NEARLY ALWAYS THE FIRST THING people ask when I tell them I’ve just been to Bonaire is: “Oh, where’s that?”. And then you have to explain that it is one of the Dutch Antilles; the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, perched just 50 miles above Venezuela at the very southern end of the Caribbean.
I’d often heard other divers talk about it: “Always windy, a few lazy goats and donkeys, some pink flamingos and something about a Salt Pier” and, although 14 years earlier I had visited Curaçao, where they make that funny blue-coloured liqueur out of bitter oranges, I’d never really felt a compulsion to visit.
But when you are suddenly invited to join a very special group of underwater photographers, it would be rather churlish to say no, wouldn’t it?
And I was very keen to see what all the fuss was about; it is after all, still the Caribbean.
I thought I’d better check out the history of this place. I like the way they say it was “discovered” by Spanish explorers in 1499, when it had already been occupied by Native Americans for almost 3000 years. This isolated and peaceful community soon fell victim to Spanish slavers; some were shipped off to Spain while others were sent to work as slave labour in Puerto Rico and Cuba.
African slaves were also brought to Bonaire to work in the production of salt and brazilwood. Salt was particularly useful as a means of preserving fish, and because of its importance in the hugely successful Dutch herring industry, ships from the Dutch West India Company often visited Bonaire to buy it.
In fact salt was so important to the Dutch that in 1634 they seized control of both Bonaire and Curaçao from the Spanish and, apart from a rather brief and unfortunate period under English control in the early part of the 19th century, it has remained with the Dutch ever since.
Slavery continued until its abolition in 1863 but the culture today is a clear mixture of Native American and African with a bit of Dutch thrown in.

SIGNIFICANT CHANGES HAVE TAKEN PLACE over the past 100 years. Although salt production is still very significant, tourism is now the single most important industry on the island.
In 1962, at the age of 37, a man called Captain Don Stewart arrived in a sailing boat from California. His boat needed repairs, and he was forced to hang around for a while.
Already a diver, he liked what he saw under the sea and decided to stay, opening the island’s first dive-shop and initiating what has become one of Bonaire’s most successful economies – diving tourism.
This proved to be such a valuable resource that Bonaire became a marine park in 1979 – the first of its kind in the Caribbean – and no fishing or anchoring of boats is allowed up to a depth of 60m.
It soon became known as Bonaire – Diver’s Paradise. Many other countries have since followed the idea.
So it seemed only fitting that we should stay at Captain Don’s Habitat, a beachside development of villas and apartments well suited to the diving community.
As an underwater photographer for the past 10 years, I have learned how important it is to be able to concentrate on your passion alone. Essentially, this means diving without a buddy.
Now, I know that’s not strictly PC among all you diving agencies out there, but it is damn nigh impossible to look after a buddy while concentrating on a tiny critter that may not poke its head out for 10 minutes.
I occasionally still go on trips with the dive-club to which I’ve belonged for more than 20 years – because I love ’em to bits – but I know I’m not going to get my best shots on those trips.
But Bonaire? That is something else. You turn up for your “orientation”, fully expecting to have to do a try-dive in front of somebody and, worst nightmare, actually take your mask off under water to prove that you can still do it!
But no, you can do your try-dive all by yourself, take an extra weight or two to see if you need it and then, off you go. You can literally take a tank, any time of day, 24 hours a day, by yourself, and come back whenever you like.
Of course, some people think it’s so wonderful down there that they decide not to come back at all. We did learn, while we were there, that two people in recent times did just that – their bodies were found later.
One lady was from one of the frequently visiting cruise ships that look just like floating blocks of flats, and the other, from a nearby resort, just decided to stay in the water and died – we may never know the reasons.

