Bonaire to be Wild!
Updated: May 1
" it came back for more and bit my finger..."
After four days of sailing from Martinique, we arrived in Bonaire - our first stop in the southern Caribbean and a stepping stone to our prolonged sojourn to work in neighbouring Curação. We were hoping the high costs would be worth it. Bonaire charges US$75 per person just to enter the country. A less significant amount if you are on a two week holiday, but a lot of money if you are travelling to multiple countries, as cruisers or backpackers do. Plus they charge a US$40 per person nature fee - you cannot swim off your boat without paying this. In addition, anchoring is forbidden and mooring buoys cost an eyewatering US$35 per day - more than a marina costs in many parts of Europe. Oh - and there’s no public transportation and you must rent a vehicle if you want to explore beyond the town.
So why did we go and was it worth it? Well, we had wanted to go scuba diving since we arrived in the Caribbean. Bonaire is consistently rated as one of the best locations in the world to scuba dive. Scuba diving is also relatively cheap here. We paid US$100 for a two tank dive. Compare this to a quote of US$230 for the same in Dominica. The reason it’s so cheap is that you don’t need a boat to access amazing dive sites - you can go right from the shore. We also knew we were about to stop to work for eight months, so we could recoup the money. We felt it was worth it, but for sailors on a tight budget, it might well be a different story - if every island charged this kind of money, you simply couldn’t do it. The visitors’ tax replaces a tax that used to be paid by people staying in paid accommodation and hiring a car and now has to be paid by everyone. It’s a huge amount of money and even people visiting their families have to pay it if they are aged over 13 and a non resident. I have no objection to paying the nature fee - again, this is very steep and has no equivalent on any other Caribbean island we have visited. BUT, they are putting the money to good use. They have one of the oldest marine reserves in the world - in operation since 1979 - and we saw the extensive measures they are taking to prevent the spread of stony coral disease. The national park takes up a fifth of the island and is host to huge amounts of wildlife. The US$40 dollar nature fee includes unlimited entry to the park and allows you to swim, snorkel and dive in the protected waters. Likewise, I have no objection to being banned from anchoring in an area where there is extensive coral that needs protecting. The moorings were of excellent quality and it was a fantastic and calm mooring field at least in the weather conditions we enjoyed in late April - such a relief after the constant rolling caused by the wake of the ferries in Fort de France, Martinique. However, US$35 is a lot per night! And in fact it has more than tripled in price in the last couple of years - presumably to cover the cost of replacing all their previous mooring buoys, which according to reviews on Navionics were completely unsafe.
The southern Caribbean is much more multicultural than the eastern Caribbean - everyone speaks four languages - Dutch, English, Spanish and a Portuguese creole called Papiamento. Despite its small size (a population of only 20,000,) there is a lot of diversity in the restaurants and there are people from all over the world living there, although most of the population is Afro-Caribbean, South American or Dutch in heritage. Unlike its neighbours Aruba and Curação, Bonaire is part of the Netherlands - a special municipality, like the Leeward islands of Saba and St Eustatius. It is governed by both the Dutch government and its island Executive Council. (Ministerie van Algemene Zaken, 2019)* The capital is called Kralendijk and as we cleared into customs and immigration, we saw a very familiar huge green boat with the iconic Greenpeace plastered across its side in white. We got talking in the customs office to a young Bonairean woman who informed us that she was involved in the local Greenpeace Movement. Bonaire is a flat low lying island and they are in danger of losing their salt flats and coral reefs to rising sea levels and increased temperatures. For this reason, they have decided to sue the Dutch government for failing to ensure climate justice. The Greenpeace boat had come along to lend support. She told us that there would be an ‘open boat’ and we could take a tour on it the following day.
