Our first dive will be from the beach. We suit up and walk into the shallows, pull our dive-masks down, and plunge seaward.
The broken remains of past, vast Staghorn thickets were mounded on the beach and they carpet the shallows. Old-timers tell of thickets of Staghorn and Elkhorn so dense that in the 1950s people here used chains and clubs to smash paths through the coral thickets so they could get out to go diving.
I see precisely zero live Staghorn, zero live Elkhorn.
Yet this is, overall, the best place in the Caribbean to experience a “healthy” reef. That is to say, one that is still functioning as a coral reef and hasn’t gone over to the dark side of seaweed and gloomy shadow.
Past where those thickets once grew, the seafloor slopes to a rather narrow—but nice—band of reef sloping from about 20 to 50 feet deep. There’s a decent amount of live coral—covering about a quarter of the bottom. Coral boulders, brains, plates, and soft whips—.
On this island where since 1971 it’s been illegal to even possess a speargun, the fish on the reef are delightfully tame. Yellowtail Snappers, Bar Jacks, swim almost touchingly close. You can approach parrotfish easily; they’re as likely to turn towards you.
Over the slope swarm thousands of small fish—Brown and Blue Chromis; white-lipped Creole fish and platoons of Sergeant Majors—cloud the water in schools extending halfway to the surface, nipping invisible plankton from an imperceptibly gentle flow.
A coral reef may be the most amazing natural system on Earth. Forests and deserts are all wonderful, but a coral reef boasts one undisputed claim: it is the most flamboyant show in nature. Unlike a place that whispers its intimate secrets, a coral reef blares its razzle-dazzle pageantry. For newcomers, so much is so obvious so immediately. For experts, so much remains hidden for so long. It doesn’t come better than that.
Discus-shaped surgeonfishes rove the reef in herds of several dozen. When they descend to graze, they give close buzz-cuts to coral heads, nipping any soft filaments, causing ruckus enough to dust up the place. Trumpetfish follow them, hoping to pick off little swimming animals stirred from cover.
Of parrotfishes, eight kinds here are recognizable as adults—Stoplight, Queen, Striped, Redfin, Redband, Blue, Rainbow, Princess. The only juvenile I learn easily is the Queen, because my dive partner calls them “crack-heads” for their washed-out gray-and-white appearance and the dark circles under their eyes. The parrots scrape into the reef, chipping audibly, excreting lines of fine coral sand. They seem abundant. Damsels are super-abundant. Everywhere they’re chasing grazing fish from their little seaweed gardens.
Butterflyfishes flutter by like pennants in a stiff breeze. Angelfishes—French Angels, Queen Angels, and the superb Rock Beauty—cruise by arrayed in blues and golds.
They can take your breath away, but so can mere time; our air is limited.
I came to this last best place in the Caribbean to see a reef without obvious overfishing. I’m a little late. Old-timers say there were vastly more groupers and snappers—big ones—when they were young. They’re predators, so much easier to catch on a hook than parrotfish. Predatory fish eat, among other things, damselfish. And damselfish defend their gardens against other grazing fish. Damselfish grow seaweed. Fewer predators mean more damsels, which means more gardens, more seaweed. And people are starting to eat parrotfish—the main grazers of seaweed. Every coral reef in the world where seaweed got a foothold—has unraveled. No exceptions.
Bonaire’s government understands that luring tourists depends on Bonaire’s ability to boast the regions best reefs. But “best” doesn’t mean pristine, and Bonaire has not been offered cosmic immunity from the region’s problems. Bonaire was not spared the diseases that killed the Caribbean’s branching coral and grazing urchins. It’s been spared the plague of algae only because its fish populations were better protected and in better shape compared to the rest of the region. It’s not immune to overfishing.
The reefs need fish. Fortunately, Bonaire’s government is considering a ban on catching parrotfish and a ban on fish traps. If they’re going to act, the time is now—before Bonaire gets to be like the rest of the Caribbean.