Before you get too excited and think you’re about to discover some little-known secret about how to go through the waves of Southern California, we must confess from the start that that’s not what this article is all about (despite the catchy title).
For a lot of divers marrying the words “beach” and “diving” doesn’t exactly evoke a warm and fuzzy feeling. And when we throw in the adjective “easy,” you think you’re being sold a bill of goods. Well, there IS a place where “easy,” “beach,” and “diving” all go together. And that would be the island of Bonaire in the Netherland Antilles.
Bonaire’s slogan is “A Diver’s Paradise,” and the place certainly lives up to that moniker. With 86 marked/moored sites, it means you’ve got plenty of diving to choose from. The reefs are in pretty decent shape. The fish, since they’re used to divers, are easy to approach. And since most of the sites are accessible from the shore, it means you’ve got more diving choices than you could possibly fulfill in a week of diving (which is another reason that Bonaire gets a lot of repeat divers).
Now for the “easy” part; beach diving in Bonaire is like nothing you’ve ever experienced in California. First of all, there’s no surf. That alone makes it doable for divers of every skill level, especially when you add in water that is generally 80-84º year-round with visibility that ranges from 60 to over 100 feet.
The first thing you’re going to need is a vehicle. You can either rent one separately or sign on for a package deal that includes hotel room, meals, diving, and a vehicle. Most of the time, it’ll be some sort of a van or jeep, with room for tanks and gear bags in the back, and two to four passengers in the front.
Sites are very easy to find. Free maps are available all over town, and all of the sites are well marked. Most of the time, you simply stay on Bonaire’s main road that runs just off of the shoreline and look for two yellow painted large stones. They’ll have the name of the dive site and the stones mark the entrance to the parking area for that site. Sometimes the parking is paved, sometimes it’s gravel, and sometimes it’s nothing more than sand on the beach. (Be careful you don’t get your vehicle stuck and watch out for high tide.) But no matter what, you’ll generally be able to park within 100 feet of the entry point.
You dress at your car, grab your fins, mask, and snorkel, and walk down to the water’s edge. Wade out a little bit (watch where you step as the in-shore rocks aren’t always stable) until you’re about waist deep and put your fins on. Then simply kick out to the yellow mooring buoy (for the dive boats – most sites are accessible by either beach or boat) that marks the official start of the dive site and is usually in about 30 feet of water. And off you go.
There are plenty of good sites to choose from but one of our favorites has always been Larry’s Lair, which is south of downtown Bonaire. During our 2006 trip to Bonaire, it was especially spectacular.
As we entered the water and kicked out across the sandy shallows to the drop-off (most of the Bonaire reefs gently slope down from the mooring buoy to a depth of 70-100 feet where they flatten), we noticed the water looked a little milky and the vis didn’t seem too good. But as we approached the reef, we could see there were Brown Chromis everywhere, darting about as if they were being given electrical shocks.
What we were witnessing was a mass mating. The Chromis were depositing eggs and sperm in the water column with the hopes that the eggs would fertilize and the current would carry them away. Other species (like Creole Wrasse and Blue Tangs) were zipping in trying to eat the eggs and get a meal. The whole thing was choreographed chaos, with groups of fish zooming here and there, and everything happening at breakneck speed. We spent a good hour on this site watching the reproductive drama unfold before our very eyes. Amazing.
Probably the most famous of the shore dives is the Town Pier, which can only be done at night. I’ve never had good luck with this. Too many people in too small an area all at the same time and everyone trying to find a seahorse. Some people swear it’s one of the greatest night dives in the world and while the dive is good, I think there are equally good night diving choices without the crowds and hassle. But if you do want to do the Town Pier, know that you have to arrange it through a local dive guide as you’ve got to (for Homeland Security reasons) be escorted on the dive.
Bonaire offers a lot of great things to divers of all levels. It’s got good fish life, the beach entries are easy, there’s plenty to see, the diving truly does go on 24/7, and just about anything you can hope to see in Bonaire probably lives at one of the shore-accessible spots.