A few years ago I spent 4 months living on the Caribbean island of Aruba. One of my favorite trips from Aruba was a short diving trip to Bonaire. I had just finished my PADI Rescue Diver course and was told that Bonaire is a must visit for any scuba dive enthusiast.
And I agree: Bonaire is great for scuba diving!
What I loved most about diving in Bonaire is that the dive sites are so easily accessible. Pretty much everywhere else in the world I go diving with an organized group (yes, even now, as a Divemaster with many years of dive experience). But in Bonaire, if you have a bit of dive experience, you can easily just rent the gear you need, put it all in your rental car and just drive to the dive sites you want to check out.
But then you do have to know which are the best dive sites in Bonaire of course. Bonaire’s National Marine Park offers a total of 89 dive sites (most of which are shore dives), it is home to over 57 species of soft and stony coral and there are more than 350 recorded fish species.
It has been a few years since I was in Bonaire and during my stay I only got to dive a handful of Bonaire’s incredible dive sites. Therefore I teamed up with local dive center Dive Friends Bonaire, who have been on the island for more than 15 years, to create this list of the best dive sites in Bonaire.
11 of the best dive sites in Bonaire
Bonaire West Coast
Few shore divers visit Bonaire without diving this showcase northern dive site. This is the northernmost dive site before reaching the marine reserve along the northwest coastline and due to the almost constant mild to moderate current bathing the area in nutrients there is impressive hard and soft coral growth along the steep sloping fingering reef walls.
In the shallows you can frequently spot large rainbow and midnight parrot fish lazily swimming by, sea turtles resting amongst the soft gorgonians, and the occasional school of blue tangs as they gang up to feed on patches of algae. The reef itself slopes rather steeply down from about 7m (22 ft) down to where it thins out on the deep sandy bottom at roughly 35m (120 ft). Visibility is usually wonderful here from surface to bottom and you can spot large schools of creole wrasse and brown chromis hovering just off the reef. It is not unusual to see giant green moray eels, lobsters, and even the invasive lionfish all hiding under the many stony coral ledges that pepper the reef wall.
Due to the usually fantastic visibility and teeming life in the shallows, this site is great for snorkelers as well. Just be sure to take care when entering and exiting as the waves may sometimes cause for a rough ride if not timed right.
This dive site is one of the truest gems of Bonaire and is actually only accessible by boat due to the sheer vertical limestone and lava rock cliffs that shoot out of the water making it impossible to reach from the shore. Well, maybe not quite impossible, since the origin of the site’s name ‘rappel’ comes from the days when divers used to use this method to scale down the side of the cliff to reach the water for a dive!
Just where the cliffs themselves reach the water, years of wave action have dug out some interesting overhang environments where large snappers and even nurse sharks can be spotted resting during the day. From the shallow (5m/15ft) overhangs the reef grows thick on a plateau that extends out towards the drop off. Here is where the magic of this dive site begins with very healthy and colorful varieties of corals, sponges, and sea fans hiding an impressive array of macro life within. It’s not uncommon for divers to find sea horses, frogfish, slender filefish, and plenty of lettuce slugs. Without the presence of any sandy or silty bottom, the visibility at this northern dive site is always exquisite and once upon the steeper sloping reef, divers can spot large schools of creole wrasse, black durgons (triggerfish), barracuda, and even passing manta rays have been spotted with some frequency in this area. A top dive site to visit in Bonaire for sure!
The first thing that usually comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Cliff’ is a wild landscape with steep, exciting edges. This dive site, which is also the house reef of Dive Friends’ Hamlet Oasis location, offers exactly that.
Upon entering the water, swim out to the reef drop-off and then go to the left. You will be cruising along a steep coral wall, where you’ll be met by a variety of curious marine creatures.
This dive site is special for more than one reason. Firstly, the dive along the wall makes numerous divers feel extremely humble as truly, force of nature is shown here! Secondly, diving along a wall offers a great opportunity to see how different depths and light intensities characterize the composition of the reef. If you’re diving at 25 meters, you’ll have a completely different experience than when you’re diving at 15 meters. Be sure to visit this dive site and enjoy the corals while tarpons and large snappers are cruising along with you.
