Diving and Snorkeling

Bonaire has some of the best reef diving this side of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It takes only 5–25 minutes to reach many sites, the current is usually mild, and although some reefs have sudden, steep drops, most begin just offshore and slope gently downward at a 45-degree angle. General visibility runs 60 to 100 feet. You can see several varieties of coral: knobby-brain, giant-brain, elkhorn, staghorn, mountainous star, gorgonian, and black. You can also encounter schools of parrot fish, surgeonfish, angelfish, eel, snapper, and grouper. Shore diving is excellent just about everywhere on the leeward side. There are sites suitable for every skill level; they're clearly marked by yellow stones on the roadside.

The best snorkeling spots are on the island's leeward side, where you have shore access to the reefs, and along the west side of Klein Bonaire, where the reef is better developed. All snorkelers and swimmers must pay a $10 Nature Fee, which allows access to the waters around the island and Washington–Slagbaai National Park for one calendar year. The fee can be paid at most dive shops.

Bonaire Marine Park. The Bonaire Marine Park was founded in 1979 in an effort to protect the island's most precious natural resource. Covering an area of less than 700 acres, the park includes all the waters around the island from the high-water mark to the 60-meter depth. Because the island has so zealously protected its marine environment, Bonaire offers an amazing diversity of underwater life. Turtles, rays, and fish of every imaginable color abound in the pristine waters of the park. Several well-enforced rules include no: (1) spearfishing; (2) dropping anchor; or (3) touching, stepping on, or collecting coral. In order to dive (as opposed to simply enter the water and swim), you must pay a fee of $25 (used to maintain the park), for which you receive a colored plastic tag (to attach to an item of scuba gear) entitling you to one calendar year of unlimited diving. Checkout dives—dives you do first with a master before going out on your own—are required, and you can arrange them through any dive shop. All dive operations offer classes in free buoyancy control, advanced buoyancy control, and photographic buoyancy control. Tags are available at all scuba facilities and from the Marine Park Headquarters. Snorkelers, kiters, and windsurfers pay a $10 fee. Every cent goes toward the care and management of the Bonaire Marine Park. It’s money well spent, as islanders and most visitors will tell you. Barcadera 10, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8444; www.bmp.org.

Dive Sites

The Guide to the Bonaire Marine Park lists 86 dive sites (including 16 shore-dive-only and 35 boat-dive-only sites). Another fine reference book is the Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Bonaire, by Jerry Schnabel and Suzi Swygert. Guides associated with the various dive centers can give you more complete directions. With more than 80 dive sites, there is something for every diver’s needs. Here are a few of the better-known entries:

Angel City. Take the trail down to the shore adjacent to the Radio Nederland tower station; dive in and swim south to Angel City, one of the shallowest and most popular sites in a two-reef complex that includes Alice in Wonderland. The boulder-size green-and-tan coral heads are home to black margates, Spanish hogfish, gray snappers, stingrays, and large purple tube sponges.

Bari Reef. Catch a glimpse of the elkhorn and fire coral, queen angelfish, and other wonders of Bari Reef, just off the Sand Dollar Condominium Resort's pier. This is one of Bonaire's most diverse reefs.

Calabas Reef. Off the shores of the Divi Flamingo Resort, this is the island's busiest dive site. It's replete with Christmas-tree worms, sponges, and fire coral adhering to a ship's hull. Fish life is frenzied, with the occasional octopus putting in an appearance.

Forest. Forest is easily accessed via a dive shop boat trip. This diverse dive site is located off the southwest coast of Klein Bonaire. Named for the abundant black-coral forests found here, the site is best known for massive purple stovepipes, gorgonian fans, and plumes, as well as some amazing turtles.

Rappel. This spectacular site is near the Karpata Ecological Center. The shore is a sheer cliff, and the lush coral growth is the habitat of some unusual varieties of marine life, including occasional orange sea horses, squid, spiny lobsters, and spotted trunkfish.

Small Wall. One of Bonaire's three complete vertical wall dives (and one of its most popular night-diving spots), Small Wall is in front of the Black Durgon Inn, near Barcadera Beach. Because the access to this site is on private property, this is usually a boat-diving site. The 60-foot wall is frequented by squid, turtles, tarpon, and barracuda and has dense hard and soft coral formations; it also allows for excellent snorkeling.

Something Special. South of the marina entrance at Harbour Village Beach Club, this spot is famous for its garden eels. They wave about from the relatively shallow sand terrace looking like long grass in a breeze.

