Length of stay: 8 days
Visited: May 2017
Dives logged: 13
Dives to date: 27
Top five dive sites:
- Oil Slick Leap
- Andrea I
- Alice in Wonderland
Bonaire is famous for being the best place in the world for shore diving. And it boasts of being home to one of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean. Its reef encircles all 294 square kilometres of this tiny island making many of the dive sites easily accessible right from shore. There are 86 official dive sites, most of which are clustered around the western part of the island that is often sheltered from strong winds and rough currents. There’s a reason why this tiny island is often referred to as a diver’s paradise.
Many divers that come to Bonaire often dive without a guide. All of the official dive sites are clearly marked (with yellow stones) and there are a number of helpful resources available to better plan your dives. We relied heavily on Susan Porter’s Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy which provided detailed information about the level of difficulty and tips on entry and exit from each of the official dive sites (and a few unmarked sites). We also checked current conditions with our dive shop, VIP Diving, and asked for recommendations based on our interests and ability.
Prior to coming to Bonaire, for us, diving without a guide sounded incredibly scary. While this might sound obvious, when you’re out in the open water by yourself (well, technically you’re never by yourself because you always dive with a buddy) it’s up to you to figure out your dive plan, go over underwater signals, navigate, monitor your depth, continuously check your air consumption, and have your buddy within a few feet of yourself. These things sound like no brainers, but when you dive with a guide there’s a tendency to take some of these things for granted. But at the end of the day the only one responsible for you is yourself. And it took us diving solo to fully understand that.
Diving by ourselves was definitely a good team building exercise. And we appreciate even more so the level of skill required to lead a dive. Especially when it comes to navigation. For the most part we managed to surface back at the buoy. But there were a few times we were a little off. As the week progressed we became much more comfortable planning our dives and being underwater. And by the end of the week we were sad to leave as we felt there was so much more of Bonaire’s underwater playground we had left to explore.
Day 1: Bon Bini to Bonaire
Bonaire is situated just north of Venezuela near Aruba and Curacao, which are more commonly known collectively as the ABCs. Bonaire is the smallest of these Dutch islands in terms of size, population and number of tourists. As a result, it’s not nearly as accessible as its neighbouring countries. North American airlines usually only fly into and out of Bonaire on weekends. It took us awhile to optimize our travel arrangements taking into cost, time, and feasibility. In the end we decided to catch a direct flight out of Newark.
We didn’t have many (or any) alternatives besides flying United. And we were a little skeptical given all the bad press surrounding this airline. Well, they’ve always had a bad reputation, but it’s only been exacerbated by all the recent scandals of overbooking flights and having just terrible customer service. Luckily our flight was only half booked and thankfully we experienced no delays. We touched down in Bonaire in the early afternoon.
There are a number of dive resorts scattered around the west coast of the island. But in an effort to scale back on costs (diving is an expensive sport) we found a beautiful studio apartment on AirBnB for a fraction of what we would have spent to stay at a dive resort. Our hosts even picked us up from the airport. Our studio apartment is located in a villa along with (what we think were) two other apartments that are connected to the main house where our hosts live. In the middle of it all is an enormous fresh water pool. The ocean is located right across the road.
When we arrived at our studio apartment we unpacked our suitcase. But we didn’t get too comfortable because we had to head on over to our dive shop in preparation for our first day of diving tomorrow. We read that many of the dive sites, especially along the western coast, are well suited for beginners and are relatively easy to navigate without a guide. But we are pretty new to diving and have only dove from a boat. And always with a guide. For our first day of diving we hired a guide to get a better feel for what shore diving is all about and whether this is something we would feel comfortable doing on our own.
After much planning and research we chose VIP Diving because of their small group sizes and outstanding reviews. We could have found a better deal in terms of prices for rental gear, unlimited air and guided dives, but no other dive operation comes close to matching VIP’s personalized diving service.
We confirmed our diving credentials, filled out an in case of emergency info, got fitted for our gear and weights, and paid our $25 fee for our National Marine Park tag. All the proceeds go into monitoring and managing the island’s underwater ecosystem. Every diver is also required to attend a mandatory orientation that covers the rules and regulations surrounding reef etiquette and demonstrate proper buoyancy underwater. Since we planned two guided dives with VIP Diving, the underwater skills portion of our orientation would take place the same day.
On our way back to our accommodations we hit up a grocery store to pick up some supplies for breakfasts and lunches. We spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging in and around the pool.
