During this time of year my mind often harks back to warmer climates and more pleasant surroundings. Imagine sipping a cocktail and watching the sunset with a view across the ocean listening to the sound of fruit bats as they come out to feed. Such a memory is that of the Dutch Antilles, known locally as ABC (Bonaire, Curaçao and Aruba).Bonaire and Curaçao, and to a lesser extent, Aruba, feature prominently in States-side diving magazines as very desirable diving destinations, and a number of specialist UK tour operators now offer those on a standard package basis. Both Bonaire and Curaçao are very easily accessible via a short hop from the UK to Amsterdam and onwards with Dutch carriers KLM and Martinair, the flight time from Amsterdam being about 11 hours.
A week’s package including half board, and dive pack costs in the region of £1000. It is, once on either island, very easy to combine a second week to the other island, as they are merely a 15 minute flight away from each other and linked by local carrier Antillian Airways.I first visited the region in spring 1999, combining both Bonaire and Curaçao in a 2 week package booked directly with local operations via the Internet. In spite of having dived many world destinations and having a long lists of places still to discover, Bonaire has become a special place I will like to return to again if I ever get the opportunity to do so. And if statistics are correct, I am not the only one. Over half of the visitor traffic to Bonaire and Curaçao is from repeat customers.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The islands lie in the south eastern corner of the Caribbean region, some 30 odd miles north of the Venezuelan coast. They enjoy very even daily temperatures averaging 27°C throughout the year, a mostly dry, arid type climate with few days of rain in autumn and winter. Vegetation on the islands is not of the lush tropical rain forest type, far from it, but of semi-desert type with massive cacti forests, desert shrub and scrub, and the occasional mangrove swamp. The islands are fairly flat although some hilly terrain can be found on both islands at one end.
It is the lack of rain and river outflow that provide the stunning water clarity around the protected side of the islands, with visibility invariably in excess of 30 meters, and regularly reaching 50 meters or more. All the water on the island is produced from desalinated, distilled and purified sea water. It is perfectly safe to drink, though slightly odd in taste.Major contributors to the islands’ success are their locations outside the Caribbean hurricane belt. This makes them a safer bet than most destinations in this area of the world through the late spring to autumn months. There are also “civilised” infrastructures for water, roads, and major commercial and healthcare facilities. The islands are also considered non-malarial, though mosquitoes are around.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The Diving Setup
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The authorities in Bonaire have realised both the ecological importance of their marine environment and the benefit that this has on tourism from divers. Each and every diver who plans to dive in Bonaire Marine Park is required to undergo a lecture on reef preservation and good diving technique before they are issued with a permit to dive, this permit takes the form of a plastic ID disk that must be attached to your BC at all times.
Diving started in the islands some 30 years ago, but became much more popular some years later when local pioneer Captain Don Stewart introduced the concept of “total diving freedom”. On both Bonaire and Curaçao, it is absolutely possible, after initial orientation and qualification check, to pick up a cylinder at any time of the day or night, 365 days a year, and go diving, unaccompanied. This is an absolutely wonderful concept for those of us who hate following regimental dive masters and maximum dive time directives, and those who are keen photographers and want to do their own thing. Although I would never advocate diving without a partner (buddy)!It is possible to shore dive from virtually anywhere along the west coast in Bonaire, where there is protection from the, at times, quite fresh trade winds. Yellow dive site markers are dotted along the coast road, where easy access for parking and kitting up is always provided. The reef drop off is never more than 50 to 80 meters from the shore, and sometimes much less distant than that, and it is an easy short wade in or swim to the shotted site buoy to drop down to the reef or wall. Car, 4x4 and pick up truck rentals on the islands are both easy and very reasonably priced, and one should not consider doing without.
Curaçao’s dive sites are mostly to be accessed by boat, in contrast, due to the more rugged coastal terrain, and dives on Curaçao tend to be offered as 2-tank dives.Most operators offer what they call “unlimited free shore diving” on the days when one has also booked at least a 1-tank boat dive. This is a brilliant deal. On Bonaire, Captain Don’s boats go out 3 times a day for a 1-tank dive. It is possible to dive only from boats, but sites visited rarely include those located more than 15 minutes steam away, and so combining a paid boat dive and doing as many free shore dives anywhere else on the same day is ideal.
