Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

Tucked low in the Caribbean sea, a skip above Venezuela but hundreds of miles from the popular cruising grounds of the lesser Antilles, the ABC islands are a touch out of the way for the broader fleet. ABC stands for Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. If you’re like me, all you have to do is hear “Aruba” to start humming the tune to Kokomo: “Aruba, Jamaica, oooo I want to take ya!” – amiright?!

We stopped at Bonaire for one of the two reasons most people do: because they’re on the way to somewhere else. Namely, they’re a great way to break up the distance from the Antilles to Panama.

Bonaire location

Not a great selling point, but the other reason most people go to Bonaire makes it a lock: it is reputed to have among the best diving in the Caribbean. If diving was a top priority for Totem, we’d have routed differently in the Caribbean (namely, getting into the Western Carib). But it’s certainly why we prioritized a stop in B over A (“Las Vegas of the Caribbean”) and C (touristy + poor swimming), and it delivered.

Check out the number of dive sites on this map: Bonaire is basically one massive dive site.

Bonaire dive site Map

Pinterest underwater wonderlandAlthough it’s just a few miles long, there are more than EIGHTY named, shore-accessible dive sites. They are marked by yellow buoys in the water, and yellow rocks on shore. This entire shoreline, out to 200’ (61m) depth is a national marine park! Smart move: Bonaire’s economy rests on tourism, much of it destination diving.

How does this impact us as cruisers? The first sign is upon arrival, because your only option is 1) mooring or 2) marina. There is no anchoring allowed, which protects coral that might otherwise be destroyed by chain/anchors. Moorings are a reasonable $10/day. Visitors are required to purchase permits for snorkeling or diving: the tag is affixed to your gear. They’re also reasonable (I think it was $10 for snorkeling, $25 to dive), valid for a year, and support funding the funding marine park.

Diving and swimming was far and away our number one activity, and our planned stay of “a week or so” slipped into nearly three. The weather wasn’t right to move on, but even if our window opened the unanimous vote was to extend our stay for more swimming in the beautiful water of Bonaire.

Totem nestled between Utopia II and Rhapsody; kids swam daily between Totem and Utopia, and I enjoyed an extended swim each morning with Bob & Sarah from Rhapsody. Totem’s aft deck was frequently scattered with gear awaiting use or drying off after a freshwater rinse, a pileup of masks and fins and tanks and snorkels and more. At least there wasn’t much laundry, we spent to much time in swimsuits!

This aft deck taken over by gear

The water was clear and beautiful for nearly the duration of our stay. Totem floats in about 20 feet of water; a coral heads dot the sand below, and tumble in increasing density down the dropoff just behind the transom. It’s startling to see such vibrant coral in an anchorage.

Totem floats over the reef
Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals


The kids had a blast. Sometimes they cared about what was down there to scope out (an eel! a ray!), a lot of the time they were just “hanging out,” enjoying each others company in the bathwater ocean.

Swimming off the back of Utopia II
Swimming off the back of Utopia II
Just hanging out
Just hanging out

Swimming every morning with the Rhapsody crew was a great way to start the day. Good exercise, good company, good marine life spotting. We’d alternate between stroking to make some distance and get heart rates up and OH LOOK SOMETHING SHINY! There is always something to see: most days included a lot of flounder, some eels, and colorful schools of fish (the reef in front of the Venezuelan embassy never disappointed). Octopuses stick with a den for a while, so I could revisit one repeatedly, like a comforting resident neighbor. One morning we saw three different spotted eagle rays, cruising the waterfront and looking for a snack in the sand.

