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Diving in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

Updated on April 27, 2010

(Soon to be part of The Netherlands proper)

There may be no easier way to reach a coral reef than on the island of Bonaire. It's a simple drill: You walk out of your hotel room, hoist on a tank, and, sidestepping the half-naked Europeans scattered on the coral-sand beach, ease under the shallow edge of the warm Caribbean Sea. From here, you fin easily away from shore, just above the stands of elkhorn coral, until the bottom begins a gradual seaward slope. Within minutes, the sandy shelf under you becomes a living tapestry of hard and soft corals, populated with scads of tropical fish and small, colorful invertebrates. Down it goes, into the sweet everlasting blue, a yellow brick road of a slope richly textured with plate corals and orange tube sponges, black feathery starfish called crinoids, lettuce sea slugs — and more fish than the average person can even identify.

This is the reef of Bonaire, a coral system that has often been described as among the most astonishing in the Americas. No wonder the local auto license plates carry the slogan "Diver's Paradise." Indeed, while travelers to a single place usually have widely disparate reasons for their sojourning, some 75 percent of visitors who arrive on Bonaire do so for one purpose: going underwater.
 
And no wonder. The visual and memorable impact of Bonaire's reefs is definitely intensified by the reality that they have remained essentially untouched and exist essentially as they were before the first Europeans set foot on the island. The coral here is not only easy to find; the entire system of creatures it supports is exceedingly healthy. In a world in which coral reefs are increasingly at risk, this is no small thing.

Protected and Pristine Reefs

Keenly aware of the potential and pitfalls of their easy-to-reach but fragile reef system, dive operators helped develop some of the world's most stringent marine conservation measures more than two decades ago, banning spear-fishing and coral collecting, and marking local sites with mooring buoys to stop anchor damage. By 1979, that ethic spearheaded the creation of the Bonaire Marine Park, which surrounds the entire 121-square-mile island, down to depths of 200 feet. By 1992, the park got the staff it needed to keep tabs on the science and to enforce rules. Today, all divers pay an annual $10 entrance fee that allows unlimited dives in the park. The fee helps fund the park management, balancing both use and preservation, and making it one of the most successful marine preserves in the world. If a dive site is in danger of being overstressed, it's placed off limits until it recovers.
 
Bonaire is as arid as a desert. Outside the harbor town of Kralendijk and beyond, where most dive resorts occupy the inside curve of the island north of town, lie rolling clay-colored hills grooved with arroyos and studded with cactus. Indeed, topside Bonaire seems as much a part of the American Southwest as anything Caribbean. But this is part of its great biological success; with little freshwater run-off to dilute coral growth, halos of marine life entirely rim Bonaire and the adjacent islet of Klein (Little) Bonaire just offshore.
 
Almost all diving takes place off the leeward coast and from the 1,500-acre Klein Bonaire, both of which are cupped inside the tips of the boomerang-shaped larger island and sheltered from the raging easterly winds. Dive operators, centered along the crook of the lee's elbow, send boats out morning, afternoon, and evening, rotating dive sites each day.
 
Continued In: Diving in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles - Part 2

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