Do we return to the place, or does the place return to us? Perhaps the interplay works both ways. It's appropriate, then, that this particular place is, when viewed from above, shaped like a boomerang—a fat, roughhewn boomerang frozen in midwhirl as it whips across the Spanish Main, seemingly on course for Venezuela some 50 miles to the south. A more immediate target, though, would appear to be a smaller island, uninhabited and shaped like a turtle's skull, that hangs suspended in the crook of the boomerang not half a mile distant.
Both islands are bleak, cactus- and coral-studded and stained at both ends by salt lagoons—stagnant or at best shallow tidal waters that spread like fever blisters across the arid landscape: sickly whites, liver-spot browns, inflammation pinks. There's none of the Caribbean travel-brochure lushness here; none of the piña colada, limbo-limbo, bareboat-to-paradise foofaraw that has turned most of the islands south of Miami and north of Caracas into bad imitations of a picture postcard.
Bonaire, which would seem to mean "good air" in some gentle Romance language, is even etymologically deceptive; the name of the boomerang-shaped island actually is a corruption of the Arawak Indian word for flat. (The air, however, is superb—the easterly trades blow year-round at a steady 10-15 knots, bringing in clear, warm air tinged with the healthy sting of sea salt. It's a far more salubrious atmosphere than that of neighboring Curacao, which along with Bonaire and Aruba comprise the leeward Netherlands Antilles, where the oil refineries deliver the homey reek of Bayway, N.J. and the Houston Ship Channel right into your cabana.) No, the real attraction of Bonaire and its skull-shaped satellite, Klein (little, in Dutch) Bonaire, lies beneath the surface. You can spot it right away from the airplane window as you sweep in to tiny Flamingo Airport. The water surrounding both islands is filled with the vibrant, variegated hues of immense coral reefs. There are all the colors of a Winslow Homer palette and then some—jades and apple greens, absinthe, chartreuse and viridian; blues new and old, dahlia and hyacinth, midnight and turquoise; purples that run the reef drop-offs through a shifting spectrum that ranges from amethystine through damson. A painter of seascapes could place his easel on top of Mount Brandaris—at 784 feet Bonaire's highest point—and paint the same scene for 20 years running without once repeating a color.
But it's what lies down there among those dazzling hues that brings upwards of 8,500 skin divers a year to Bonaire. The island, in effect, is a permanently anchored dive shop, 24 miles long by three to seven miles wide—a literal jumping-off point for the most easily accessible and varied diving vacation in the Caribbean, if not the world. Most of the tourists you see wandering the Dutch-flavored streets of the principal town of Kralendijk (Coral Dike), have the salt-leached, limber, frizzy-haired look of underwater types. They have permanent facemask imprints around their eyes and noses, and the mustaches of the men are shaved away for half an inch below the nostrils to permit a good seal. Coral cuts, bristle-worm rashes and limps courtesy of the odd sea urchin spine mark the clumsy or overeager, but for the most part divers are a healthy, hearty lot, as witnessed by the din that emanates nightly from the Flamingo's Nest, an outdoor bar at the island's busiest hotel, the Flamingo Beach.
Looking seaward from the Flamingo's Nest of an evening, you notice that the dark, inshore waters are illuminated from time to time with eerie subaquatic flashes and wandering beams of light. These aren't Unidentified Swimming Objects but rather the strobes and waterproof torches of night divers. Though the daylit waters off Bonaire teem with life, at night the reefs really begin to boogie: Sea urchins waltz across the coral; morays ooze from their hidey-holes; spiny lobsters stalk mechanically under the elkhorn and mountainous star corals. Now and then a great gleaming tarpon turns in a flashlight beam, its out-of-proportion scales shining like lost doubloons as it glides away.
Bonaire (pop. 9,300) is indeed a diver's Treasure Island. Its entire west coast, indented and notched with inlets, lies in the lee of the trade winds, as does most of Klein Bonaire, so it's rarely too rough to dive. The annual average air and water temperatures are 82° and 80°, respectively, making cumbersome full wet-suit diving unnecessary. Most of the 44 marked and named dive sites are within 15 or 20 minutes' run in a flattop—the outboard-powered, canopied catamarans that serve as dive boats—from Bonaire's five hotel-based dive shops. And each dive site is visually or ichthyologically different from the next. The fish here may not be as big and spooky as those of the Turks and Caicos reefs off Haiti, the coralline cliffs may be more modest than Grand Cayman's, the wrecks may be fewer than on Anegada in the British Virgins, but the variety of all these things is wider and wilder than anything east of the Tuamotus in Polynesia.
Since 1979, Bonaire—and Klein Bonaire—from the high tidemark to an offshore depth of 60 meters has been designated a marine park, one of the biggest in the world. The park project, bankrolled by the World Wildlife Fund and managed by the Netherlands Antilles National Parks Foundation (known locally by its Dutch acronym STINAPA), is dedicated to conserving and enhancing the fragile submarine ecosystem. Spearfishing was outlawed more than a decade ago. The removal from the reefs of shells, corals and sea fans, dead or alive, now is also forbidden. Divers are roundly chewed out for bumping, standing or even resting a weary fin on coral heads. Even anchoring a boat outside Kralendijk harbor is a sin: Anchors smash living coral, so 32 of Bonaire's dive sites are rigged with carefully placed mooring buoys.
As a result of these measures, Bonaire's fish are remarkably tame—almost dangerously so when divers are carrying food underwater for handouts. Yellow-tail snappers live up to their surnames at the merest whiff of tasty fish morsels; they swarm around in a feeding frenzy, and an ungloved diver must keep his fingers to himself or risk a raking chomp from sharp teeth. But even the most stringently enforced rules cannot prevent cyclical die-offs, especially among the corals. A few years ago, a plague of some sort hit Bonaire's staghorn coral, felling whole forests like a subaquatic Paul Bunyan gone berserk. But new life is already branching upward from the detritus of the old in a staghorn revival—good name for an underwater rock group?
Now Bonaire's long-spined sea urchins are suffering a similar devastation. The urchin plague has been moving from north to south through the Caribbean, defying the natural currents, and Eric Newton, a biologist who is director of the Bonaire Marine Park, wonders if the blight isn't being vectored in on the hulls of ships—a kind of hydrophilic herpes transmitted by the "love boats" that call regularly at the island or by the 500,000-ton supertankers that unload at the Bonaire Petroleum Corporation's super-port and storage facility at the island's north end.
"The urchins will return," intones Captain Don Stewart. "I've seen many a die-off since I came to this island, and whatever is dying, it has always come back." That pronouncement, uttered in tones as stentorian as those from a well-blown conch shell, comes as close to the Gospel according to St. Neptune as you'll find in Caribbean diving circles. Cap'n Don of Bonaire and his compeer in the hagiography of the depths, Bert Kilbride of the British Virgins (SI, Feb. 4, 1980), are to Caribbean scuba diving as the Wright brothers were to aviation or, some might say, as Harley and Davidson were to Hell's Angels.