Bonaire is a sleepy island that has largely avoided commercialization. People come to the “nature park island” to scuba dive and bird-watch. Bonaire is easily one of the more sparsely populated of the Caribbean isles, with only 14,000 inhabitants living in 110 square miles of land. It actually consists of two islands: Bonaire and the uninhabited Klein Bonaire, which is about 1,500 acres.
The entire island of Bonaire is pretty much a marine park preserve, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Much of the island is part of a conservation project focused on preserving the fragile marine eco-system of Bonaire. Spearfishing is outlawed, as is the anchoring of boats outside of the capital of Kralendijk. Scuba diving sites have also been rigged with mooring buoys which are sometimes removed to give the reefs respite.
Bonaire was first colonized by the Dutch and developed through farming and saltmining. The only other Europeans to occupy Bonaire were the French and British between 1800 and 1816. The Dutch returned to power in 1816 and set up plantations to grow local crops, raise cattle, and mine salt. Slaves were imported to work the plantations and salt mines. They lived in slave huts in the southern part of the island. When slavery was abolished in 1863, the island was parceled out and sold. While the first tourist hotel opened in 1951, it has only been in the past 30 years that Bonaire has become a tourist destination, attracting recreational scuba divers to the island’s beautiful coral reefs and tropical marine life.
The main attraction of Bonaire is its coral reef, which is one of the more accessible in the Caribbean. The reefs are everywhere, so scuba divers and snorkelers need only walk up to the water and look down. The visibility reaches up to 90 feet and there are more than 80 known dive sites between Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. Tube sponges, sea-fans, black corals, gorgonians, plate corals, crinoids, and vase sponges provide a habitat for colorful marine life. You’ll find seahorses, hermit crabs, French angelfish, Christmas tree worms, trunkfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, squirrelfish, butterfly fish, Spanish hogfish, stingrays, and moray eels among other sea creatures. One of the favorite dive spots is the Hilma Hooker, which was sunk intentionally in 1984 to attract divers. Its starboard is some 90 feet deep in water.
Besides diving, Bonaire also attracts birdwatchers. Since at least 1681, flamingoes have been continuous residents of the island. The birds are actually quite sensitive to tourists and airplanes that fly low, which can panic the colony and result in broken nests or eggs. A 1944 air show, for example, caused an entire bird colony to leave Bonaire for six years. Since then, the government and private sector have worked hard to preserve the colonies and the more than 4,000 nesting pairs.
Birdwatchers can do their watching at the shoreline or at the 13,500 acre national park occupying the northern section of the island. While the park is open until early evening, the morning is the best time for bird-watching. There is a 22-mile route laid out and marked by yellow arrows. Along the way, you’ll spot flamingoes, along with iguanas and lizards amid diverse flora and fauna. The park also has beaches for tourists looking to sunbathe and swim.
Another attraction, though less mainstream, is the solar saltworks that take place at the southern tip of the island. You’ll find the scene of mechanical dredges piling salt in white mounds, work once done by slaves. The distillation has been done in such a way as to preserve the flamingoes that nest in the salt flats.
In Bonaire’s capital, Kralendijk, you will find small casinos, colonial houses, and a pleasant harbor to stroll. The city also has an Island Museum dedicated to the culture and history of Bonaire. However, Kralendijk is not as glitzy as other Caribbean capitals.