The 1-tank and 2-tank dives packages can be confusing and one should be careful to check what the deal is with each before booking. On Bonaire, buying more than a 1-tank boat dive package is in my view a waste of opportunities for more independent and free diving can be had from shore locations on boat dive days, where boats don’t often go. It is useful to plan diving from a boat though some of the time, particularly for sites located off Klein Bonaire, a small island which can only be reached by boat.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Though the diving in terms of species of marine fauna and flora is pretty similar, there are some differences which make both islands uniquely likeable in their own right. Both share superb visibility conditions, and warm waters for much of the year, but Bonaire’s underwater environment is softer, in a pretty sort of way, whilst Curaçao offers more rugged and dramatic sea scapes. Soft and hard corals are beautiful on both, and sponges are simply stunning for colours, variety and sizes.Large pelagics are not commonly seen, though schools of jacks and tarpon patrol the deeper reefs and can be often made out in the deep blue off walls. The reefs abound with many species of grouper, some reaching enormous sizes, including Jewfish, and moray eels are huge, and very friendly. Turtles and dolphins are infrequently sighted, and sharks are almost never seen. Not the place to go for large pelagic action. However, there are two creatures Bonaire and Curaçao offer rare opportunities to see, perhaps more frequently and more easily than anywhere, and they are the frogfish and the sea horse. I was lucky to find those several times and they are not easy to spot due to their superb camouflage. The macro photo opportunities are fantastic. Nitrox is available, so are rebreathers and courses for both.
Bonaire’s other important industry is salt production and it is from Salt Pier that the salt is exported all over the World. The pier is in water deep enough to take ocean going bulk carriers, the great many pier piles forming a spectacular man made forest that plunges into depths exceeding 30 metres. Growing on these piles are some magnificent corals, isolated in clear water, with excellent negative space surrounding them. When people hear about diving in Bonaire, most say how fantastic the diving at Town Pier is, and I fully concur. You need a special permit to dive the pier, but it is well worth the trouble. Via Captain Dons, who organised the permits for us, we spent three days diving there, which for a relatively small site demonstrates the sheer variety and quantity of life there.It is also ironic that in one of the most highly acclaimed dive sites in the World, there is also un-told pollution and rubbish under the pier from old car tyres to car batteries. Whilst this adds to the rustic charm of the site, as there are now corals taking hold on the tyres, I’m surprised the local dive community have not got together to clear it. That said, it is still a fully functioning pier serving the principal town of Kralendijk.
The only wreck we dived, was that of the Hilma Hooker, an impounded drug-running ship. When it was impounded it was found to contain several tons of marijuana, which I understand from the locals, was disposed of by the authorities by burning (it must have been some bonfire!). The wreck lies in some 40 metres of water, the currents can be quite strong, so it needs to be dived during slack water, and it was the only decompression dive done on the trip and it was worth it.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
On the Islands~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Top side, the living is very easy and ambiance is very laid back. Accommodations are top rate, and service in hotels, shops, and service providers in general is polite, pleasant and efficient. Both islands support advanced medical facilities, including recompression units.Curaçao is the larger of the two, and offers some weird landscapes at the northern end of the island, where a nature and wilderness park is located, providing a natural look at the local vegetation, with cacti towering to 10 meters high, home to very small and pretty green parrots. A similar park exists on Bonaire, again, at the northern tip of the island, offering very similar landscape and interest.
Both islands shelter healthy population of green iguanas, which grow to enormous sizes, and can be seen basking on ledges at the sea edge. There is an impressive cave and grotto system in Curaçao, which is well worth a visit if nothing else for the fun of being harassed by the large population of dive bombing bats which live there.
The east side of the islands are always exposed to the trade winds, and sea conditions are often very rough. Wind surfing and sailing is on offer on this side, whilst the diving is located on the leeside.
Conversely, Kralendijk, the capital of Bonaire is twee and pretty, and a bit up-market. The fruit and veg market on the quayside is supplied every day by a flotilla of little Venezuelan boats which plough the 40 odd km stretch of ocean each day to sell their produce. They bargain in Spanish selling bunches of tiny and super sweet bananas or juicy peaches, giving mostly toothless or gold clad grins after the thrill of closing the deal.Food is both excellent and copious in restaurants, which are not cheap, bearing in mind that most foodstuffs are imported from other Caribbean islands and neighbouring South America. Restaurant prices are very similar to what they are in the UK, and half board arrangements are often better value than room only or b&b, once restaurant bills start adding up. Drinks bought in bars and restaurants can be steep too, though the American custom of happy hour between 5 and 7 is very well established. Local beer is very reasonably priced, and brewed in Curaçao.
Wild life on the islands is safe, no snakes, scorpions or spiders of any consequence. The most dangerous species are on Bonaire. Wild donkeys and goats roam the island, and are the main cause of car accidents. The donkeys have become a real problem and many have now been caught and been neutered to reduce the flourishing population. There is also a donkey sanctuary which can be visited by the public. Warning: They bite!Major tour operations such as Hayes and Jarvis, Harlequin Holidays and Kuoni offer packages to Bonaire and Curaçao, on a year round basis. A quick internet search will reveal a whole raft of very good and informative web sites about Bonaire and Curaçao.
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