There are many wonderful dive locations in the Caribbean, but few can match Bonaire when it comes to the accessibility of beautiful coral reefs to both snorkelers and scuba divers. You don’t have to jump in a boat to go to a great dive location; you simply throw your gear into the back of your rental vehicle and drive to a fantastic spot to begin your underwater adventure. This 24-mile-long island, which is located 50 miles north of Venezuela in the Netherlands Antilles, is surrounded by healthy coral reefs that boast rich coral diversity and a high fish biomass.
In this article, I’ll look at some of the fish found on the fringing reefs of Bonaire and discuss how to best maintain some of these species in our home aquariums. I will also share five must-see dive spots (all are also great snorkeling spots) from this south Caribbean diving paradise and give you some examples of Bonaire biotope tanks. So let’s dive into the underwater world of Bonaire.
Bonaire is one of five islands comprising the Netherlands Antilles. Bonaire actually consists of two islands: Bonaire (111 square miles) and Klein Bonaire (2.3 square miles), which is off the western coast of the big island. There are no residents on Klein Bonaire, and its 26 named dive sites are only accessible by boat. For this reason, its reefs are considered more pristine than the more readily reachable habitats around its “bigger brother.” While these islands are outside of the hurricane belt, they are exposed to the rare tropical storm or hurricane (e.g., Lenny in 1999, Ivan in 2004, Omar in 2008). Both are low islands and have a semi-arid climate (they receive about 22 inches of rain per year, which falls between October and January).
While many of the Caribbean’s reefs are suffering as a result of human impact, the marine environment around Bonaire is better off than most, thanks to the fact the entire coastline has been designated as a marine sanctuary. However, even here the reefs are far from pristine, with coral coverage having declined appreciably over the years, albeit at a slower rate than most of the Caribbean.
Most of the diving occurs on the leeward side of the reef where you will find 63 sites that are marked along the shoreline, each by a yellow rock with the name of the site painted on it. Simply find a place to park near the yellow rock and go diving! (Be aware that you should never leave valuables in your car, as theft is a big problem in Bonaire.) There are 13 dive operators on the island, many of which have stellar reputations for caring for their guests and providing transport to offshore sites (e.g., Klein Bonaire).
The water temperature can be as cool as 78 degrees in winter and as high as 86 degrees in the summer. Because there is so little rainfall, the water visibility is usually very good (usually 80 to 100 feet).
Most of Bonaire’s leeward fringing reefs consist of a wide sand and rubble terrace (from 20 to 250 yards), with scattered coral heads and patch reefs. The terraces gradually slope and end at a reef face (usually beginning at a depth of 20 to 35 feet); this extends to a deeper slope that can be from a 45-degree to a vertical 90-degree wall. The slope usually flattens out and often ends at the top of another drop-off at about 160 to 280 feet. The slopes are characterized by “spur and groove” topography (reef spurs adjacent to sand grooves). Lac Bay, which is on the windward side of the island, hosts extensive mangrove and sea grass habitats and is an important nursery area for reef fish and invertebrates.
How to Get There:
Getting to Bonaire takes a little planning, as there are not frequent direct flights from multiple locations. It is a good idea to talk with a dive travel specialist that can help with flight plans. There are irregular flights with Delta (non-stop Atlanta to Bonaire), United (non-stop from Houston to Bonaire), Insel Air (Miami to Bonaire). There are also flights from Curaçao to Bonaire (it is sometimes easier to get to Curaçao and fly from there). United States and Canadian citizens must have a valid passport and a return or ongoing ticket. A birth certificate with a picture ID is also acceptable for entry into Bonaire. No vaccinations or preventative medications are recommended for travel to Bonaire.
WHEN TO GO: There is a windy season from May to August, and there are moderate winds from January to April. The rainy season is November to January, and hurricanes rarely hit Bonaire. The high season is December to April. The average air temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 percent relative humidity. Average water temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
WHERE TO STAY: Buddy Dive Resort is my personal favorite, but there are many great places to stay in Bonaire, including Captain Don’s Habitat, Sand Dollar Condominium Resort, Divi Flamingo Beach, Coral Paradise, Divers Paradise Bonaire, Lion’s Dive and Beach Resort and many more!
