WE WERE ONLY MINUTES INTO DUSK as we slipped away from the jetty ladder towards Buddy Dive Resort’s house reef, but almost as soon as I submerged, dayglo flashes were catching my eye.
It was just a few star polyps on the sand, but then patches of larger corals took on an unexpected appearance.
As we moved a little deeper, and the blanket of darkness fell, so more and more of the reef appeared to be glowing green.
The profuse brain corals were making the biggest impression, but other thick colonies with different arrangements of polyp ridges and valleys soon appeared, forming new patterns. It wasn’t all fluorescent green, either – what looked like golden beads on a wine-red background provided a contrast, like gaudy Christmas baubles.
I started to notice the wriggling things, fireworms with golden segmentation on their bodies and glowing green outlines. And, best of all, the anemones, luminous tendrils groping for nourishment.
We wore yellow filters on our masks, but by tilting the head it was possible to see the world as it would normally appear. I noticed a non-fluorescent soapfish flopping about in my torch-beam, apparently hunting by its blue light.
When we came across a group night-diving the old-fashioned way, we agreed afterwards that we felt slightly sorry for them for being unable to see what we could see.
Two years ago, I wrote an article about “fluo-diving” and the pioneering work carried out by Liquid Motion Film in Wakatobi, Indonesia (The Light Beyond, June 2010).
Since then, dive centres elsewhere in the world have invested in the near-UV lamps and filters that can absorb blue light and reveal the secret colours of the reef, and offer these night-dives with a difference.
A trip to the Caribbean island of Bonaire, not far from Venezuela, had finally given me a chance to sample this phenomenon for myself.
The fluo-dive was a suitably spectacular finale to our stay. Our arrival had been slightly less propitious.
We had picked up our rental vehicle near the airport, and went astray a few times in the dark negotiating Bonaire’s little capital town, Kralendijk, before locating the out-of-town Buddy Dive Resort. We dragged our baggage to reception, only to be told by the duty guy that Buddy’s was overbooked.
We could stay two nights and then move, or go straight to Buddy’s sister Caribbean Club Resort now.
Not what you want to hear after a transatlantic journey, but the CCR was just a few miles further up the road and sounded OK, so off we went.
CCR is indeed very pleasant, with big, comfortable, well-maintained cottages, and a reception-cum-dive-centre, bar and pool, but it is effectively an annexe in the foothills, well-removed from the lively waterside action at the Buddy Dive Resort, and from the amenities of Kralendijk.
We were lucky, we were told, because it was much quieter. Certainly it lacked any sort of life or atmosphere after dark. It’s always nice to have the choice.

MY PREVIOUS VISIT TO BONAIRE had revolved around boat-diving. This time I wanted to sample the island’s much-vaunted “diving freedom”.
With me was Zac Macaulay, one of the very few Brits to make a living from underwater photography. He hoped to capture the essence of Bonaire’s shore-diving appeal with the help of his vastly expensive wide-angle camera set-up, which had already caused a few headaches at check-in (and wasn’t set up to capture fluorescence, either).
Since my last visit, Bonaire had bowed out of the Dutch Antilles and become a Netherlands municipality.
In the process, its currency had switched from guilders to US dollars.
As happened on the Continent when the euro was introduced, traders seem to have grabbed the opportunity to price up their offerings. Many islanders I met complained that Bonaire’s cost of living had rocketed, and we did find when buying meals or drinks that the options were costly even by London standards.
Bonaire has few sandy beaches – mostly they consist of rough coral fragments – but what it does have is a vibrant fringing reef. The island is one big marine park, and its income derives largely from dive tourism.
Many visitors are from North America, and anyone who thinks US divers expect everything to be done for them can forget that in Bonaire. Unless you stick to the boats, DIY-diving is a way of life here.
This amount of freedom takes a bit of getting used to for those accustomed to the valet-diving that prevails around the world these days.
Zac and I would discuss over breakfast each day where we fancied diving. We would analyse as many nitrox cylinders as we needed in the tank lock-up, and stow them in the back of our Nissan Frontier, along with our dive gear. Then we’d set off to kit up and dive wherever we fancied, in our own time and pace. Nice change!
Dive guide Sven had run us through his currently recommended sites when we arrived, marking them on a pocket map. Each would be marked by yellow stones at the roadside.
Some 60 sites are dotted at regular intervals along the west coast, with others accessible only by boat.
The wild east side would require an appointment with a dive-boat operator and only if conditions were favourable (but we could leave that to tough girls – Louise Trewavas already had it covered, see her column last month).
Patrick at Caribe Car Rentals had warned us never to lock the car. Kids might break the windows to get inside.
So we avoided carrying anything more than a few dollars’ lunch-money, and our keys went with us on the dives.
There is safety in numbers, of course, and if you arrived at, say, the popular Hilma Hooker site you might find as many as 20 other diver pick-ups there.
But we preferred to dive the Hooker in the afternoons, when no-one else was around, and enjoy a reverse-profile dive in splendid isolation.
The Hilma Hooker is one of the Caribbean’s trademark diver wrecks. When the freighter’s engines failed in 1984, she was towed to Kralendijk, where officials discovered more than 11,000kg of marijuana bales secreted behind a bulkhead.
Islanders were soon lobbying to sink the foundering vessel as a diving attraction, but while investigations continued, this was ruled out.
Eventually moved down the coast for fear that she would sink and block the harbour, Nature took over and provided a gift for divers. The Hooker lies on its starboard side in about 30m, making it safe for users of Bonaire’s standard 32% nitrox mix. Its owner, unsurprisingly, never turned up to claim it back.

