Snorkeling in Bonaire

Bonaire and its much smaller sister island, Klein Bonaire, have more than 100 dive and snorkeling sites in protected marine preserves. Combined, they provide access to 57 species of hard and soft coral and 350 species of fish, including 111 endangered species. We had a chance to sample about 10 of these sites–six shore snorkels off the coast of Bonaire and four great snorkels off Klein Bonaire.

We saw dozens of different species. Hard coral included leaf, stag horn, elk horn, vase, barrel, pillar, and the most common, brain and leaf coral. Soft included extensive sea rod, sea plum, dangerous fire coral and elegant fan coral. Nor can you forget sponges, including extensive tube coral and huge, orange elephant ear. Although the coral and sponges did not provide as much color as our previous visit–mostly orange, greens and rust, with occasional splashes of brighter reds and purples–the fish more than made up for these lacks. Among the more interesting of the dozens of species we saw were graceful French and queen angelfish, pyramid-shaped spotted trunkfish, porcupine fish and honeycomb cowfish, many, many schools of blue tang. We saw long, tube-shaped needlefish and trumpet fish, large barracuda, tiger grouper and black margate, majestic blue heads and thousands and thousands of beautiful, small, iridescent blue chromics. We also saw at least half a dozen species of beautiful parrotfish, including queen, rainbow, black, stoplight and princess. We also saw other species altogether such as giant anemone, christmas tree worms (red christmas tree-shaped organisms with that, when one snaps their fingers next to them, snap back into their protective coral).

Rather than attempt to mention everything we saw at each site, we will just provide a few of the highlights and our subjective, high-level overviews of each (we did not have an underwater camera).

Bonaire Shore Sites

  • Corporal Meiss to Bachelor’s Beach, which can easily be done in a single drift snorkel, by beginning at Corporal Meiss and floating south with the current. While it was a nice, easy, introductory snorkel. with extensive brain and leaf coral at Corporal Meiss, sea plum and tube sponges at Bachelor’s Beach and parrotfish all over, much of the coral was a dull brown in color and it seemed that the algae overwhelmed even the ability of ravenous parrotfish to cleanse the coral.
  • Andrea I and II is much more difficult to enter due to waves and the sharp coral that comes right up the the shoreline. It is, however, worth it. We entered at Andrea II (the easiest entry), snorkeled south along the II and then back to I. While the entire bottom is littered with pieces of broken coral, there is also some very impressive live coral. In addition to the ubiquitous brain and leaf coral, there are huge heads of weirdly shaped elkhorn coral. And while most of it is brown, with patches of bright green brain coral, there were also many small splotches of colors including red, orange and purple. The fish were as impressive as the coral. In addition to all of the normal suspects, including some very large parrotfish and yellowtails, we had chances to linger around a few cleaning stations (where large fish sit and wait while small gobie cleaner fish pick algae and bacteria from their bodies) and follow a mid-size hawksbill turtle who was meandering through the coral. Tom’s greatest treat–although Joyce unfortunately missed it–was in watching a mid-sized octopus exit her den, briefly survey her domain and then, when she caught a glimpse of him, reenter the den. While exiting the water resulted in a couple cuts and bruises due to the rough waves, the payoffs were well worth the inconveniences of entering and exiting the water.
  • Wayaka II in Washington-Slagbaai National Park is an amazing snorkeling, and from what we were told, dive site. On one hand, the coral, from the shore out a coiled hundred feet to a steep wall dive spot, is disappointing. Much has been broken by the relatively strong current and waves. Most of that which is not broken is brown and covered with algae. That said, there were some nice heads of brain, leaf and column coral to the north of the site, and even some color–especially green but also occasional small patches of red, orange and purple. But while the coral is merely okay, the fish are phenomenal. We were greeted by dozens of species from the moment we entered the water. As we headed out to 20-30 feet of water–again with crystal clear visibility–the numbers,colors and especially the size of the fish increased dramatically. These included some of the largest and most beautifully colored parrotfish we had ever seen (many well over two feet long with every color imaginable. Then a much larger (probably about 3 feet) bright iridescent green fish swam by. Interspersed among the parrotfish were a number of large, beautifully-colored angelfish, butterfly fish, snapper and others. And,as as was the case on our Klein Bonaire Knife Reef snorkel, we again found ourselves in the middle of a school of black and iridescent blue tang–fewer than on our previous dive, but much larger. And along the way, we passed or swam with three different hawksbill turtles. But after all that, we still weren’t ready to call it a day. When we hit the beach, we removed our fins and reentered the sandy-bottomed shallow water to spend more time with the fishes. After a while, we noticed that we had been adopted by first one, and then two friendly, spotted trunkfish who followed us and, when we stopped, sat within inches of our faces. A lot of fun!