Buddy Dive Resort
TRAVEL TIPS: Never go to Bonaire without planning to rent a vehicle. Never leave valuables in your vehicle, and leave the doors unlocked so thieves don’t break out windows. A nondiving partner may not find a lot to do in Bonaire, unless they are into lying on the beach. There is an 8 percent tax on virtually all services. Tipping is much the same as in the States (some restaurants add a 10 to 15 percent service charge automatically). In dive shops, a 10 percent tip is also the norm. The U.S. dollar is the official currency. Water is safe to drink. Cyber cafes and Internet services are available (but who needs it – you’re on vacation!). The time zone is Atlantic Standard Time.
As many as 39 stony coral species representing 19 genera in 10 different families have been reported on the reefs of Bonaire. Coral diversity is the greatest at a depth of around 65 feet and lowest to about 15 feet. Most of the stony coral growth is massive and columnar, though there are some branching, plating and encrusting forms. The most dominant stony coral around Bonaire is Montastrea annularis, which is abundant at depths from 40 to 100 feet. Other common stony corals include Agaricia agaricites, Madracis species and Porites astreoides. At a few dive sites, you might also encounter the majestic elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), which has become a rare sight in most of the Caribbean. The branches of this coral reach like hands toward the surface and the life-giving light. The other Caribbean member of the genus, A. cervicornis, is rare on Bonaire’s reefs. The reef terraces at some of the dive sites are also home to thick gorgonian forests, which are usually found between 15 and 30 feet deep along the south and southwest coast. The predominant genera represented are Pseudopterogorgia species, Pterogorgia species and Eunicea species.
Bonaire supports a rich reef fish assemblage, with as many as 326 species reported in underwater surveys. The five most common species in Bonaire are the blue tang (Acanthurus coeruleus), bicolor damsel (Stegastes partitus), stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride), brown chromis (Chromis multilineata) and bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum). Bonaire is one of the best spots I have found for observing and photographing hamlets (Hypoplectrus spp.). However, it is not a good place for the shark-lover – they are rarely seen here, except for the rare nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum).
My Five Favorite Dive Sites
1. Salt Pier
I love pier pilings, as they are shaded growing surfaces for a variety of encrusting invertebrates. Such is the case with the pilings at Salt Pier, where one can find orange cup corals (Tubastrea coccinea) and a large variety of sponges, along with a host of other invertebrates that seek shelter here. This includes a variety of worms, mollusks, crustaceans and sea stars.
Look in the cracks and crevices, and you’re likely to find file shells (Ctenoides scaber), colorful Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) and banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus). This site is also a good place to find curlicue (aka elegant) anemones (Actinoporus elegans) with associated Pederson’s cleaner shrimp (Periclimenes pedersoni) and the more colorful giant sea anemones (Condylactis gigantea), which sometimes harbor the spotted cleaner shrimp (Periclimenes yucatanicus).
The shadows created by the structures at the pier’s end are a favorite haunt for schooling species like yellow goatfishes (Mulloidichthys martinicus) and grunts (Haemulon spp.). On the patch reefs off the end of the pier, you are likely to encounter queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula) and orangespotted filefish (Cantherhines pullus). On the surrounding sand, you may see a bar jack (Carangoides ruber) following foraging southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) or a smooth trunkfish (Rhinesomus triqueter) blowing water from its mouth in an attempt to uncover buried prey. The feeding activity of the trunkfish not only attracts the attention of divers, but the trunkfish are often escorted by opportunistic wrasses (e.g., yellowhead wrasse, Halichoeres garnoti).
Be aware that you have to obtain permission to dive this site through a dive operator.
2. Town Pier
Yes, another pier. This site is a favorite for night diving, but I find it to be a great diurnal and nocturnal dive site. If you are turned off by trash, don’t go on this dive. But if you can overlook the gunny sacks, bottles, cans, rope, pipes, etc., and instead concentrate on the marine animals that utilize this manmade debris for refuge, you will have a blast.