Day 2: Diving like a VIP with VIP Diving
In anticipation of our trip to Bonaire we completed our Enriched Air certification. When diving the air you breathe from your tank consists of the same blend of oxygen and nitrogen as the air you are breathing on the surface. But with Enriched Air, which is more commonly referred to as Nitrox, there is a higher percentage of oxygen in the air you are breathing underwater. This allows for more repetitive diving as less nitrogen is absorbed into your body. Plus we get to carry around another important looking dive card to prove we’ve completed this speciality.
We woke up bright and early feeling extremely pumped for our first day of shore diving. With Nitrox. We met up with our guide Daniella in the lobby at VIP Diving at 8:30a.m. She first showed us how to analyze our Nitrox tanks and fill out the log book. We then grabbed our gear and tanks and shoved them in the back of her pick-up van. We were joined by one other diver, Frank, we also works at VIP but due to a shoulder injury has only been diving once a week.
After discussing what types of marine life / dive sites we enjoy (which let’s be real, is pretty much anything and everything), Daniella figured out our dive plan for the morning. All four of us climbed into the truck and set off for the southern part of the western dive sites.
Our first guided shore dive was at Invisibles. We pulled up to the empty beach shortly after 9a.m. We went over our dive plan and dive signals before gearing up. It was a little rough entering the water with all the rocks and waves near the shoreline. But we held hands and waddled in sideways using one another for support. As soon as we got in past our waists we stood with our backs against the waves and threw on our fins. We then laid back and leisurely kicked out to the mooring buoy. It was a bit of a swim to get out there, but the water was pretty calm on the surface and there was next to no current.
Once we descended near the buoy there were a number of garden eels poking their little heads up out of the sand. From the buoy you have two options: you can go left (south) or right (north) to follow along the reef. Usually you swim in the direction against the current. When you reach half a tank or so, you turn it around and swim back to the buoy with the current. That is, if there even is a current. Our guide lead us south as there are a number of seahorses that are reputed to be in this area. We regrettably did not see any. But we did see a large variety of coral and reef fish.
The Invisibles is part of a double reef system. But to be honest, we’re not even sure whether we made it to the second reef. We were having so much fun underwater soaking in all of the marine life regardless whether it was on the first reef or the second reef or both. There were so many fish. So much more than when we were in Saint Martin or even Cozumel combined.
We had such a lovely time with Daniella and Frank. It was honestly like having two private guides just to ourselves. Daniella did most of the guiding while Frank kindly pointed out interesting sea creatures while writing down their names on his magna doodle. According to them, their average dive time with groups is around 40 minutes. But we greedily conserved our air and spent 76 minutes underwater. When we surfaced I had 1,100 PSI remaining in my tank.
For our second guided dive Daniella took us to the Cliff located along the northern portion of the western coast. Along the way we stopped back at VIP Diving to let Frank out. Entry into the site was pretty straightforward. There’s a stairway that leads down to the beach. There’s a pipe that pretty much runs straight to the mooring buoy. As you face the water there’s some rocks to the left of the pipe that you can use to steady yourself as you enter the water with your right hand. You pretty much just follow the pipe out to the buoy keeping to the left of it to avoid the fire coral.
We first swam north as a frogfish is reputed to reside in the area. These super adorable fish apparently don’t move around much. And when they do they tend to use fins to walk along the ocean floor. Our guide knew a trick on how to encourage it to open its mouth (without touching it, of course).
After watching the frogfish in action for a couple of minutes we turned it around and headed south. We saw a bunch of trumpet fish, one massive puffer fish, a lion fish, some angelfish, and many schools of fish all the while admiring the various different types of coral on this wall dive.
By the time we returned to VIP Diving it was well after 2:30p.m. We rinsed all our gear and put everything away. We then headed home for some rest and relaxation. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
Day 3: Diving on our Own
We were a little skeptical of diving on our own as we’re relatively new to diving. But after a successful day of diving yesterday we were up for the challenge. Besides, there’s something nice to be said about being able to dive according to your own schedule and at your own pace. We dropped by VIP Diving first thing in the morning to pick up our tanks and gear. We then headed to our first dive site.
Alice in Wonderland
We started the morning off at Alice in Wonderland. Yesterday I wore my 3mm full wetsuit and started to feel a little chills towards the end of our second dive. And because it rained earlier this morning I donned my 7mm vest overtop. Except I didn’t adjust my weighting. And we didn’t realize this until after making the long swim out to the buoy. When it came time to descend, well, I couldn’t. So we made the long swim back to our jeep so I could take off the stupid vest. We then swam all the way back out to the buoy to dive for realsies this time. We were quick to get over our frustration because as soon as we descended marine life was just bursting up all around us.