BUT I SOON LEARNED that this is “Diving Freedom”. A good way to go anyway, if that’s what you want to do.
So, you take your tank, set it up and stroll down the jetty (avoiding if possible the giant iguanas that patrol the hotel’s grounds) to the steps that take you down to waist-deep water.
From there, you follow a rope that leads you to the house-reef and beyond.
It’s so simple – all you have to do is decide whether to turn right or left once you get to the reef, at less than 10m, use up half your air and come back again.
Sometimes there’s just the teeniest bit of a current, so it’s best to start against it and then let it bring you back. Zero effort.
So, what is there to see? Initial impression: well, this is the Caribbean, which is famous for barrel sponges, trumpetfish, whip corals, French angelfish and the occasional tarpon. Bonaire does not disappoint, with all of the above and more, but the thing about Bonaire is that because it has been designated a marine park the fish are simply not afraid.
There may be only a relatively few species around when compared to, say, the lush reefs of Indonesia, but those that are present are there in abundance and make very accessible subjects.
Thanks to a friend who owned a house in Tobago, I’ve been to that island a few times over the years and have always been taunted by the resident French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru).
In Bonaire at last I had an opportunity to get even. Here they were in twos, threes and fours, in the shallow waters of the house-reef.
With the opportunity for frequent visits, they soon get used to you and become curious and willing subjects.
Trumpetfish are everywhere. They often hang around vertically, horizontally, individually or in pairs, motionless. When flustered, they try to hide in soft coral, mimicking the angle of the fronds. In camouflage mode, if it wasn’t for our strobe-lighting they would sometimes be very hard to spot.
There is a delightful little wreck on the house-reef, just to the left of the rope as you go down, and at only 12m it is accessible by all. It is full
of life.
The sergeant-majors in particular have made good use of the smooth, flat surfaces of the wreck for laying their purple patches of eggs. Each patch is about the size of a large dinner-plate and is vigorously defended by a single fish, sometimes thrusting itself right at you if you get too close.
Any diver familiar with sergeant-majors will know that your mere presence is enough to send them scurrying, which gives the signal to other reef-fish to dive in and devour the eggs.
It took me a while to realise that this was happening the first time around as a feeding frenzy took place. Who doesn’t like caviar? Still, they do lay a lot of eggs, so there are plenty to go around.
Now, put your macro eyes on and you will spot, all over the wreck and indeed on many of the surrounding boulders that make up the reef, the fabulously wonky-eyed secretary blenny (Acanthemblemaria maria).
In fact, this is secretary blenny heaven. I found one small boulder, like a 2ft cube in size, that was completely covered with tiny heads poking out.

YOU KNOW HOW EASY it is to take these species’ names for granted?
I sent some of my secretary blenny images to a non-diving friend and she asked: why the name? It got me thinking, so I looked it up.
Turns out that this fish was named after Mary George, the secretary of Dr James Bohlke, who was a great authority on blennies.
But it also turns out that it isn’t a secretary blenny at all, but a spinyhead blenny, Acanthemblemaria spinosa. The differences are so small that they are impossible to spot with the naked eye.
During the day we would often see tarpon on the reef, either individually or in their group of six. These beautiful, large, silver fish look from close up as if they are made from polished stainless steel. In the early evening, attracted by the lights, you can see them from the restaurant in the shallow water of the lagoon below.
It is quite well-known that one of the island’s main attractions is to be able to load up a vehicle with dive gear and simply drive off to one of the many well-signposted shore-diving sites. This is the definition of “diving freedom”.
However, because we were there only for a week, and we seemed to be content with everything that was on our doorstep, we deferred driving around the island until the last, non-diving day.
It was then that we discovered the mountains of salt and the salt-pans that fringe the coast leading up to Salt Pier and the slaves’ accommodation, which looked marginally grander than dog-kennels. It makes one shudder to realise that people actually lived in these huts as recently as 1850.
A little further on, and you realise just how spartan and undeveloped this island still is. There are no tall trees; just scrubland and cacti, and it’s hot and dusty and windy.
It is Sunday and we are now looking for somewhere for lunch. Not a lot to choose from, but we settle for a local cafe and, always keen to sample the local delicacies, I order conch and goat. My vegetarian companion was not amused!
Although disappointed not to have tried the other dive-sites the island has to offer, it is a good reason to go back – which I most certainly will do in the not-too-distant future.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE KLM flies to Bonaire via Amsterdam and Aruba, or connect through Miami with US airlines. No visa is required.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Captain Don’s Habitat includes a PADI 5* Gold Palm Resort and an SDI 5* Professional Development Centre. It offers boat dives as well as catering for roaming “diving freedom” guests, www.habitatbonaire.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round. Take a 3mm wetsuit.
MONEY US dollars.
HEALTH Hyperbaric chamber in Kralendijk.
PRICES Bonaire Fun Travel arranges packages to Captain Don’s from £1250pp (flights, two sharing accommodation and transfers), or £1445 with the addition of hire car and unlimited air for shore-dives, www.bonairefuntravel.co.uk. Six days’ unlimited shore-diving costs $162; add six boat-dives for $306.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.tourismbonaire.com