Island Adventure

In the Year of the Reef, Bonaire Offers Great Diving and Protected Coral

In stark contrast to the runaway American-style construction on neighboring Aruba (McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, a water-intensive golf course and numerous American hotel chains), the island of Bonaire, in the Netherlands Antilles off the coast of Venezuela, remains a quiet getaway and dive headquarters. Although bigger than Aruba, the island has only one-tenth of Aruba’s annual tourists (60,000 versus 600,000).

Bonaire Snorkeling Photo

Divers and snorkelers will find that Bonaire offers incredibly colorful and well-protected coral reefs.

Bonaire itself has superb and protected coral reefs, but its tiny and undeveloped sister island, 1,500-acre Klein Bonaire, has even better formations-offering some of the best diving in the world, which attracts a truly international clientele to the small hotels and resorts on the “mainland.” The water around both islands, to 200 feet, is a protected marine park, with rigidly enforced regulations. No anchoring is permitted (there’s a series of mooring buoys instead), spearfishing is banned, and divers are warned not to touch the coral or even to photograph it with a closeup lens. Visiting boats are not allowed to dump their ballast water either-one recent violator was promptly caught and fined. Such attention to detail-coordinated with a growing tourist industry-won Bonaire the Islands magazine “Ecotourism Award” in 1994.

Although a new 200-room hotel, the Dutch-owned Plaza Resort, recently opened on arid Bonaire, growth has been controlled and deliberately slow-paced. But that could change, if plans go through to build condos or a resort on the privately owned Klein Bonaire (sold by the Dutch government to an Aruba-based development company in the 1970s). “People haven’t been taking the possibility that Klein Bonaire could be developed seriously,” says Bonaire Marine Park Manager Kalli de Meyer, who points out that the island is a nesting site for the rare hawksbill turtle. “But in 1995 the owners sent a clear statement of intent to the island government,” she says. Meanwhile, the newly formed Foundation for the Preservation of Klein (or “little”) Bonaire is raising money to buy the island back.

As long as development can be kept at bay-and a worrying attack of coral disease can be controlled-Bonaire will remain a diver’s paradise. There are some 48 prime dive sites on the island (almost all on the calm leeside), and 16 more on Klein Bonaire. Snorkeling is, of course, always a hassle-free option, and Bonaire has developed a guided tour consisting of classroom lecture/slide shows and diving at one of 12 sites. There are fish in great profusion, including blue tangs, queen angelfish, French grunts, jacks, barracudas (fortunately, they’re benign) and many more. Bonaire’s reefs are unique in that they start in just a few inches of water, and almost everything can be seen at depths of less than 15 feet. The island celebrates the International Year of the Reef (1997) with a dive festival November 1-8.

You don’t have to be a diver to love Bonaire. The island happens to also be one of the few places to see pink flamingoes, 15,000 of which nest in a protected zone in the southern end of the island, near the extensive, Dutch-owned salt works. And keep an eye out for the herds of non-native wild donkeys.

The entire northwest end of the island is a 13,500-acre game preserve, Washington-Slagbaai National Park, where visitors can see 190 species of birds, including Bonaire’s endangered yellow-shouldered parrots (which are sometimes persecuted by local papaya and mango farmers).

There are no high-rise hotels on Bonaire, but there are many 10 to 150-room resorts, all with restaurants and a few with gambling casinos. Summer’s the cheapest time to go; double rooms range from $50 to $150 a night. Hard-core eco-travelers might want to stay at Captain Don’s Habitat (79 rooms), founded by the American-born sailor who first brought environmental ideas to the island in the 1960s. The accent here is definitely on diving. For a more varied experience, the Sand Dollar Beach Resort (85 rooms) features a week-long adventure package that includes nature tours, snorkeling, diving, mountain biking and an unforgettable kayak tour of the island’s extensive mangrove forests. Tours are conducted by Colorado-born naturalist Jerry Ligon, who brings vast knowledge and an environmentalist’s passion to his informative talks.

“Sustainable tourism and controlled growth are our mission,” says Elsmarie Beukenboom, program manager of the Bonaire Tourism Training Center. “And luckily, there’s no contradiction with what the people of the island want.”

JIM MOTAVALLI is Editor of E.