Windsock. This excellent shore-dive site (from 20 to 80 feet) is in front of the small beach opposite the airport runway. It's a popular place for snorkeling. The entrance is relatively easy to access. The current is moderate, the elkhorn coral profuse; you may also see angelfish and rays. An on-site food truck sells delicious lionfish burgers and cold beverages. There is plenty of shade to make this a day.

Dive Operators

Many of the dive shops listed offer PADI and NAUI certification courses and SSI, as well as underwater photography and videography courses. Some shops are also qualified to certify dive instructors. Full certification courses cost approximately $385; open-water refresher courses run about $240; a one-tank boat dive with unlimited shore diving costs about $40; a two-tank boat dive with unlimited shore diving is about $65. As for equipment, renting a mask, fin, and snorkel costs about $12 altogether; for a BC (buoyancy compensator) and regulator, expect to pay about $20.

Most dive shops on Bonaire offer a complete range of snorkel gear for rent and will provide beginner training; some dive operations also offer guided snorkeling and night snorkeling. The cost for a guided snorkel session is about $50 and includes slide presentations, transportation to the site, and a tour. Gear rental is approximately $10 per 24-hour period.

Bonaire Dive & Adventure. Bonaire Dive and Adventures is one of Bonaire's oldest dive operations. Run by Andre Nahr, the shop has many credentials including professional Caribbean Golden Coconut, PADI Dive Operation, SSI Scuba Training Facility, Gold Palm dive and outdoor adventure operation. Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot 77A, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–2229; www.bonairediveandadventure.com.

Bruce Bowker's Carib Inn Dive Center. Carib Inn offers a homey, casual, and laid-back dive experience. The excellent retail shop is chock-full of all your dive needs, including regulators, skins, and snorkel gear. This full-service dive center is a one-stop shop for those in the know. It's rustic with no frills but has high repeat clientele. J.A. Abraham Blvd. 46, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8819; www.caribinn.com.

Buddy Dive Resort. Buddy Dive is a large and lively resort catering to groups. The property consists of 11 modern buildings featuring one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, a full-service dive center, activity desk, two swimming pools, restaurant, pool bar, vehicle rentals, and the famous drive-through air and nitrox fill station. Friday nights, the property hosts a popular happy hour with house musician Moogie serenading the crowds. Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot 85, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–5080; www.buddydive.com.

Captain Don's Habitat Dive Shop. Captain Don's Habitat, founded by the late, great underwater environmentalist Captain Don Stewart, is one of the island's most popular dive resorts and dive centers for groups and dive enthusiasts. The dive center is a PADI 5-Star Gold Palm Resort and a SDI 5-Star Professional Development Center. With a full-service resort and conference facility, seaside bar and restaurant, and the renowned dive center, they have a high repeat rate for good reason. Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot 113, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8290; www.habitatbonaire.com.

Dive Friends Bonaire. Dive Friends is a full-service PADI 5-Star IDC Dive Center, catering to beginners to technical divers. They have five locations for convenient shore diving, boat diving, and training. They also have four retail shops around the island for dive gear, clothing, and souvenirs. Dive Friends is the proud organizer of quarterly cleanups attended by locals and tourists, devoting time to clean up various reefs around the island. Playa Lechi 24, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/727–2929; www.dive-friends-bonaire.com.

Divi Dive Bonaire. Divi Dive Bonaire is a full-service PADI Gold Palm Resort dive center catering to the beginner and advanced dive enthusiast. Boat diving is offered daily. Divi Flamingo Resort & Casino, J.A. Abraham Blvd. 40, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8285; www.diviflamingo.com.

Toucan Diving. Toucan Diving is a full-service dive center located at the Plaza Resort. They also offer an Aquakids program for children ages five to 12. Plaza Resort Bonaire, J.A. Abraham Blvd. 80, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–2500; www.plazaresortbonaire.eu.

Touch the Sea with Dee Scarr. Dee Scarr offers dive guiding and specialty courses emphasizing marine animal behavior and the coral reef habitat. She is the author of three books on the subject, an inaugural member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and a recipient of Captain Don’s Accolade Award. Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8529; www.touchthesea.com.

VIP Diving. Bas Noij and his wife, Ellie, offer one of Bonaire's most personalized dive experiences for discerning divers. They customize intimate experiences for groups no larger than four to ensure that each dive is a special adventure. J.A. Abraham Blvd. #77, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/701-7701; https://vipdiving.com.

Wannadive. Wannadive is a casual, efficient dive company with several locations around the island, offering daily boat dives to Klein Bonaire. They support the dive needs of beginners to professionals, from recreational to technical diving. Wannadive has an expansive rental inventory of dive and snorkel equipment and offers repair and retail at the various locations on island. Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot 73, Kralendijk, n/a Bonaire. 599/717–8884; www.wannadive.com.