Bonaire’s an interesting place in terms of the dive scene. Whereas in other countries, they stress that you always have a buddy and it’s rare that you’re allowed to go off on your own without a dive group—not to mention, you’re often limited to three dives a day—the opposite is precisely the mantra on this Dutch isle: Dive freely and as often as you want (as long as you honor surface times, of course).
It was a bit jarring at first. I arrived at Captain Don’s Habitat and attended the orientation briefing that is mandatory for new diving guests at any dive resort. Then, they told us to suit up and do our check-out dive. This is usually done in a group so that the divemaster can gauge your skill level and whether or not you’re deemed safe to go in the water. (Scuba diving’s not a sport you take lightly—not with the risk of the bends, nitrogen narcosis, lung expansion and other such injuries.) I put on my gear, and two large palmettos the size of my middle finger scurried out. I screamed—very loudly—and the unamused dive shop gal looked at me with annoyance: “I see you met our pets, eh?”
When I had gotten over the trauma of cockroaches crawling up my body, I begrudgingly put the suit on and entered the locker room to ready my tank and BCD. That took all of 30 seconds, and I sat there waiting for a) a divemaster to come along and do a safety check and b) for him to assign me a buddy as I was a solo diver. Neither of those things happened. I finally asked the Dutch guy in charge what exactly I was meant to do and he looked at me, a big DUH lighting up his face, and said with irritation, “get in.” “Without a buddy?” “Sure. Or find someone to go with you if you like. I don’t care.”
It was then that I met Preacher Man and His Posse. This crew would haunt me my entire week on the island—I felt like every time I took a break to lay by the pool, PM would pop up behind me: “Working realllll hard, I see. Shouldn’t you be off writing?” I wanted to mutter something with four letters as a response, but I’m a Southern girl and polite is our way of life (so instead, I tried to ignore him as best I could; passive-aggression is also big where I come from). He, a bona fide Man of God residing over a church somewhere in the Atlanta area, was one of those annoying divers who immediately asked, “how many dives have you logged?” which is not only rude but irrelevant if I know what I’m doing. I told him, and he then assigned me to Sean, an equally as douchey dude in his group who seemed about as interested in being my dive buddy as I was his. When we emerged 45 minutes later, he said—in a very patronizing way—“you weren’t half bad down there.” Uh thanks, after three years of diving in nearly a dozen countries, I would hope I know what I’m doing.
We entered the water on the house reef and immediately Preacher Man dipped down to 100 feet. Uhh…no. That’s not exactly the definition of an “orientation dive.” You get “orientated” to your new surroundings and brush up on your skills—usually somewhere around 40 feet; even though, I had just come off a serious dive trip with SVV in Borneo, a lot of the other divers hadn’t been in the water in a year or more. Still, I went along with it—whatever—and couldn’t wait to get away from this group and do some boat dives later in the week.
House reefs aren’t always teeming with life due to their proximity to the resort. The opposite was the case at Don’s Habitat; in fact, most of my dives over the course of the week were done in the same spot just off shore from the dive center. There was a lot to see. The group scattered a bit, and I ran out of air first—no big surprise as I started with 2000 PSI, while they all had close to 3000. This gave more time for chilling out near the dock at a shallow depth of 15 feet or so, where I spotted my first peacock flounder.
Having never seen one before, I immediately thought it was some kind of ray based on its flat body. I knew it would have “peacock” in the name due to its spots and coloring and the fact that many marine life are named for exactly what they look like (see: parrotfish, dogfish, etc.).
I followed this intriguing creature for a bit, and it settled on the rock and changed colors to camouflage itself. When I got out, I told this older couple Betty and Wayne, dive veterans who have been doing this far longer, and they were impressed: “You saw a peacock flounder! Those guys are pretty uncommon.” (Though I came to find out later from the divemaster that this guy is a resident of the house reef and always close by. Drats. I thought I saw something rare! Still, it was really cool—anything that changes colors to blend into its surroundings like so fascinates me.)
The concept of diving in Bonaire is quite novel actually. There are 90-something dive sites scattered about the isle, and more than 60 of them are shore entry, meaning you can take your tank and go straight in, no group or boat necessary (though you should always take a buddy). Many of the resorts such as Buddy Dive include a rental truck with your stay and even have drive-up air refill stations so you can fill your tanks without too much trouble. You can’t beat that kind of convenience.
Though next time, I’ll go to Bonaire with SVV, so I can actually take advantage of the shore diving. I may be adventurous in many respects, but going off into the deep blue solo is not one of them.
Getting There: Despite Bonaire being just north of South America, you can reach it very easily. Delta flies direct every Saturday, and during the week you can connect in Curacao and fly onto other major cities such as Houston on airlines like Continental.
Where to Stay: Bonaire is a very small isle, and the handful of resorts are clustered around the capital of Kralendijk. Divers on the island generally stay at one of two places: Don’s Habitat or Buddy Dive, which are side-by-side. The dive operation at Buddy Dive is a bit friendlier—and they have awesome offerings like underwater photography school—and Don’s Habitat is very hands-off, so if you want a vacation where you have very little interaction with the dive shop, that’s the place for you. Though regardless of where you stay, there’s a dive operation either on site or very nearby. It’s what the island is known for after all.
There’s also the very family-friendly Divi Flamingo, which has the only casino on the island and the Plaza, which has more boutique-y style rooms and an amazing Dutch restaurant, the Tipsy Seagull—the best meal I had the entire time there. There are also plenty of nice, clean time shares for rent such as Sand Dollar Condominiums, which is where I would opt to stay if I were going with a group of friends. For the ultimate romantic Bonaire getaway, the nicest resort on the island is Harbour Village.
What it Costs: I was shocked by how cheap the rates were at all of the hotels I checked out—especially for the Caribbean. I saw rooms as low as $60 a night at the mid-level resorts, and even the fancy Plaza was only $180 a night during high season. It’s definitely a budget-friendly destination and great for families, too.