“Now, turn off your lights, kick your legs and look down.”
It’s approaching midnight when the dive guide gives this command to the 15 snorkellers floating five kilometres off the west coast of Bonaire.
If they were on land, they might have already retired for the night, along with the others who come to this tiny island, a special municipality of the Netherlands in the Caribbean about 80 kilometres north of Venezuela, to loll in the sun and experience some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world. But here they are, their waterproof flashlights dots of bobbing light on a patch of ink-black sea, ready to prove that no wild place really ever goes to sleep.
The lights switch off and 30 legs begin to kick, at first tentatively then more vigorously. In response, thousands of crustaceans called ostracods explode with bioluminescence, transforming the water into a shimmering canvas rivalling that of the star-strewn sky above.
When the spectacle is over, the snorkellers clamber aboard the dive boat and motor back toward Kralendijk, Bonaire’s capital and the site of its first dive operation, which opened in 1962, effectively heralding the beginning of tourism on the island. The diving industry grew slowly at first but began to boom in the 1980s, fuelling the proliferation of shops, bars, restaurants and resorts that today line a good portion of Bonaire’s west coast, from which most tourists tend not to wander.
Yet behind Kralendijk’s bubblegum-bright aesthetic and away from the beaches and dive sites of this leeward side lies a lesser known Bonaire, one filled with terrestrial exotica — feral donkeys, sweeping cactus-filled plains and towering pyramids of salt, to name but a few — that most wouldn’t associate with a Caribbean island. When paired with its marine treasures, these dry-land delights help make Bonaire a truly wild island that punches well above its weight in a region that’s packed with holiday-destination heavyweights.
Pick up the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel, on newsstands Sept. 24, to read Liz Beddall’s full story on Bonaire. Beddall travelled to and around the island with Sunwing Vacations, which in 2017 became the only airline to offer direct service to Bonaire from Canada. Sunwing did not review or approve this story.