Based on our air consumption yesterday we decided to turn around after 30 minutes. This would leave us a comfortable amount of reserve air just in case. I led for the first half of the dive hovering around 60ft. On the way back K led at a shallower depth of around 40 to 50ft. We dove the northern part of the reef.
While making the swim back to shore we passed by one of my all-time favourite fish: the smooth trunkfish. So adorable.
After a brief surface interval that consisted of eating a protein bar and driving to our next dive site we were eager to hop back in the water. The entry to the dive site was pretty straightforward. There’s a boulder that’s been painted yellow indicating the point of entry where there’s a break between the coral.
We stuck the same game plan as before since it worked out rather well for us at Alice in Wonderland. We dove the southern part of the reef hovering around 60ft for the first 30 minutes of our dive and then ascending up towards 45ft during the return back to the buoy.
Afterwards we returned to VIP Diving to trade in our empty tanks for fresh ones. We might have been overly ambitious, but we planned on squeezing in another dive later in the afternoon. We first returned to our studio apartment for lunch followed by a nap.
At around 4:00p.m we headed out for another dive. Except we were delayed for about 30 minutes after being stuck behind a parade. Luckily many of the sites are within a 15 minute drive from our accommodations. It was a pretty easy entry into Bachelor’s Beach. There is a stairway leading down to a small sandy beach. There were no loose rocks or pieces of coral to maneuver around. It’s a short swim out to the mooring line.
We dove the northern side of the reef. There are some nice coral mixed with an odd assortment of man-made treasures – including an oil drum and part of a sunken dock. We kept this dive relatively short (54 minutes) because I was getting extremely cold.
We have no idea how people manage to dive more than twice in a single day. After squeezing in a third dive we were completely exhausted.
Day 4: Take a Leap (Off a Cliff)
We were still a little tired from yesterday. But that didn’t prevent us from being the early risers that we are. We checked in with VIP Divers to unload our empty tanks from yesterday and replace them with fresh ones. With that we were ready to hit the road and drive to the northern side of the western dive sites.
Oil Slick Leap
We started off our day of diving at Oil Slick Leap. As the name suggests, you take a giant leap off the side of a cliff for entry. Alternatively there is also a ladder, but jumping off the cliff is part of the experience. We watched a group of three divers jump in beforehand and we pretty much copied what they did. One hand holds onto your fins and the back of your mask strap while the other does a high five to the front of your face holding both your regulator and mask in place. You then take a giant stride off the top of the cliff.
Once you get into the water it’s a short swim over to the marker, which is quite fortunate because the water was super choppy above the surface. We dove the southern part of the reef. The visibility here was amazing. Easily one of our favourite dive sites so far.
Our second dive site was at Karpata. It was a little tricky entering into the water. There’s a set of stairs that takes you down to a rocky beach. From there there’s a concrete platform that kinda slippery. We walked down to the edge, sat down to put our fins on, waited for a wave to come in and then pushed off. We didn’t have far to swim before descending at the buoy.
We dove along the northern part of this wall reef. The visibility at this dive site was phenomenal. As were the various types of coral and reef fish. We enjoyed this dive site so much that when we returned back to the buoy we continued going south for a few additional minutes.
The exit was a little dicey. We swam up to the concrete platform and used it for support to take off our fins and exit out of the water. The combination of our heavy wet gear coupled with the powerful waves crashing onto our backs made things a little challenging. But we emerged relatively unscathed back onto dry land.
From there we drove back to VIP Diving to unload our empty tanks and clean our gear. We were too tired for more diving. But feeling extremely satisfied with our day of diving. For the remainder of the afternoon we lounged around the pool.
Day 5: Diving along the North
Settling into our morning routine we woke up, prepared breakfast, then headed over to the dive shop for our tanks and gear. Because we experienced better visibility along the northern dive sites we decided to stick around the same area where we dove yesterday.
We dove Andrea I two days prior. So it felt only fitting to complete the series. The entry was a little challenging because of the surf. And the visibility wasn’t nearly as good as when we dove at Andrea I. But we still had a fabulous time. We dove along the northern part of the reef.
For our second dive site we headed over to Tolo (also known as Ol’ Blue). Entry into the water is pretty simple. It’s just a matter of climbing down a few uneven steps that lead down to a rocky beach. You just got to time your entry with the waves. And there’s no need to swim over the buoy to descend. We dove the southern part of this wall dive.