Klein Bonaire Snorkeling Sites. Klein Bonaire, a small, desolate desert island that is about a half mile of the west coast of its larger cousin island, is generally viewed as having the best snorkeling and diving in the area. Based on our experience diving and snorkeling in other contenders, such as Grand Cayman Island and Belize’s Ambergris Cay, we have no argument with this assessment. It offers something for everyone, with a huge selection of hard and soft coral, fishes and a wide range of additional seaside. While motoring out to the the island you often pass flying fish. Near the shore, you have to struggle to remain above the very shallow coral while snorkeling. One hundred feet from shore, you reach a wall that plunges a mile into the deep.

You can find three ways of getting to and snorkeling off Klein Bonaire:

  1. by taking a ferry and walking to the west side of the island for the best sites;
  2. by renting or chartering a boat; or
  3. by taking a four-hour tour in which the captain selects the best sites.

We chose the third approach, entrusting ourselves to the capable hands of Sea Cow Charter Tours. We went out with Sea Cow Tours on 2 separate days to do their double dip snorkeling (snorkeling in 2 different spots each day). Before we entered the boat, we were watching (while sitting at a lunch spot by the boat) Gea and Henk, the owners, prepare the boat. We were very impressed watching Gea cleaning the masks and snorkels that people would be using. Usually we see people only doing a quick rinse and wipe of the mask. Gea was using a cloth and diligently cleaning every nook and cranny. You know they were clean and sanitized.  Once on the boat, we were offered water, punch or soda as we made our way to the first snorkeling site. While on route, Gea gave excellent instructions in an easy to understand manner to put novices at ease with snorkeling.
She (as well as Henk and the crew) switched between languages at ease (the primary language was English). Throughout the trip they made sure that everyone was comfortable with snorkeling and went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. When Joyce was having problems with her personal mask, Gea quickly offered up her mask as an alternative. Homemade food, including breads and sandwich rolls were offered and, when snorkeling was done, a happy-hour punch was available. We have been on many other snorkeling tours throughout the world. Gea and Henk run one of the best operations that we have experienced. You felt that they really cared that you enjoyed yourself and walked away with an excellent experience—which we did. That’s why we went back for a second day of snorkeling with them—something that is very unusual for us.

The sites we visited were:

  • Knife Reef, a relatively shallow reef, where most coral was with in 15-20 feet of the surface and some, closer to the shore, mere inches. While snorkeling with the group in the "deeper" water was interesting, snorkeling independently among the shallow coral, where we had only inches of clearance, was incredible–easily the most beautiful site we had seen since snorkeling off Indonesia’s Komodo Island. And then, just as we were about to head back to the boat, we hit upon the piece de resistance–finding ourselves in the middle of a school hundreds of beautiful blue tang who were wandering, and contentedly grazing, apparently oblivious to our presence. A magical experience, almost comparable to our being adopted by a school of Dolphins off the coast of Kauai.
  • Nearest Point, a deeper reef, down to perhaps 30-50 feet, but with perfect visibility that provided unimpaired views. It was a totally different experience from Knife. We were surrounded by fan coral and tube sponges, saw a number of beautiful anemone and found ourselves face-to-face with a hawksbill turtle and a barracuda. The turtle encounter was especially interesting, where Tom free dove along side of the turtle when it was beneath the surface and again as it surfaced to take a breath.
  • Just a Nice Dive is more interesting than its name suggests. Snorkeling along the edge of wall that plunged a mile down. we were above a huge range of hard coral, many smaller reef fish and number of large reef, and small pelagic fish. These included a couple of large, fascinatingly spotted cowfish, a giant tiger grouper and a midnight parrotfish. And then there were the pair of green turtles.
  • The edge of Knife to Lenora’s Reef, where we again covered an area between the wall and some very shallow coral near shore with a huge range of soft corals, including many infrequently found fan coral (which, while beautiful, are so fragile that they often break). As for animals, we saw many, many pretty blue chromis, flamingo tangs and fairy basslets, a huge black margate and had more opportunities to view and play with (by snapping your fingers and watching then immediately pop back into their holes) pretty red Christmas tree. We also saw yet another green turtle and a couple things we had nor seen before–a spotted eel sliming along the floor, and floating close to the surface, two very large, translucent tubes of squid eggs. Very neat.

Gea and Hank also provided a very good explanation of the Bonaire Marine Preserve, what we were likely to experience at each site and background about the area. Among the most interesting thing we learned is the incredible role parrotfish: first in the way in which the largest female converts into a male when a male dies. Second, and most impressive, is the ubiquitous, protected (due to the huge value it provides) parrotfish’s role in creating the area’s landscape. By using its beak-like teeth to pry algae from coral, it not only cleans the coral, but also chews off and swallows a lot of the fossilized coral. Although it can’t digest it, it does break it down into sand. An individual large parrotfish can create more than a ton of sand over its lifetime. All of these voracious eaters combine to create a full 70 percent of all the area’s sand, compared with only 30 percent for all the erosion caused by waves.

We didn’t have an underwater camera with us, but here are some pictures taken by a professional photographer on our boat.

turtleTom going for a closer lookIMG_6962

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