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den
My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den
well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom
well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom
Another well-disguised critter... can you see it?
Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?
Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms
Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms
Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel's waterfront bar
Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel’s waterfront bar
Stopping at Windancer IV for a chat on the way back to our boats

Did we dive? You bet! Niall had a mega-big Christmas gift early: for as long as we’ve lived on Totem, he wanted dive certification. With help from a cruiser friend, Brita, who was getting her dive master training in Bonaire — arrangements were made ahead of our arrival with an excellent instructor at Dive Friends Bonaire, and he started PADI classes on our first full day. Big thank you to Brita (who, small world, worked at the same law firm as my cousin in NYC?!) and fair winds as she chases more sailing adventures! Jamie and I love diving too: Utopia II is generous with us, letting us join their expeditions and use their gear as they have everywhere from Malaysia to Maldives. I lost count of the number of dives we did, and it was glorious. Totem’s underwater cameras are only suitable up to about 30′, so I don’t have any photos from our dives — but these images from Rhapsody capture the vibe of the reef.

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

Pretty corals and critters under Totem presented a great opportunity to work on dive lessons and experience with Niall’s sisters. Our Mantus tanks are perfect for this.

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem
Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Does Bonaire’s diving earn the reputation? Mostly. Zillions of colorful little fish? Yes! Healthy corals, in a diversity of forms and a spectrum of hues? Yes! But it is clear that this area is over-fished. There were no top level predators save man. No sharks ghosting over a sandy bottom. No big groupers lurking in the nook of a coral head. It was beautiful, it’s just not as awesome and healthy a reef as it could be. It’s still probably among the best in the Caribbean. I fear for the future, since the marine park status hasn’t staved off overfishing. There were guys fishing a couple of boat lengths behind Totem’s mooring most mornings. Maybe that was about the 200’ depth mark where the park starts, but it seemed shy. On the edge at least, for fish we couldn’t even buy from the fisherman’s dock because they pre-sold their catch to the massive cruise ships that visited nearly every day we were there.

It was still incredible. It still pulled us in. I’d happily go back. I’d choose it over Grenada for hurricane season in a heartbeat. Why? More of what’s to love about Bonaire in the next post.

Totem is in Colombia now, reveling in the sights and sounds and tastes of this spirited country.

14 Responses

  1. Love Bonaire, just got back from there yesterday. Scuba diving is great. Awesome weather and very friendly.

  2. Hello Guys, What are your sailing plans from where you are now? Heading down to cross the Panama Canal & cross the Pacific?

    1. Hi Peter, we’re planning to transit the Panama canal, but we’ll actually go NORTH from there and hang out in Mexico for a bit. Looking forward to a road trip up the west coast next summer. South Pac… next year maybe? That’s too far to know!

  3. Behan,

    Thanks for the post, another great island on my future radar. Regarding your mantus scuba rigs. I’m intrigued by a compact solution like that, how have you been charging the tanks since you’ve gotten them? With such a small tank, I’m guessing that’s required frequently.

  4. Hi Behan. We are in Mexico now heading back to BI tomorrow. Let us know if and when you may be back in La Cruz. We also have booked a dive vacation to Bonaire the end of May for Ty’s birthday. We are both PADI certified with lots to learn and lots to see.

    1. Bonaire dive trip! Sounds fantastic! Hope you can see the wreck, and fit in something on the east side – sounds like more pelagics over there, turtles too.

    1. Glad you liked it! I do not have an underwater “rig” for photos – #GOALS (and budget!). Pics are a mix of GoPro Hero 5, and a Canon PowerShot D20. Nothing fancy, no lights, etc. Just pretty water, good subject matter, and trying to frame! The pic you linked was taken with the GoPro.

  5. The least fished and most coral is on the east side. Check out East Side Divers for a remarkable lovely dive. We saw over 20 Green Turtles on one dive.

    1. Great tips David! Makes perfect sense the E side would have better fish as it’s windward, exposed, and not where local fisherman in small boats are going so much. I had heard that the coral on that side was more beaten-up (which would also align with a windward exposure) – not your experience? I’m curious!

  6. Very cool. How was the lionfish situation in Bonaire? Saw quite a few already diving in Curacao a few years back, and they can’t be good for reef health.

    1. I saw them almost every time we got in the water! Thre were local efforts to eradicate – not sure how the progress is, if what we saw was improvement or not.

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