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A shore diver swims over an elephant ear sponge off the coast of Bonaire. (Photograph by Helmut Corneli, Alamy)

Adventure 101: Shore Diving in Bonaire

Magnificent Bonaire stands firmly on a pinnacle, reigning supreme over all other shore diving destinations in the world.

With a decidedly rugged character, this charming Dutch island in the southern Caribbean skips chain hotels and instead woos dedicated divers with easy access to underwater wonder. More than 50 shore dive sites dot the coastline, whose fringing coral reef and aquamarine waters are protected as a national marine park.

When Captain Don Stewart first dropped anchor in Bonaire’s bay in 1962, he wrote, “Bay like glass, a spectrum of shimmering blues, extraordinarily clear. Brilliant tropical fish of all varieties. Looks to be a fantastic underwater island.” Inspired, he went on to spearhead efforts to protect Bonaire’s coral waters and establish the island’s first dive operation.

To experience the glorious wonder of shore diving in Bonaire, just follow the yellow brick road. Each dive site is marked with a yellow rock on shore and a buoy in the water that indicates where to descend, making self-guided diving relatively safe and easy—and ideally suited for beginners.

> When to Go:

Bonaire is alluring at any time, with abundant sunshine and daytime temperatures that hover in the mid-80s (F) year-round. And, importantly, Bonaire sits south of the hurricane belt, so tropical storms aren’t a concern.

Not surprisingly, high season and higher prices coincide with cold weather for much of the rest of the world. But with relatively few (for the Caribbean) visitors per year, Bonaire always promises a relaxed vibe. However, it’s worth noting that most of the desert island’s scant rain falls between October and December.

> Getting Started:

To get the most from your trip, take a SCUBA certification course before you arrive so you can dive into Bonaire’s waters right away. Even better, chalk up enough experience that you’re comfortable heading into the deeps without a guide.

If you’re not certified, you can still experience the island’s underwater bliss during a half-day Discover SCUBA course. Or get certified while you’re in Bonaire with a four-day course that includes classroom instruction, pool practice, and four open water dives.

Before heading out solo, visiting divers are required to attend an orientation with one of Bonaire’s professional operators. This will give you the lay of the land—er, sea—introducing you to dive sites and marine park rules. It also includes a checkout dive in a controlled environment to ensure that all of your gear is functioning properly.

> Essential Gear and Tips:

You’ll need to pony up a $25 Bonaire National Marine Park fee—money well spent for protecting the reef, which will get you a tag that’s good for the calendar year. (Note: There’s a day pass available for $10.)

Bring your own gear or rent everything you need from one of the island’s dive shops. Gear rentals are by the day or week, allowing you to dive as much as you like, while unlimited oxygen tank refills will run you about $30 a day.

  • Tip: Rent a pick-up truck for driving to dive sites. Throw your gear in the back, head to a spot, and you’re ready to go—whenever you please.

> Primo Dive Sites on Bonaire:

Bonaire’s dive sites are as abundant as the fish that dart among the reef’s vibrant coral gardens. Most are just a few kicks from shore (though Bonaire also offers dozens of world-class boat dive sites), with bottom depths that slope from about 30 to 130 feet.

A Few Top Spots:

  • Angel City: This is one of a string of southern sites that feature a double reef. Slowly fin your way along the deeper edge, then return via the inner reef, marveling at the stunning coral formations and vibrant schools of tropical fish.
  • Hilma Hooker: The highlight of this dive is encountering a shipwreck at 55 to 100 feet. Detained for drug smuggling, the Hilma Hooker sank in 1984, creating a fascinating dive site rich with lore. You can often spot giant tarpon lurking near the sunken ship’s hull. 
  • Karpata: A somewhat tricky entry is worth the effort at Karpata, the last stop on a narrow one-way road that winds north. Sea fans, sponges, and elkhorn coral gardens abound, some growing around abandoned boat anchors. Turtles can frequently be spotted lingering in the shallows.

> More Shore Diving Hot Spots Around the World: 

Grand Cayman: Wall dives, caverns, and the Babylon pinnacle are all accessible from the shore of this Caribbean island gem. At Lighthouse Point, divers enter from a jetty and follow navigation lines out to a deep drop-off that teems with life.

Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras: Reef that hugs the coast makes it easy for divers to swim out from resort grounds on their own time. The Prince Albert is a tanker that was intentionally sunk close to shore, creating a spectacular shipwreck dive site.

Lady Elliot Island, Australia: Divers can sink into life on the Great Barrier Reef from this idyllic coral cay 80 miles off the coast of Australia. Explore the crystal-clear water and pristine reef around the tiny island, then plunge into the pelagic deep.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @averystonich. 

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