By Candyce H. Stapen
We’re on a treasure hunt in Bonaire, a Caribbean island 50 miles north of Venezuela. Forget about beaches—there aren’t many here—or lush, tropical landscape—Bonaire is arid and desert-like. But the island does teem with underwater jewels: myriad reefs rich with coral and colorful tropical fish.
That’s why my son Matt and I are doing what he calls “drive-by snorkeling.” After picking a promising spot from the 20+ best locations showcased on our Bonaire snorkel map, we get in our rental car (alas, a rusted out pick-up, but that’s another story) and we don’t stop until we find the name of what we want painted on yellow rocks along the roadside. Then we park, put on our gear, walk into the water, and savor the glistening, undersea gems.
Not only does Bonaire feature an abundance of dive and snorkel sites, but mask and fin enthusiasts can reach many of them from the shore. That makes Bonaire a good pick for families with children new to snorkeling who may feel more secure sampling the sport from a beach than a boat. Also, with no boat ride required, snorkeling is inexpensive.
Just bring or rent equipment and purchase the $10 required tag. The money helps preserve Bonaire’s marine parks.
At 1000 steps, named for the long, series of stairs down to the beach, we catch sight of blue tang, parrotfish and surgeon fish, among others, as we swim above a grove of iron formations. On the way back up to the car it really does feel like 1000-steps. We like Cliff, another site, for its elkhorn coral forest. Mangroves in Lac Bay, delights us with its baby barracudas about three inches long.
From our land base, the Buddy Dive Resort, we take a short boat ride to Klein Bonaire, an offshore islet. Off the small beach at a spot called No Name, we start swimming, keeping close to shore. From between the crevices in the island’s rock ledge, a green eel wriggles his tube-like head at us and scores of rainbow colored tropical fish dart around the coral. At Just a Nice Day, another Klein Bonaire site, we view angelfish, large brain coral and we float by a turtle, lazily flapping our way.
Our most exciting outing: a night snorkel under Kralendijk’s Old Town pier. Yes, it feels scary to don a wet suit (the water is cold at night), masks and flippers and then jump into an inky black sea. A guide as well as a reservation is required.
Matt and I follow our leader, swimming to the pier. Maneuvering under the dock past boat hulls, we imagine ourselves on a James Bond search and rescue mission. It proves a good way to get over the water’s gasoline fumes and filmy feel. Just when we think we shouldn’t have signed up, our guide shines his flashlight on a piling. The rows of purple, blue and pink sponges ringing the structure dazzle us. Another wooden pole blooms with thousands of tiny orange coral polyps.
At night, the coral as well as some critters exhibit brilliant colors, something we never before experienced. We explore this night world of magical color for awhile and then I scream. A large jelly fish wraps his tentacles around my calf just where my wet suit ends. I manage to shake off most of the stinging critter and our guide, with his gloved hand, unwraps the rest of it. In pain, I need to leave the magical, underwater world.
Matt and I, however, can’t wait to explore the nighttime marine wonders again. Next time though, we’ll wear the full body wet suits.