For cruisers who like to scuba dive, the Dutch islands in the southern Caribbean offer some of the world’s best and least crowded dive sites (published August 2017)
One of the greatest things about the cruising life for my wife Virginia and me is the freedom and ability to scuba dive just about every place we go. We have been out here over three years now and could write volumes of all the incredible dives we have had while cruising. From the Florida Keys through the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI’s all through the Leewards and the Windwards. It has been an amazing journey both above and below the waterline.
We are currently bouncing back and forth between Bonaire and Curacao and have been here since late January this year. It is a wonderful cruising area yet we see very few cruisers in comparison to all the other islands we’ve visited. I guess that is because they are out of the way and unless you are coming or going to/from Colombia or Panama most cruisers would not travel this far south as a “destination”. However, we have done so and we highly recommend it to anyone for many reasons. First and foremost would be the diving!
A lot is made of Bonaire and its wonderful abundant reefs. And all of that is true. I first dove Bonaire back in the early 90’s and it was pretty amazing then. Today, I find it just as amazing. Perhaps it’s just me, after a little over 40 years of diving and having logged close to 4,000 dives, I am still awed when I dive at a place of wonder and beauty.
Not all dives are created equal, some are far more superior than others. Just as it was back in the 90’s during my first visit, Bonaire is still awe inspiring. New coral growth is apparent everywhere you look. There is abundant fish life, though mainly small reef fish. For some reason, you do not see a lot of large fish in Bonaire. The water is incredibly clear so there’s great visibility and steady temps year round. This makes it a diver’s choice destination spot for those making their annual dive trip from points worldwide.
Hotels and dive shops to fit all budgets line Kaya Gob N. Debrot and C.E.B. Hellmund, the main roads along the western shore. The roads are dotted with big and small rocks painted bright yellow and have the name of the reef at the location where they are.
All coastal waters surrounding Bonaire and Klein Bonaire are declared the Bonaire National Marine Park. You must buy a tag even to snorkel there. The fees are; $10 for a snorkel tag and $25 for a dive tag. It is valid for one year. The money goes towards the management and protection of the park.
The majority of the diving in Bonaire takes place on the leeward or western side of the island ranging from Karpata in the north to the slave huts in the south. There you will find over 50 named reefs and dive sites. Mostly all of them can be accessed from the shore; 47 of them can also be accessed from a boat and to protect the reefs there are mooring balls throughout the diving areas.
The shoreline is rocky with a combination of crushed coral and rock. There are few natural sand beach areas in Bonaire. The really good part about diving from the shore is that you are less than 50 yards from the reefs. In a lot of instances, you are much closer. The mooring balls are placed so that the bow of your vessel points towards the shore and your stern hangs out right over the start of the reef line! If you are diving by boat, whether on your own or you’re on a charter, you have zero swim time to get to the reef.
Bonaire and Klein Bonaire are surrounded by an almost fringing reef. It slopes gently down from the shoreline to a depth of approximately 30 feet then the wall drops to 150 feet and deeper in most places. Some of my favorite dive sites are: Something Special, Eighteen Palms, Reef Scientifico and Buddy’s Reef.
The major town (small but major to the island) is Kralendijk. There you will find shops and restaurants to suit everyone’s taste and style. There are a few other tourist related activities and sites to see and visit on Bonaire but not many as the island is small. The main reason for cruising to Bonaire is definitely the diving!
Diving Curacao might be one of the best kept secrets in the Caribbean. When you think of Curacao, you normally think of the great beaches, resorts, culture and history and the great variation of landscape. And it certainly has all of that. Not that many cruisers (outside of Dutch Nationals) sail to Curacao as a dive destination. It almost becomes an afterthought once you are there and start to discover all of its dive offerings.
With that thought in mind please allow me to enlighten you on this. Curacao has amazing diving. There are 82 named and diveable reefs on the island; 31 of these sites can be accessed from the beach or shore. Like Bonaire, the majority of them are on the leeward side of the island, running from the south in Oostpunt to the north in Westpunt / Watamula.
The first thing that stands out every time we dive Curacao is the clarity of the water and the visibility. You have easily 200 feet of visibility, which is as far as the eye can see underwater. A fair amount of the beach dives we have done have small piers that make entering and departing the waters so much easier. And the cool part is that they all have small dive shops right on the beach that can rent gear, do tank refills and give local advice.
The reefs in Curacao are very pristine and full of vibrant colors and growth. Massive colonies of hard and soft coral formations are wildly abundant no matter where you are diving. And the fish are ubiquitous! So many different species and variations. From the smallest of Damsels to the largest of the Moray Eels and Barracudas. These reefs seem to have a far greater number of larger fish than we’ve seen in Bonaire.
The profile of the dives is very similar to Bonaire as far as the closeness to shore and the way the reef slopes downward until you reach the wall where it drops straight down. Even when we were at 84 feet diving the Alice In Wonderland Reef in Westpunt, we still had over 200 feet of visibility. Amazingly clear. Some of our favorite dive sits in Curacao are: Alice in Wonderland, Vaersenbaai / Kokomo Beach, Double Reef, Marie Pampoen, Playa Forti and Saint Marie.
We have our own gear so all we really need to do when we go to one of these sites is to just rent the tanks at a minimal cost. Yet, at the little local dive shops we always get treated like we are spending hundreds of Guilders. In addition, the majority of the shops had showers, lockers, bathrooms, storage facilities, fresh water dunk tanks for your gear and a full service dive and repair shop.
So there you have it. If you are cruising the Eastern Caribbean and enjoy diving, take the detour to Bonaire and Curacao. You will find the diving amazing, the people lovely and the shore side life most hospitable.
Robert Scott and his wife Virginia have been cruising the Caribbean for the last three years aboard Honeymoon Forever.