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  • Writer's pictureTom

Bonaire: Salt, Sea and flamingos

Updated: Sep 20

The approach to this island was unlike any other we have visited so far. Passing the last outlying Venezuelan atoll before Bonaire, we were only thirty-five nautical miles from our goal. The high, volcanic islands of Madeira, Dominica, Guadeloupe, etc start to become visible from this distance. So we scanned the horizon, hoping to catch our first glimpse of land. Nothing. An hour passed. Still nothing. Several hours later, still with a vista of just sea and sky, I began to doubt our navigation. In fact, it was only when we were ten nautical miles away that we caught our first glimpse of Bonaire. Not dead ahead, but off to starboard. Only when we were within five nm of 'Willemstoren', the lighthouse on the southern tip, did we identify our first reference point.

This is because the geography/geology of Bonaire is very different to islands in the eastern Caribbean islands. Movement of the continental shelf 'lifted' the ocean floor to just beneath the surface, allowing extensive coral to grow. As the floor lifted further creating Bonaire, (circa 60,000,000 years ago), the coral on the land died to become limestone deposits. The island is, therefore, essentially a dead coral reef, very flat and, for the most part, only a few metres above sea level. This is why we could not see anything until we were very close.

The southern tip we sailed around is home to industrial scale salt flats.

Salt beds cover the southern tip of Bonaire
Salt beds cover the southern tip of Bonaire

The pink colour is caused by a micro-organism, halophilic bacteria, which flourishes in the high salinity water. Next door to the salt flats is the Pekelmeer sanctuary, home to 15-20,000 flamingos. The pink bacteria is consumed by tiny crustaceans which, in turn, are consumed by the flamingos. These birds are 'filter feeders'. They stand 'head down' with their beaks in the water and, using their tongues, force the water through filters on the inside of their beaks. Any crustaceans (and the bacteria) are trapped in the filters and eaten. And it is the pink pigment from the bacteria which makes flamingos pink: they are actually born grey.

Flamingos, Bonairee
Flamingos, Bonairee

However, our main goal on Bonaire was not to see flamingos. Just beyond the white, sandy shoreline, are reefs covered in crystal clear water. We were here to explore these reefs and, this time, not by snorkeling, but by learning to dive. Actually, at our age (where my back goes out more often than we do), learning a new sport is not evident. Fortunately, we hooked up with an excellent instructor, Larry, from Bonaire Scuba. Over a week we succeeded in mastering the three parts of the PADI Open Water Diver course ( theory, confined water dives, open water dives) and, having completed the course, made a further four dives to cement the knowledge.

Skipper and crew diving in Bonaire
Skipper and crew diving in Bonaire

Larry brings a whole new meaning to 'dad' jokes. ( "I tried to communicate with a turtle but could not get it to come out of its shell" or "Being a snorkeling instructor was a tankless job"). He manages to combine the attention to detail needed to keep us safe with an almost Zen-like approach to life, allowing us to relax, slow down and enjoy. Actually we learned that the art of diving is doing as little as possible. Control everything with your breathing and always use the minimum energy. If you do this, then the fish will come to you.

Abundance of fish everywhere in Bonaire
Abundance of fish everywhere in Bonaire

Not only will fish come to you, but it is possible to get close to potentially aggressive animals without being (in this case) bitten

Moray Eel
Moray Eel we met on the lee side of Klein Bonaire at ~8m depth

Bonaire is, of course, famous for it's dive sites, with pristine reefs and an abundance of 'critters'. In eight dives we saw four moray eels, three turtles, multiple lobsters and crabs, barracuda as well as the usual reef fish. The whole western side of the island is a marine park where anchoring is not permitted and holding tanks must be locked, closed. Dive buoys are located along the coast and, after paying an annual fee ($40/person), you get access to all of them. It is forbidden to stay overnight on a dive buoy so you also need to pay for a mooring or marina (anchoring is forbidden). Although clearing in/out is free, last year a tourist tax was introduced ($75/person).

The northern tip of the island is now Washington Slagbaai park. The government bought out a plantation owner in 1967, creating the first nature reserve in the Dutch Antilles. The owner sold for a low price provided the land became a nature reserve. There are good hikes through forests of cacti.

Washington Slagbaai park, Bonaire
Washington Slagbaai park

One walk comes out on the east side of Bonaire. Just as in Antigua (the only other island we visited with limestone on the coast in places), there was a regular and reliable blowhole performing for us.

Blowhole, Bonaire
Blowhole, Bonaire

As part of the Dutch Antilles, the Dutch are everywhere. Visit Bonaire and you will be in no doubt that this nation has the tallest people on the planet! The supermarkets are well stocked and reasonably priced. Four languages are spoken here; Dutch, Spanish, English and Papiamento ( a mix of Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and English), which is only spoken in the ABC islands.

Bonaire is the first place where we have been plagued by mosquitos (we avoided anchorages by mangroves). We have a mosquito net but, until now, have not needed to use it. Sleeping has been bliss since we set it up. It is good that we did this before Panama. We are told that mosquitos are even more prevalent there and may carry yellow fever. And we aim to arrive in Panama in less than a month.

But before then, we have Curaçao and Aruba to look forward to. Tomorrow we leave Bonaire with it's salt, sea and flamingos and will make the 40nm hop to Curaçao.


1. Underwater photography courtesy of Larry, Bonaire scuba

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