Bonaires main airport isnt called Flamingo international for nothing

A hurricane called Lenny did me a real favour. It didnt do much of a favour for any of Bonaires resorts, dive businesses and others who had their property wrecked, but for me Lenny actually made the trip.
I was staying at a self-contained resort, making a couple of boat dives each morning and shore-diving the house reef from lunchtime to sunset, and maybe a little later. I didnt need a car to get round. All my diving began from the resort. It was only a 20-minute walk into town in the evening for a change of bar, or to get to a bigger selection of shops.
Then Lenny happened. Close to the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is well south of the usual hurricane track across the Caribbean. Its a pretty safe bet for November, but no one told Lenny. Lenny didnt actually hit Bonaire, he passed far enough to the north that we missed the real show. We just got the fallout.
Lenny threw off enough big waves from the wrong direction that the normally sheltered west side of Bonaire took a pounding. Docks were demolished, dive centres built close to the waters edge were scoured clean, and beaches were moved inshore to car parks and swimming pools.
One day of storm-watching was enough for me. I was itching to get back under water, but with the dock and waterfront wiped out, all diving from the resort was closed down for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, waves from Lenny were still rolling in all along the west side of Bonaire. Not big enough to do further carnage, but certainly not friendly to shore diving.
 I had three problems to solve. I needed somewhere to go diving, a means of getting there, and air. Anywhere else, and someone to go diving with would have been an issue, but Bonaire has long championed total diving freedom and I was free to dive where I liked, when I liked and with whomever I liked - that meant my camera and myself.
 The getting-there part was both easy and difficult to solve. I needed a rental car and I needed it now. Potentially straightforward, but it wasnt until I had phoned the fourth or fifth rental company that I found one with a car instantly available.
 Out on the road, I hitched a lift to the airport and by 9.30 was collecting the car - a good job I had my driving licence with me. The next problem was somewhere to dive. The Bonaire Marine Park publishes a handy map of dive sites, all numbered and indexed and all on the west side of the island, where the waves were pounding in.
Except for two. Number 59, Sorboron, and number 60, Cai, on the currently sheltered east side of the island, either side of the entrance to Lac Bay. I figured that even if the sea was rough, inside the bay would be sheltered.
 Guides and instructors from the resort dive centre were not at all enthusiastic. The dive centre was closed for repair. They universally criticised the east side of the island for rough sea, poor visibility and dismal diving. To my mind it was bound to be better than the west side was at the time, with the fallout from Lenny continuing to arrive in rolling sets.
I also had a feeling about Lac Bay. The marine-park guide map had an insert stating: This is a large sandy bay supporting extensive seagrass beds and surrounded by mangroves. It is extremely important as a nursery ground for many juvenile marine animals. Having been exposed to the joys of macro muck diving in South-east Asia, and having surveyed seagrass beds and mangrove channels in the Caribbean, I thought it had potential.
 My last stop before diving was a dive centre for air. My lift to the airport had diving gear in the back and tipped me off on this one, directing me to Dive Inn, just south of the harbour. I found the shop far enough back from the sea to be untouched, and open for business
 A tank and unlimited air fills cost a frugal $18.50 for a day, with several well-priced multi-day packages. As they were not that busy, they let me take two tanks to save me returning for fills.
 Cai, at the north of Lac Bay, was a drive along the dirt tracks with mangroves on one side, cactus on the other and feral donkeys wandering along the middle.
 As the road broke out to the sea, a big rock painted bright yellow with a black number 60 on it marked the dive site. The resort staff may have been dissing the east coast, but whether through necessity or choice there were more than a few divers parked by the road, either preparing to dive or just finished.
 The waves were rolling in, but the site was easily diveable and nowhere near as rough as on the west side of the island.
 In Bonaire, once you have paid a $10 marine park fee you can dive wherever you want, whenever you want. You dont need to dive with a guide. With the marine park fee comes a map with numbered shore-dive sites marked on it.
 By the roadside are corresponding numbered yellow rocks. You just drive to the appropriate yellow rock, walk down the beach and take yourself diving.
 I continued past the parked cars and round the corner into the bay and a small jetty, where a pair of divers were clearing up. They looked as if they knew what they were doing, so why had they been diving inside the bay, rather than outside the entrance like everyone else Was it just for the easy and well-sheltered entry
 Following their advice, I took a long underwater swim at 5m on a bearing out of the bay and slightly south, towards the centre of the bay. Its the sort of swim and promise on which, after 10 minutes, you begin to think youve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then the sand opened out to a bowl to 15m and the promise came true. Tarpon soup.
 There is something about tarpon, with their jutting, prehistoric lantern jaws. They are Desperate Dans of the fish world, but without the goofy teeth of a barracuda. They have the same silvery sheen, but without the black stripes. A shoal of barracuda is one of my strongest photographic temptations and a shoal of tarpon comes pretty close behind.
 I had shot a few pictures on the way out and it didnt take long to finish the rest of my film as the tarpon paraded by. Having found the tarpon bowl by sticking to directions, I returned by the scenic route. Looping out into the entrance of the bay, a pair of eagle rays swam by. Then, zigzagging back, I found even bigger shoals of grunt and snapper. Finally, in among the rocks and mucky sand of the shallows were hordes of tiny fish, hidden away in the crevices.
 Further into the bay is a massive nursery for juvenile fish. As they grow older they move out, providing a ready supply of young, tender snacks for larger fish. These in turn provide succulent steaks for the tarpon.
 To get that many tarpon in one place, the pyramid of the food chain below them has to be enormous.
 Admittedly the visibility was nowhere near as good as diving had been off the west side earlier in the week, but it was plenty good enough to enjoy the dive.
 For a second dive, the decision was easy - there was plenty of stuff I had seen after my film was finished on the first dive. I repeated the dive but took different pictures. In fact, the site kept me busy for five dives the next day.
 Then, when the sea was again calm enough to dive the west side, I explored further afield, while still returning to Cai at Lac Bay for a late-afternoon dive or two. The bay didnt have the spectacular hard corals of the open reef, but for sheer fish numbers it couldnt be beaten.
 Lenny may have been a reckless destroyer of coastline, but for the second half of my trip to Bonaire, he had become my best diving friend. Pushed out of the lazy convenience of the resort, my horizons had been widened and I had found a good dive site that mainstream dive centres had casually cast aside.


The Dive Inn at Kralendijk

A margate

A juvenile French angelfish

Tarpon, always a welcome sight for underwater photographers

A parrotfish

Even the rental car number plates enthuse about diving




GETTING THERE:Fly from a UK regional airport via Amsterdam with KLM,
WHEN TO GO : Bonaire is normally good for diving year round.
COST : A KLM scheduled flight from a UK regional airport via Amsterdam costs from£613. Self-catering accommodation costs US $70 per night. Six days cylinder, weights and unlimited air costs US $99, marine park fee $10, Group B car rental $310 per week all-in (,