The island of Bonaire, about 38 by 4 km in size, sits 80 km off the north coast of Venezuela, in the South Caribbean. Originally a submerged coral reef, over time, its undersea remnants have pushed up and out of the sea fostering a limited flora and fauna, yet below surface, it is an undersea paradise.
Snorkelers and divers come here for the warm turquoise waters, around 28 C, and the variety, over 350 species, of marine life. The ocean has exceptional clarity, good for at least 30 meters, until the abrupt drop off, into the deep blue abyss below. Along with the multitude of reef fish, the mass coral beds are a spectacular sight.
Safe snorkeling gear should include wearing a rash guard (heavy, long-sleeved jersey to protect you from the sun) plus rubberized booties, two part fins, for getting in and out of the uneven and sharp broken coral skeletons at ocean’s edge. Access points into the ocean are marked along its lee ward, western peripheral shoreline and most have only a single entrance where you slip in between cutting corals or jagged volcanic rock. Fins are pulled on over the booties a little way offshore, away from corals where the water is well over our heads. The ocean surges make entrance and exits the most challenging parts of your excursion.
Once submerged, we start our hour-long snorkel going upwind against the surge so we can float more when returning to our launching point. My goal on every snorkeling excursion is to see at least one sea turtle. Watching their graceful flight through the deep waters is an extraordinary sight. Combined with spotting unique colorful fish and giant Sea Fans swaying in the deep currents, these are memories for a lifetime.
Remarkable coral locations include Captain Don’s Habitat famous for its stunning Fire Blade Coral bed and giant Elkhorn Coral Tree, while at the 1000 Steps site, I am impressed with the expanse of spiky Staghorn coral.
Trucking around on the single-lane roadways of Bonaire, we discover several hidden trailheads; one leads us to a high lookout, another along the base of an ancient inland coral headwall. On close inspection of the wall, there are spines of exposed volcanic rock inter-mixed with others of coral origin, all a part of the unique structure of this arid and scorched island.
As we proceed along a twisting curvy roadway towards the small village of Rincon, we marvel at the pink Flamingos standing in the shallows near the beach at Gotomeer Lake. Driving through Rincon and north to Shagbaai, a precious 6,500-hectare sanctuary National Park, we see a few friendly, but skinny, wild donkeys wandering around. They are proof that there is not much to forage for here as the parched ground is baked dry and most plants are covered in prickles. The small museum at Shagbaai’s gate highlights island flora, displays on the island’s history and how early house construction was done. Locals extracted calcium from the broken beach corals in lime kilns to use as a plaster paste that was slathered over and around small rocks and expired Kadushi cacti trunks. The Arawak Indians came here from South America in 800 AD., followed by the Spanish in the 1500s and Dutch in 1600s. Bonaire is now part of the Dutch Antilles, yet it has been independent since 1954.
Exploring the mountainous Shagbaai park is a ponderous drive, moving at no more than 20km/hour speed the whole way, as its primitive dirt roadway rolls over hills and winds through shallow valleys. The road is flanked by continuous clumps of cacti; short stumpy Barrel, medallion shaped Prickly Pear and the candle like, Kadushi Cacti. We spot wild goats, feral cats, lizards, hawks and rare, Yellow-Shouldered Amazon Parrots, butt it is the spectacular secluded ocean viewpoints that leave us breathless. We do not snorkel here as the land’s edge can be dangerously unpredictable where the ocean’s swells violently smash against broken cliff seawalls.
Heading home, we stop at the island’s famous Cadushy Distillery, where they make a tasty lime liqueur from the juice of the Kadushi Cacti.
Driving around the south end of Bonaire one sees huge white pyramids, small mountains of salt excavated salt from shallow natural pools. The shoreline is dotted with intermittent mangrove marshes and the beach surfaces are unusual. Some beaches are dark with broken volcanic rock chunks, interspersed with pink coral veins, while others are completely white with smooth finger-like prongs of old worn Staghorn coral.
Our cabin back at Captain Don’s Habitat is surrounded by tropical gardens full of chattering birds, colourful flowers and glamorous palm trees. Our patio also gets daily visits by attentive Blue Whiptail Lizards or the 100 plus cm long curious Green Iguana. Lounging poolside is serene, looking through the palms, over turquoise waters and hearing high rolling waves collide with the ancient seven-meter, coral headwall nearby.
The ocean side Rum Runners restaurant is covered with a gigantic wall-less white tent whose pointed tops are supported by a five-meter posts. This ceiling creates an open-air environment, protecting diners from direct sunshine, while enclosing us inr the marvelous mosaic of smooth shell coloured floor tiles. At night, lighting at the base of the adjacent headwall illuminates the pale aqua waters below us, where meter long, glimmering silver Tarpon fish circle awaiting ‘forbidden’ scraps. Meals here are inspired by the sea and are all locally acquired.
Our final Happy Hour, everyone gathers to watch the equatorial sunset as it literally drops below the horizon and we festively celebrate another amazing day of swimming with sea turtles around this azure ocean oasis of Bonaire.
Story & Photography by: Wilderness Traveler Cynthia Percival