IF ITS HISTORY LENDS this 75m vessel a certain mystique, having it to yourself in the late-afternoon light is a treat.
In fact you’re never alone here – big silvery tarpon patrol the upper levels, while further south great barracuda hold station in the slight current and look menacing.
Even after nearly 30 years under water there is not that much growth on the metal surfaces, indicating perhaps that the proceeds of drug-smuggling can pay for the best anti-fouling paint.
Princess parrotfish peck away at what growth there is, as sergeant-majors flit around the remaining ironwork on deck.
The holds are cavernous. Exploring them with a torch reveals a certain amount of spongy life on their walls.
We dived the Hooker twice, surface-swimming the few hundred metres towards the mooring buoys and starting either at the stern, with its picturesque upended rudder and prop assembly at 20m, or at the bow, spending plenty of time in and around the deck.
We would then make our way from the bow to the nearby Angel City reef and be well-decompressed once we reached the sandy shallows.
Angel City is a typical Bonaire reef site, like its neighbours Alice in Wonderland and Aquarius. The corals are fine but it’s really all about tropical fish – lots and lots of fish.
A typical dive takes you over the sand bearing west to the drop-off, marked by sea-fans and whips, purple tube sponges and brain corals. You find yourself immersed in a ribbon of big blue doctorfish. Under an overhang, small groups of schoolmasters and yellow-striped grunt assemble; beneath another, big-eyed red soldierfish and squirrelfish.
Queen angelfish hang out around red barrel sponges, dipping in and out of them for no clear reason. Trumpetfish dive in to form symbiotic partnerships with foraging parrotfish.
Rock hinds resting on sponges watch you suspiciously, but make no attempt to move until attendant cleaner shrimps have finished their work on them.
Stoplight parrotfish are everywhere, big supermales and the adults with their crude scales and red bellies, as well as the smaller princesses and their stripy juveniles. They and the other fish, secure in their marine-park world, are far less jittery than you might find elsewhere.
Other lone operators include the little trunkfish that scoot around like miniature helicopters and the occasional scorpionfish and speckled moray eel.
But spare time to scan the blue, as we would often see small turtles, barracuda and on one occasion a cero, a large member of the mackerel family.

ENTRY TO THE WATER is usually over sharp and slightly slippery rocks, which did affect our choice of dive-sites.
We drove to the far south with Sven’s recommended Red Slave site in mind and the vistas there were wonderful – on the inland side of the road red water and huge white cones marking the vast salt-pans that dominate here. Flamingos flew in formation overhead as fishing pelicans flopped into the sea.
But the combination of rocks and surf would have made getting in and out with a valuable camera system too risky. The same applied at the most northerly site, Kaparta, when we drove up that way.
Within these extremes other sites were usually accessible, even if the rocky entrances and exits did provide a few undignified moments.
It occurred to me that whereas on boat dives a local guide may point you towards a resident seahorse or frogfish, your chances of finding one by chance in Bonaire are not brilliant.
You get tip-offs from other divers – a manta ray at Eighteenth Palm, or a baitball off Lighthouse Point – but DIY-ers need luck on their sides.
We caught a Buddy boat one day to sample Klein Bonaire island, which has another 26 sites around it. In fact our destination wasn’t guaranteed – boat-trips start off with the dive guide, in this case Jim, calling out for requests in the manner of a wedding DJ.
Luckily my Klein Bonaire suggestion was endorsed by members of a family that had been visiting Bonaire for their annual fortnight for the past seven years – a couple with three teenage daughters. Dad reckoned the island was a relatively cheap holiday diving option for five, but then, he was from Texas.
The ensuing guided dive felt strange in the context of the diving freedom we had been experiencing – half an hour along the wall at Mi Dushi against a mild current and half an hour back. As usual there were barrel-loads of reef fish around, and the odd macro encounter with a speckled moray or scorpionfish.
But we were off again in the Frontier after lunch – diving freedom is addictive.
Bonaire is one big protected eco-system. Experiencing this continued even on the morning of the day we flew home, with kayaking in the east-coast mangrove area, getting caught in a tropical rainstorm as we hit the open-water section, and snorkelling along a channel to find big grey snapper and tiny trunkfish sheltered among the tree roots.
Bonaire may not be the cheapest of Caribbean destinations, but in terms of marine biology and a warm glow of empowerment, it goes on giving.

FACTFILE
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Emirates to Jakarta via Dubai, then took domestic flights with Lion Air and Batavia. Emirates provides a 30kg baggage allowance. Excess baggage for domestic flights varied from 54p to 93p per kg..
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Maratua Paradise Resort, www.maratua.com
when to go8Year-round, though the mantas congregate at Sangalaki only during the wet season (winter in the UK)
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, though the mantas congregate at Sangalaki only during the wet season (winter in the UK)
PRICES: Dive Worldwide offers a 10-night trip for £2295pp. This covers all flights and transfers, eight nights’ full-board, three daily boat dives for five days plus a day’s diving at Sangalaki (manta rays) and a day at Kakaban (jellyfish lake). Two nights’ necessary stopovers in Singapore, Balikpapan or Berau are included. www.diveworldwide.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel