parrotfish, angelfish, and even an occasional barracuda. While swimming along the sea floor, keep your eyes peeled for any eel sightings. Bonaire's eels are gentle and harmless, and will swim over your hand and sometimes curl around it.

Also common in these waters and creating quite a stir when they're spotted are the numerous varieties of sea turtles. Any sighting is dive shop recorded as to when and where. In this way, the locals can keep track of the turtles and make sure its visit, much like yours, is a comfortable one. Some of these giants can reach up to 500 kilos. The green, the loggerhead, the hawksbill, and leatherback, are all common visitors to these Bonaire waters.

It seems that nesting is the primary intent, but by attending the dive festival I had an opportunity to listen to the preeminent authority in the field, Dr. Scott Eckert, of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, who gave an evening presentation on the life and swim cycle of these ancient creatures. Apparently, they swim in patterns. They follow currents around the globe and eventually make their way back to their nesting areas. They can live for hundreds of years, so you can see why it's so important to watch and learn from their visits. Just by studying the great sea turtles, the U.S. Navy has learned much about navigation and submersion.  Many other informative nightly programs are available during the Bonaire Dive Festival.

By taking a trip around one part of the island, you can find yourself in a bed of sea urchins, surrounded by brain and fan coral, watching lobster in mortal combat, or observing schools of trumpetfish by the thousands. Many small and colorful fish. like gobies and blennies, can be seen living amongst coral polyps. Yet, on the same day, you can enter the water in another location and find yourself swimming over a sand bottom and directly into a forest of staghorn coral or table coral. As you swim further along, you could enter the beautiful fields of sea grass. You'll see sea cucumbers, tube worms, sponges, brown algae and numerous types of other coral.

You have to look closely at the formations to catch a glimpse of the many tiny creatures that are hiding, waiting for you to pass by. As I looked at some soft coral floating languidly back and forth, I was fortunate to find a seahorse holding onto one strand. Had I been moving too fast, I would have missed this great photo opportunity.

During the Dive Festival week, a land and sea photo contest is perpetually going on. Sea and Sea was generous enough to lend cameras to any festival diver who registered for the contest. Armed with the latest underwater gear, I felt I was a shoo-in for first prize. Either way, I'd be going home with some great memories of my dive experiences captured on film.

There is a limited amount of space on any reef and while some inhabitants roll out the red carpet for visitors, others will fight defiantly to prevent any intrusion. Herbivores graze by day, while carnivores feed by night. In this way, overcrowding of available space is minimized. Bonaire is a great place to night dive. Since the predators are hunting at night, remember who is at the top of the food chain. This is an important consideration whenever diving. The waters of Bonaire rarely see the man-eating predator that would cause you discomfort in participating in this nocturnal adventure.

The reef night foragers of all types are out in force with intricate traps laid to catch the unwary dinner. The reef, of course, has its emigrants too. Fish that leave the reef and forage elsewhere are seen on occasion, but usually in small numbers. Most reef inhabitants, like any community, live their entire life cycle in close proximity.

During the festival, after every diving day, all of the sponsors and guests gather to visit a host resort. You can sit and share your day's experiences with others or attend one of the nightly presentations in the lecture series. I used this time to inquire of my fellow divers about the sights they had encountered. This enabled me to set a course for my next day's dives. Of course, tossing off a few libations and a little music and dancing doesn't make for a bad finish to any day of diving. What's even more inspiring was the bonding and synergy shared with so many people in diversified backgrounds. All of this is simply because this one small island, with world-class diving and facilities, decided to start something that we all hope catches on around the world:




Purple Tube Sponges

Unfortunately, many of the coral reefs in our oceans are dying because of pollutants, bleaching, or theft, to name a few problems. It's been estimated that at the current rate, approximately 70% of our planet's living coral reefs will die off in our lifetime if they aren't protected now. After taking millions of years to create, it is taking only a few thousand years to reverse this essential planetary process.

The Bonaire Dive Festival isn't just about attending one big dive party. It is also an opportunity to rub elbows and learn from the men and women who are on the front lines to change the way people think about our oceans. Without our help, and the help of such international organizations such as Reef, The Coral Reef Alliance, The Philippe Cousteau Foundation, Center For Marine Conservation, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and others, our oceans may be contaminated to the degree that the harm may never be undone.

Just about any trip you take to Bonaire will help improve their marine park as well as the rest of their infrastructure. Most of the country's fees and general revenues assist in the preservation of the main natural resource, their coral reefs. It doesn't matter if you are visiting for the annual boat races, for the sailing, fishing, wind surfing, kayaking, sunbathing, or just cruising by on an ocean liner, the island of Bonaire is essentially one with the sea. When the people of Bonaire speak of their community next-door, they don't mean the island of Curaçao, or Caracas, Venezuela. The largest community next to Bonaire is the one that thousands of us come to see annually. The Bonaire Marine Park is one of a kind. For more information on Bonaire and their annual activities, visit www.infobonaire.com, or in the U.S. call: 1-800-BONAIRE.

One of the Caribbean's most important diving and educational events, the Sixth Annual Bonaire Dive Festival will took place June 15 - 22, 2002. Sponsored by the Tourism Corporation Bonaire, Rodale's Scuba Diving, and CORAL — The Coral Reef Alliance. Other Dive Festival sponsors include Air Jamaica, the Official Airline of the Bonaire Dive Festival, Scubapro, Sea & Sea and Kodak.

This week-long event was highlighted by presentations by Dr. Carl Safina from the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program and author of "Song for the Blue Ocean," underwater photographers Bob Talbot and Jack and Sue Drafahl, Ned DeLoach from Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), Dr. Rod Fujita from Environmental Defense, and Kalli DeMeyer from CORAL.

Get Your Dive Gear HereEvening presentations by some of the world's foremost conservationist and parties, intimate dives with local naturalists and Dive Festival presenters, A Taste of Bonaire food and culture festival, daily equipment and product demos by Sea & Sea, underwater photography clinics (beginner and advanced), the Clean-Up Dive with local celebrity Dee Scarr of "Touch the Sea" fame, Photography Evening with the Pros, and the photography contest (with great prizes) highlight the Dive Festival schedule. The Dive Festival also showcases the Bonaire Marine Park and its marine protection initiatives.

The registration fee for the Sixth Annual Bonaire Dive Festival was US$100.00 per person and included entrance to all scheduled Dive Festival seminars, parties and dives with local naturalists and presenters.

For a free downloadable Dive Festival brochure, more information on the Festival and to sign-up for dives with local naturalists and presenters visit www.scubadiving.com/bonairefest or www.coralreefalliance.org or call 1-888-CORAL-REEF.