There are loads of interesting fish around the pilings and amid the debris on the sea floor. Like Salt Pier, the pilings are home to hundreds of different sessile and motile invertebrates, including orange cup corals, sponges, tubeworms, fireworms, arrow crabs and sponge crabs. Look for longlure frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus) and longsnout seahorses (Hippocampus reidi) on the pier pilings, as well as among the debris on the seaward side of the pier.
Other fish you are likely to encounter include several hamlet species (Hypoplectrus spp.), tobaccofish (Serranus tabacarius), purplemouth (Gymnothorax vicinus) and spotted morays (G. moringa), queen angels (Holacanthus ciliaris), rock beauties (H. tricolor), French angels (Pomacanthus paru) in various stages of development and clouds of baitfish. This dive site does require that you go with a dive master from a local dive shop, with the permission of the Harbor Master.
3. Buddy’s Reef
This is my favorite dive site (and my favorite place to stay is Buddy Dive, a resort adjacent to the dive site). Enter the water from the Buddy Dive pier, and away you go. There are boulders along the shoreline that are home to chainlink morays (Echidna catenata), and there are loads of interesting small patch reefs to explore along the way to the reef face. On these patch reefs, you can find goldentail morays (Gymnothorax miliaris), spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri), longlure frogfish (A. multiocellatus), sailfin blennies (Emblemaria pandionis) and juvenile jackknife fish (Equetus lanceolatus).
In the sandy areas between, you will find lantern bass (Serranus baldwini), yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons) and sand diver lizardfish (Synodus intermedius). The edge of the reef face is home to “groves” of lavender gorgonians and schools of yellow goatfish (Mulloidichthys martinicus). The reef face is home to rich fish fauna and includes cleaner goby (Elacatinus genie) cleaning stations. It also includes the blackbar soldierfish (Myripristis jacobus), scrawled filefish (Aluterus scriptus), juvenile and adult tiger groupers (Mycteroperca tigris), the coney (Cephalopholis fulva), the graysby (C. cruentata) and the honeycomb cowfish (Acanthostracion polygonius).
Buddy’s Reef is also a great nocturnal dive – at night, you may encounter a resident group of tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) and snook (Centropomus undecimalis) that frequent the area after dark. Buddy’s Reef is also a great spot to watch reef fish spawning activity at dusk. Huge schools of Creole wrasses (Clepticus parrae) will swim past the reef edge for as long as 20 or 30 minutes as they move to spawning sites in another location. This site is also a popular spawning area for both the butter (H. unicolor) and barred hamlet (H. puella).
Karapata is located along the northeast coast of Bonaire. It is a wonderful shore dive that offers good visibility and fantastic panoramic views of a portion of Bonaire’s fringing reef. Karapata has some of the greatest stony coral coverage and exceptional reef fish diversity. The coral growth is rich, and one can even find stands of elkhorn coral (A. palmata) at this location. There are colonies of sheet coral (Agaricia sp.) growing along the steep reef slope. If you look carefully, you may spot a swissguard basslet (Liopropoma rubre) on an early morning or late afternoon dive. Also check out the gorgonians in the shallows. If you look at the branches carefully, you may find flamingo tongues (Cyphoma gibbosum) – mollusks that feed on the polyps of this soft coral.
The reef slopes are teeming with all kinds of fish, including the ubiquitous royal gramma (Gramma loreto), foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) and sharpnose puffer (Canthigaster rostrata). If you look closely, you will also find some of the Lilliputians of the reef, such as the peppermint goby (Coryphopterus lipernes) and masked goby (C. personatus). The deep reef edge merges with the sandy slope at about 100 feet. At the reef edge, you are likely to encounter tobacco bass (Serranus tabacarius) or even the occasional spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari).
5. Ebo’s Reef (Klein Bonaire)
This is a relatively steep reef slope with scattered sand channels with reef promontories. The drop-off begins at 20 feet and slopes down to a sandy bottom at 150 feet. This dive is a good place to observe some of the Caribbean’s gorgeous sponge communities. There are giant orange elephant ear sponges (Agelas clathrodes), exquisite rope sponges (Aplysina cauliformis), beautiful lavender stove-pipe sponges (A. archeri), as well as the ubiquitous mustard yellow tube sponges (A. fistularis). Some of these serve as holdfasts for black crinoids (feather stars). There are also a lot of gorgonian species on the top of the reef, a good variety of stony corals, and as you go deeper, black corals (Antipathes sp.).