Along the drive back to our accommodations we first stopped at the dive shop to trade our empty tanks for full ones. We planned on squeezing in another dive later in the afternoon. But before that we headed home to eat some lunch and rest our eyes for a bit.
Angel City (although this one does really count)
It was a little hard to get back out. Once we’re in the actual water it’s wonderful. But the challenging part is getting to that point. Plus trying to put on a wet wetsuit is always such a struggle.
For our afternoon dive we headed out to Angel City. We made the long swim out to the buoy. And as soon as we descended we spotted a turtle. But within that same moment I realized I forgot my camera on the front seat of our jeep. With our windows rolled down. We slowly trailed the turtle for about 5 minutes. But my fear of someone thieving my camera was overwhelming. We ended up surfacing and swam back to the shore. Thankfully it was still there. But at this point K called the dive. So we wrapped things up and drove back to our apartment for the remainder of the evening.
Day 6: More Diving along the North
We felt a little guilty returning our nearly full tanks from our failed attempt at Angel City. But not guilty enough to use a tank that was anything but full. We didn’t want it to cut down on our dive time for the morning dives we had planned.
Oil Slick Leap
Since we enjoyed this dive site so much (and it has an incredibly easy entry and minimal swimming to the buoy) we dove Oil Slick Leap again. Except this time we veered north. This morning we decided beforehand to just stick with two dives. Because of that we further agreed to extend our bottom time to upwards of 70 minutes. Based on previous air consumption with our prior dives that would still leave us with just under a third of our tank left when we surfaced.
The visibility was excellent and we spotted a number of interesting creatures and critters including a green moray eel and a spotted eagle ray.
There aren’t actually 1000 steps to get down to this dive site. There are 72. But when you are coming back up with all your wet gear it sure feels like 1000 steps. Besides the stair challenge entry into this dive site is pretty straightforward. The shore is a bit rocky, but once you get in the water there’s a lot of sand patches.
We dove the south side of the reef. The visibility was excellent. We counted the most amount of lionfish we’ve seen on a dive: seven. Lionfish are an extremely invasive species. Especially in the Caribbean where they have no natural predators. Except humans. Lionfish have been wreaking havoc on coral reefs over the past decade. There are large efforts underway to minimize the lionfish population and protect the health and wellbeing of many of the coral reefs in the Caribbean and parts of the United States.
Day 7: Final day of Diving
Our last day of diving. And our last full day in Bonaire. We decided to hit up two of our favourite dive sites. This should come as no surprise, but we stuck to more of the northern dive sites along the western coast.
We started our morning off at Tolo. This time we scoped out the northern side of the reef. As usual, the visibility was excellent. Shortly after turning around at our agreed upon midway mark (35 minutes into the dive) a moderate current kicked in. And we were swimming against it. This was the first current we’ve encountered while diving in Bonaire and it took us a little by surprise. It definitely made things a bit more challenging, so we tried to hug as close to the reef as possible. This is why you always want a reserve amount of air in your tank for unanticipated challenges like this.
For our final dive in Bonaire we returned to Karpata. It was a little more challenging to enter as the waves were a rockin’ and a rollin’. But we stuck to the same game plan as when we first dove here – we walked across the concrete platform, sat over the side to put on our fins, and timed our entry so the waves wouldn’t push us towards shore. We pretty much descended as soon as possible to clear out of the impact zone.
We dove the southern part of the reef this time. Which worked out well because it was in the same direction against the current to start. For the first little while the wall provided a lot of shelter from the current. When we reached our half way mark we just drifted back to the buoy. Hardly any kicking required.
When we finished up with our final dive we headed back to the dive shop to rinse off and return our gear. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the southern part of the island. Now that we didn’t have our dive gear in our trunk we had more time to explore some of the points of attraction along our drive. We stopped at the salt flats, which are responsible for producing one of Bonaire’s most important exports. The super popular dive site, Salt Pier, is located here, but unfortunately it was closed for the month as bridge construction was underway. Salt and Bonaire have a long history together spanning back to the 1600s when African slaves were forced to cultivate and harvest the salt. Some of the slave quarters used are still standing and have been maintained by the government as a reminder of their tumultuous past. There’s also a flamingo sanctuary located nearby, but it’s closed off to the public.
Day 8: Final day in Bonaire
We flew out in the early afternoon. Our AirBnB hosts kindly drove us back to the airport. Five hours later we touched down in Newark. We were sad to leave Bonaire. It’s not exactly a sight for sore eyes above the surface, but below the water, it’s one of the healthiest most pristine reefs we’ve seen. Diving here was nothing short of phenomenal.
Until next time,
L & K