4. Bari Reef
Located close to a trendy beach bar and a resort, Bari Reef might not seem like an obvious top choice for divers. However, don’t be fooled! The reef is actually one of the most biodiverse reefs of Bonaire and it’s an absolute delight to encounter so many different marine species underwater. Not only will you find a large variety of fish species here, many divers are pleasantly surprised by the beautiful sponge structures that give parts of Bari Reef a purplish or blueish magical glow. Carefully peek into the sponges and you’ll find a fish or two hiding in them. A great dive site for the explorative and curious minds among us!
5. Something Special
As for living up to its name, this dive site certainly does deliver! Upon first glance it may seem to the novice diver that there is not so much going on since the corals at this site are not as lush and some have even died off. You will also spot the occasional tire or other evidence of human influence scattered on the sand shallows, but do not let this first impression fool you! To a more experienced diver and especially those interested in macro life and underwater photography this dive site is something very special indeed.
Something Special sports the usual sand flat leading up to a gentle sloping reef like most of the other dive sites in the area, but where it shines is with the marine life. Ask any dive shop and the first creature that comes to mind with this site is the elusive frogfish. Here there have been spotted up to 5 or 6 frogfish on a single dive! Not to mention multiple seahorses, yellow-headed jawfish, countless scorpionfish, blennies galore, and juveniles of all sorts of interesting critters like spotted drumfish and trunk fish. Apart from the overwhelming amount of great macro life on this diamond-in-the-rough reef, it is quite common for divers to be visited by spotted eagle rays in the sandy shallows and hawksbill and green sea turtles.
As if diving this site by day doesn’t check off all your must-see creatures on your list, it is one of Bonaire’s best kept secret night dive sites. As the sun goes down behind Klein Bonaire, this reef becomes teeming with nocturnal life such as hunting octopuses, moray eels, slipper (spanish) lobsters, various species of crabs and shrimps, and the ever-present large shiny hunting tarpons who follow your dive light the whole way. With what has to be the easiest entry and exit by shore of many of Bonaire’s dive sites, there just simply is no excuse not to dive here!
6. The Hilma Hooker
Originally named the Midsland and launched in 1951, the Hilma Hooker is a 72 meter long cargo ship that was sunk off the southern coast of Bonaire in 1984. It now lies on its starboard side at a depth of 30 meters in the sand channel between the double reefs. Descending down to the Hilma Hooker is a fun experience; you’re in the deep blue and will suddenly see the dark silhouette of the ship as you approach. The wreck is covered in algae and sponges with feeding wrasses and brooding Sergeant Majors. Tarpons can usually be seen hanging out in the cargo holds. Eels and Sand Tilefish can often be seen in the sand, curiously peeking at the divers that pass by the wreck. Have a peek through one of the windows and you’ll see an old rusty toilet. Experienced and certified wreck divers can penetrate the ship and thus explore all of it!
Don’t ask me how but I got a bit disoriented when descending down to this shipwreck. And to then all of a sudden see it appear in the dark distance is still one of my most memorable experiences from diving in Bonaire…
7. Salt Pier
Probably every article about Bonaire mentions diving at the Salt Pier, so it almost feels like a cliché to include it in our list of best dive sites in Bonaire. Truth is… it absolutely belongs there!
Salt Pier is one of the few sites that divers don’t go to with the purpose of seeing Bonaire’s world-famous coral reefs. Instead, they allow themselves to be amazed by the huge diversity of life encrusted, growing and feeding on the huge pillars of the pier. Watch green sea turtles grazing in the shallows and get close to the gorgeous and usually shy queen angelfish as it nibbles the algae from the pier structures. These are just some examples of the numerous close encounters you are likely to have.
Salt Pier is a great destination for a night dive as well. You can descend down just as the sun is setting over the iconic pier! Be sure to visit this site when there is no ship docked to be loaded with Bonaire’s famous salt, as diving is restricted when there is a ship anchored.
8. Margate Bay
When driving along the west coast in a southerly direction, keep your eyes open as the entrance to Margate Bay is slightly hidden and surrounded by beautiful mangrove bushes. The serenity and beauty on land is nothing compared to what this dive site offers under water! As soon as you enter the water, you will see huge fields of staghorn coral stretching out in front of you. Fish, crabs, snails and shrimps hide in these corals. There is so much to see that you can enjoy yourself immensely diving in the shallow waters; there’s no need to go deep!
