The moment I enter the sea, gravity ceases. Scuba gear in place, I am suddenly free -- free to sink, to swim in any direction I please, to turn somersaults or float like a great leaf flirting with the sky. In a very real sense, diving is flight -- a wingless, weightless, effortless sojourn through a world of wondrous life, mystery and magic.
Beneath me, tawny-colored hard corals, like so many uplifted arms, stretch toward the sun; a dense carpet of sea fans and soft corals gently undulates with the sea's rhythms; bright orange sponges punctuate the greens, blues, purples, reds and yellows of neighboring creatures. It is a garden of animals, all dancing in unison.
A dense school of small purple fish greets me. They surround me and then make way as I slowly descend through their midst. As I drift slowly to the reef, a sea anemone waves its long, slender, pink-tipped tentacles, inviting a closer look. Almost transparent, a blue-spotted shrimp sits atop one waving arm, wiggling its antennae. I feel huge alongside this shrimp and simultaneously small against the endless expanse of blue.
Life beneath tropical seas is a world only the scuba diver or
snorkeler can experience. And the arid Dutch island of Bonaire, just 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is one of the best Caribbean destinations to learn the underwater skills necessary to enjoy these activities.
This is no accident. While neighboring islands built refineries and bunkers for Venezuelan oil and integrated commerce, shipping and industry into their economies, Bonaire continued to safeguard its primary resource -- a lush band of reef surrounding the entire island.
On Bonaire, turtles have been legally protected since the mid-1960s. In the mid-'70s, when spearguns were as popular as underwater cameras are today, Bonaire did the unthinkable: prohibited spearfishing. As a result, Bonaire's fish became numerous and friendly, unlike those of many other Caribbean islands.
In 1979 Bonaire once again made an unprecedented move: The government legislated a Marine Park that totally protected everything, living or dead, from the high tide line to a depth of 200 feet. Boats were prohibited from dropping anchors. As a result, the reef thrived.
In 1992, despite strong political opposition, Bonaire again set a standard by enacting an annual $10 park entrance fee, making it self-supporting.
Because of all this, Bonaire stands as a world leader in underwater resource management.
One aspect of that leadership is to instill in Bonairians a knowledge and appreciation of the foundation of their economy -- the reef.
"Most Bonairians never learn to swim," says Kalli de Meyer, manager of the Marine Park since 1991. "How can we expect someone to value a resource they've never seen and know so little about?"
But this, too, is changing. The Marine Park, in conjunction with the Dive Operators Association and with government support, has implemented a program known as Tortuganan di Boneiru, Turtles of Bonaire. Four times a month, small groups of local children are offered swimming and snorkeling lessons.
"Many visitors ask me what our Marine Park does," says de
Meyer. "Our goal is sustainable use of the resource. We do this in four ways: installing and maintaining permanent boat moorings; sponsoring marine research programs; enforcing our prohibitions against anchors, spearfishing and pollution; and most importantly, by education."
Water calm and clear
Conservation through education about the reef, its strength and vulnerability, is the park's main focus, which for many visitors begins with a scuba diving course or snorkeling lessons. Bonaire's north-south orientation offers 24 miles of protected leeward coast. Calm, clear, warm water and plenty of excellent instruction make it an ideal choice for beginners. Most dive operators offer courses ranging from the most basic to the most advanced.
The island virtually invites you into the water. The fringing reef uniformly hugs the coast, starting in only a few feet of water and sloping gradually into the depths. Most resorts operate boats that give divers and snorkelers more than 70 sites to choose from along the protected shores of the main island and the small neighboring island of Klein Bonaire.
For independent divers, the ocean is always open. Most resorts have well-designed docks with sturdy ladders extending into the water. Simply grab a tank, gear up and take a long walk off a short pier. Anytime, day or night, the reef is your front yard.
Many divers enjoy the luxury of boat diving, but others prefer to rent one of the readily available jeeps or minivans, load it with gear and a picnic basket, and simply drive to any of more than 30 clearly marked shore dive locations. The Marine Park distributes free maps and has brightly painted, little yellow stones along the road marking the easiest access points. You can usually park just a few yards from the sea.