You will see many of Bonaire’s common reef fish here, including a lot of hamlets, blue chromis (Chromis caeruleus), yellowtail snappers (Ocyurus chrysurus), parrotfishes, queen angels, boxfishes and porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus). If you go deeper down the slope, you will also see purple chromis (Chromis scotti) and olive chromis (C. insolata). Groups of Creolefish (Paranthias colonus) are also frequently encountered here, many of which sport isopod parasites on the sides of their heads. It is also a good site for sea turtles, large green morays (Gymnothorax funebris) and great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Ebo’s is exposed to more current and is best for the intermediate diver. It is often conducted as a drift dive (on a drift dive, you float with the current and are picked up at the end of the dive by the dive boat).
Bonaire’s Piscine Notables
While there are hundreds of fish on the reefs fringing Bonaire, there are some species that enter the aquarium trade that marine fishkeepers often take for granted. Here are five species that you may want to consider for your aquarium.
Spotted moray (Gymnothorax moringa). The spotted moray can make a fantastic pet, but it is best housed in a larger “species” tank (125 gallons or bigger). It gets rather large (in the western Atlantic, it reaches at least 5 feet in length) and is a voracious fish-eater that will make short work of any tankmate it can eat. It will even ingest other morays, including members of its own kind. The spotted moray will also eat crustaceans that are not cleaners (it can often be cleaned by banded coral shrimp, Stenopus hispidus, in the wild).
This moray will quickly learn to recognize you as its source of tucker and will swim about the tank frantically when it sees you walk by. In nature, it can be found in a variety of different habitats, including sea grass meadows, among sponges on pier pilings, in coral heads on sandy lagoon bottoms and on fore-reef slopes (it has been collected in water as deep as 600 feet). The spotted moray is an attractively patterned species. It is white or yellowish cream, has brown flecks on the head and body, and it has black-trimmed dorsal and anal fin margins. The amount of flecking on the body can vary greatly, with some individuals being almost entirely white.
Harlequin bass (Serranus tigrinus). This often overlooked fish makes a fascinating aquarium pet. What it lacks in chromatic splendor it makes up for in its interesting behavioral repertoire. First of all, adult harlequin bass form long-term pair bonds. Pairs defend a territory from conspecifics and other food competitors. The pair members rarely stray more than 6 feet from one another during the day. As the pair patrols the territory, it often moves to opposite sides of a small coral or rubble outcrop and rapidly descends on it in unison. This drives small prey out of one fish’s way and into the path of the other. They feed primarily on small fish and shrimp.
The harlequin bass is also a simultaneous hermaphrodite (adults have both functional ovaries and testes). When they spawn, they trade off gender roles. The individual that spawns first as a female will spawn again that evening as a male and vice-versa (this is known as egg-trading). The individual acting in the female role initiates spawning by holding its body in an S-curve. If it is interested in spawning, the other pair member will approach the initiating fish. When close together, the pair will rapidly ascend and release their gametes.
This hardy species is well-suited for small to large aquariums. If you have a larger tank, you can add two specimens simultaneously, but you will need to watch them carefully to make sure no fighting occurs. Because they are simultaneous hermaphrodites, you are assured of getting a “pair,” but even so, sometimes one individual will start chasing and biting the subordinate fish, in which case they will have to be separated. It reaches a maximum length of about 4 inches.
Bonaire Biotope Tanks
After reading about or visiting Bonaire, you might be inspired to re-create a fish community from this location. Below you will find some fish combinations representing a variety of Bonaire habitats.