So the next day, that’s what we did. We learned the history of the boat - Arctic Sunrise, which was at one point a sealing boat and got to meet the activists who live on the boat, conducting environmental research and lending campaign support. We also heard from the local Bonairean Greenpeace activists about why they were suing the Dutch government. For example, the Netherlands has coastal protection plans, but Bonaire does not. The banner of Climate Justice Now across the boat reflected what indigenous environmental activists have been trying to point out for decades - that the climate crisis and social justice are inextricably linked. For example, the minimum wage in the Netherlands is based on the cost of living, but that in Bonaire is not and 40% of Bonaire’s residents live below the poverty line. The impact of climate change will exacerbate poverty due to its impact on tourism, salt production and fishing. This is despite Bonaire contributing a miniscule amount to climate change - it will be hugely detrimentally affected. (Greenpeace Nederland, 2022)** We wish them luck in their court case and hope that it is an effective method of helping to preserve their amazing marine and land biodiversity to ensure a good future for the people as well.
Our first exploration of Bonaire’s nature was our long anticipated scuba dive. We did two dives - on the first, we saw huge corals set into a cliff and hiding under a shelf, was a massive grey and black lobster. We also saw a sea snake for the first time! Our second dive was to a double reef separated by sand, known as The Lake. The corals were just huge, brightly coloured (including purple branching vase sponge, orange giant brain coral and yellow sea fan) and the diversity and density of brightly coloured fish, such as parrotfish, angelfish, trumpetfish and snappers was like being in a giant tropical fish tank or the Little Mermaid Disney film. Snorkelling is great, but when you dive, you really feel like you are part of the underwater world.
We also hired a pickup truck and spent two days in the Washington Slagbaai National Park. The national park really is incredible. There are two routes - the long route and the short route and you stop off along the way at the various sights. You cannot possibly do everything in one day. We waded in beautiful bays, goggled at the immensity of a million year old huge boulder that was hauled onland by an ancient tsunami and wandered in the ruins of an abandoned lighthouse overlooking a bay full of shipwrecks. We also went snorkelling - the underwater life was really magnificent again and we saw a turtle and a giant rainbow parrotfish, attacking the seagrass aggressively; quite funny to watch with their parrot-like ‘beaks’. We jumped off a cliff into the turquoise water - Luciano rather less hesitatingly than me, it has to be said.
While stopping for a lunchtime sandwich on the beach after snorkelling, Luciano turned his head and saw a brazen iguana just chilling on his flippers. The next thing we knew it had climbed on top of me and went for my sandwich. I hastily threw it a bit, but it came back for more and bit my finger! Everywhere else we have been, the iguanas have been extremely shy and elusive, running away if you see them, but not this one. The bird life was also spectacular; we saw huge numbers of flamingos, pelicans, herons and royal terns in the saltwater pools and some obscure and colourful tropical and songbirds in the freshwater pools - including the large Crested Caracara Warawara, the Yellow Warbler and the Lora. Luckily none of them mistook my fingers for food. It was funny to watch the flamingos doing their silly little dance, long necks gangling about with their heads under the water searching for fish.
The following day we returned to the national park and climbed Mount Brandaris. While this is the highest point on Bonaire; at only 241 metres high, it is not exactly Himalayan in scale. However, because Bonaire is so flat, the views from the top are truly remarkable, with a 360 degree panorama of all of the saltwater lagoons, the pink salt flats, the dry little hillocks of the national park (serus, as they are known) and the ocean all the way across to Curação. It sure looks greener from up top than it does when you are driving through the dusty cactus lined off road tracks.
All in all, we absolutely loved Bonaire - if you love wildlife, both above ground and under the water, then it is a great place to visit.
*Ministerie van Algemene Zaken (2019) Governance of bonaire, st eustatius and Saba, Caribbean Parts of the Kingdom | Government.nl. Ministerie van Algemene Zaken. Available at: https://www.government.nl/topics/caribbean-parts-of-the-kingdom/governance-of-bonaire-st-eustatius-and-saba (Accessed: April 30, 2023).
**Greenpeace Nederland (2022) New research: Climate change could have devastating impact on bonaire - greenpeace nederland, Greenpeace Nederland. Greenpeace Nederland. Available at: https://www.greenpeace.org/nl/klimaatverandering/54574/bonaire-climare-research-lawsuit/ (Accessed: April 30, 2023).
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