Margate Bay gives you an idea of how almost all the shallow reefs of Bonaire looked some decades ago, as staghorn corals used to flourish along the entire west coast. Nowadays, to reach many dive sites you are required to cross a large sandy patch, but here, the corals have resisted many challenges and appear healthy and fierce. Behind the stretching coral fields lies the beginning of a steep drop-off marked by waving soft corals. Current can be a challenge here, but Margate Bay is a great choice when conditions are calm!
9. Willemstoren Lighthouse
This dive site is only for experienced scuba divers and also only accessible during rare and unique calm conditions due to its exposed location at the southernmost tip of the island. Because of this limited access, it boasts some of the most pristine coral growth of any dive site on Bonaire.
After entering the water, divers will cross healthy fields of huge waving sea fans, gigantic gorgonian soft corals, and large healthy sponges as make their way to the sloping reef drop off. Once there, massive elk horn coral and even towering stony coral heads that are easily hundreds of years old and still thriving. The marine creatures also do not disappoint. Sea turtles, giant green morays, queen and oceanic triggerfish, eagle rays, and even the occasional dolphin pod has been spotted passing by in the blue! As for macro life, this dive site has it all from sea horses to lettuce slugs, and the healthy soft corals hosting juveniles of all species that can be hard to spot in other parts of Bonaire.
Tip: Ask a local diver or someone with experience diving this site for information or guidance on how to best plan this dive as it is not for the Bonaire diving beginner due to the rough surf and strong current that normally make it inaccessible.
Bonaire East Coast
10. The White Hole/Turtle City
Perhaps Bonaire’s best kept secret is the outstanding diving on the East Coast, also known as the ‘wild side’. Few operators will brave the choppy sea and unpredictable nature of the windward side, but it’s well worth it. The east coast showcases the very best qualities of each of Bonaire’s dive sites all rolled into just a few sites. The White Hole and Turtle City being one such site.
The ‘white hole’ itself is a football field-sized sandy pit surrounded by reef walls on all sides. In the hole, it is not out of the norm to find schools of at least 40 tarpon, a nurse shark or two under a ledge, and even large conch scooching across the sandy floor. From the hole, divers will be guided up one of the sides and cross a vast and beautiful meadow of sea fans gently moving with the powerful surge. It is very common to stumble across groups of multiple large green sea turtles resting among the soft corals and fans and most divers don’t leave the water without seening at least 20 or more turtles! Once divers reach the reef drop off, the scenery changes to enormous 8m (24ft) tall hard coral towers, big barrel sponges, and huge stove-pipe sponges longer than a person. As difficult as it is to turn attention away from the reefside filled with turtles, giant green morays, lobsters, eels and other numerous critters, divers will usually be heavily rewarded by a glance out into the blue where passing spotted eagle rays and oceanic triggerfish are the norm, and even manta rays and ocean sunfish have been spotted.
The reward for braving the wild side of the island more than pays off when you visit the White Hole!
11. The Forest
Bonaire is best known for its shore diving, but to take a day or two to hop on a 10 minute boat ride to the small uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire is a must-do during any visit.
More than worth the visit, the reef surrounding the island is in fantastic shape since diving here is a bit more limited. Of these sites, The Forest stands out with beautiful healthy soft corals and was so aptly named due to the abundance of black coral that grows at this particular corner of the island. The bright sandy shallows welcome turtles and eagle rays. And there are even two friendly resident French angel fish who, having been fed by boats in the past, have never given up their hopes that someone will toss a scrap or two their way (though this is strictly prohibited by the Bonaire Marine Park)! Divers looking out to the blue will also likely see schools of barracuda and black durgon (triggerfish).
Map of The Dive Sites in Bonaire
If you are a scuba diver I highly recommend adding Bonaire to your list. And if you end up traveling here make sure your trip is long enough to at least unclude several of these best dive sites in Bonaire!
This is a map of all of the dive sites in Bonaire’s National Marine Park created by national parks foundation STINAPA
Location of the 11 best dive sites in Bonaire on the map:
09 – Karpata
11 – Rappel
26 – Cliff
30 – Bari’s Reef
32 – Something Special
43 – Hilma Hooker
49 – Salt Pier
55 – Margate Bay
61 – Willemstoren Lighthouse
62 – White Hole/Turtle City (East Coast)
N – Forest (Klein Bonaire)
Are you thinking about visiting the Caribbean?
Also read my other articles about traveling in the Caribbean. And my article about why you should go on a liveaboard dive trip to the Similan Islands in Thailand.
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