75-Gallon Bonaire Sand/Rubble Zone
3 yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons)
1 green razor wrasse (Xyrichtys splendens)
1 clown wrasse (Halichoeres maculipinna)
1 lantern bass (Serranus baldwini)
1 cherub angelfish (Centropyge argi)
135-Gallon Bonaire Shallow Reef Face
2 cleaner goby (Elacatinus genie)
2 royal gramma (Gramma loreto)
1 flamefish (Apogon maculatus)
3 blue chromis (Chromis cyanea)
1 Atlantic sharpnose puffer (Canthigaster rostrata)
1 spotted hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pinos)
1 blue tang (Acanthurus coeruleus)
135-Gallon Boanire Reef Wall
3 sunshine damselfish (Chromis insolata)
3 purple chromis (Chromis scotti)
3 barred cardinalfish (Apogon binotatus)
1 swissguard bass (Liopropoma rubre)
2 Creole wrasse (Clepticus parrae)
1 Atlantic longnose butterflyfish (Prognathodes aculeatus)
180-Gallon Bonaire Patch Reef
1 juvenile porkfish (Anisotremus virginicus)
1 butter hamlet (Hypoplectrus puella)
1 yellowhead wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti)
1 French angelfish juvenile (Pomacanthus paru)
1 redlip blenny (Ophioblennius atlanticus)
1 longjaw squirrelfish (Neoniphon marianus)
1 porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus)
Barred hamlet(Hypoplectrus puella). This beautiful fish does well in the home aquarium. It is named from the six bars on the body, which vary in darkness and the evenness of their shading. This fish is quite easy to maintain in the home aquarium, though young fish tend to adjust more readily to captivity than adult specimens. Larger hamlets are also more prone to acclimation difficulties when transferred from one tank to another (if you can avoid it, move them infrequently). IndividualH. puellathat do not adjust will hide constantly and refuse to feed. On Bonaire reefs, the barred hamlet is usually found on back reefs and reef faces, and it is often found in habitats with low relief and dense gorgonian populations.
The barred hamlet feeds primarily on shrimp (snapping shrimp,Alpheus spp.; cleaner shrimp,Periclimenes spp.) and crabs, but it also eats small fish, mysid shrimp, small mantis shrimp and isopods. Like harlequin basses, barred hamlets are simultaneous hermaphrodites. You can keep two in a tank if the aquarium is larger (100 gallons or more). Because it is both female and male, pairing them is not difficult. This species grows to just over 4 inches in total length.
Redspotted hawkfish(Amblycirrhitus pinos). This is another species found around Bonaire that is often overlooked by hobbyists. It is truly a beautiful fish – the head is peppered with orange and red spots. The body is white with brown bars, and there is a big black blotch near the rear end of the dorsal fin. The best place to see this species in Bonaire is on the pilings of Salt Pier. Here it perches among the beautiful orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea). In captivity, A. pinos tends to be a rather shy hawkfish that will initially peek out from cover when first introduced into the aquarium. Once they settle in, they will make themselves known by spending more time in the open and may even become rather pugnacious, chasing smaller fish away from their preferred haunts.
You can keep more than one of these fish in a larger tank, but select specimens that are very different in size. This will increase the chances that you will acquire a male and female. Like others in the family, the redspotted hawkfish is a known shrimp assassin. It can reach a length just larger than 3.5 inches.
Queen angelfish(Holacanthus ciliaris). This a perennial favorite with both underwater photographers and aquarists. Fortunately, it is also a fairly common angelfish on the reefs of Bonaire and can be found at many of the dive spots. This is a large species (it can top out at 18 inches) that will need to be kept in a big tank (135 gallons or more). Adult queen angelfish feed almost exclusively on a variety of different sponge species. Adults also supplement their diets with tunicates, hydroids and bryozoans. They tend not to cause feeding problems in most aquarium situations, accepting most prepared frozen foods. However, it is important to give them a varied diet (that includes greens) to ensure that they remain healthy.
While this is a durable species, large juveniles and subadults can be especially aggressive, often harassing newly introduced fish or closely related species. To prevent this fish from doing harm to its tankmates, place it in a large aquarium outfitted with numerous hiding places, and add it to a community tank last. Because the queen angelfish commonly hosts protozoan parasites, the aquarist should be ready to treat it at the first sign of these infestations.
Whether an active scuba diver, snorkeler or an armchair type with a marine aquarium at home, let the undersea denizens and other wonders of Bonaire inspire you in person or from afar. AFI
Scott W. Michael has kept marine fish for more than 25 years. He is the author of Reef Sharks and Rays of the World; Reef Fishes: A Guide to their Identification, Behavior and Captive Care and more.