On the Road with Terry Ward
There were some well-known names from the underwater world on Bonaire (www.tourismbonaire.com/en/) last August, where the tourism board was feting underwater photographer Carl Roessler (www.divexprt.com) with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to developing sustainable dive tourism during the island’s early diving days. Roessler was in Bonaire and Curacao during the late 1960s and early '70s, and recalls spotting mola molas and even killer whales in the waters back then! While his dive business took he and his clients to scuba-diving destinations all over the world in the decades that followed — including the Coral Sea, Red Sea and the Galapagos — Roessler says Bonaire was the measuring stick for everywhere that came after.
"Bonaire's was the most pristine reef system I’d ever seen," Roessler told me over dinner at Captain Don's Habitat (www.habitatbonaire.com). "I could go to the Maldives, I could go to the Red Sea, I could go anywhere afterwards and pop into the water, and if I saw dead patches or it was too hard to get to the diving then I'd realize it might not be that attractive a place to bring people. All the lessons were learned here."
Shore Diving Capital
Of course, the B of the ABC islands hardly needs to be pointed out on the map to divers. As a top scuba diving destination, Bonaire has earned the reputation as the shore-diving capital of the world, with the bulk of the island's more than 80 dive sites accessible from the shore. I’d heard the hype, but I'd always wondered just how easy-access the diving here really was, and now I know.
It’s roughly 25 finned steps from the lockers at Captain Don’s Habitat to the end of the pier, where you swim a few meters out and end up at one of the most impressive house reefs I've seen anywhere. Covered with sponges and fans, it drops to about 120 feet and teems with boxfish, parrotfish, colorful wrasses and the occasional cluster of Caribbean reef squid. Next door, at Buddy Dive (www.buddydive.com), there’s even a drive-through tank fill station you can swing through while following the yellow stone markers (a yellow brick road of sorts, indicating the island’s most magical dive spots) between top northside sites like Karpata and 1000 Steps to Red Slave and Salt Pier in the south. Truth be told, I only had one day of tossing the tanks in and out of the car to explore the shore diving sites away from the resort, as I had signed on to finally get my advanced open water certification (it was about time — no more getting sectioned off with brand-new divers at world-class scuba diving destinations just because I couldn't prove my level with a card!).
In my advanced class was a bubbly California visitor, who happened to be the girlfriend of Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques Cousteau) and was also staying at Captain Don’s and regularly giant striding off the pier with a spear in hand to help control the local lionfish population (I saw at least one lionfish on every other dive during the week, sorry to report).
Philippe, 31, told me he'd been coming to Bonaire and Captain Don's since he was 15 years old and couldn't think of a better place for his girlfriend, Ashlan Gorse, to get certified.
"Bonaire's the only place to learn to dive, in my opinion," he said. "It's perfect for a beginning diver because you can do the work right here. It's a calm, easy, quiet place to learn to dive."
I agreed that the diving was easy on Bonaire, though next time I'll be sure to remember my booties — those coral beaches do a number on bare feet on shore entries. And while I didn't see any orcas or mola molas, like back in the Roessler days, there were still some thrills to be had — including circling tarpon on a night dive and dropping down the line to the Hilma Hooker, a Dutch ship that got busted with 20,000 pounds of the green stuff on board in 1984. What impressed me most in Bonaire, however, was the healthy fish life and vibrant coral everywhere I went — looks like I've got a new measuring stick for future Caribbean dive travels.