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Bonaire: Fantasy Island, For Real!

For most visitors, a trip to the Caribbean island of Bonaire is all about the diving, but the culture Bonaire is building - both in and out of the water - deserves some attention, too.
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For most visitors, a trip to the Caribbean island of Bonaire is all about the diving, but the culture Bonaire is building - both in and out of the water - deserves some attention, too. The people of this tiny island appear to have incorporated a passion for sustainability into their everyday life, and some have managed to make their everyday lives look like a dream come true.

Almost anywhere along the shores of Bonaire, people wearing scuba tanks and masks can walk into the Caribbean and jump off a 70-foot underwater cliff into a coral-habitat of extraordinary beauty. In fact, the entire island, 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is a National Marine Park, protected by law and custom to make sure the reefs and fish will be there for the next wave of tourists, and the next.

Considering that tourism is the number one industry of Bonaire, conservation is a matter of survival. Anyone who gets in the water has to pay a park fee -- $10 for swimmers; $25 for divers -- and gets a license/tag to wear when getting wet. Everyone attends an orientation and learns the Number One Rule: Don't Touch Anything. Wearing dive gloves is forbidden, just to make sure no one forgets.

Other than that, nature has provided a divers' paradise, and the inhabitants of the island work hard to make sure that everything seems easy. The biggest dive operation on the island, Buddy Dive, has even set up a drive-through pick-up/drop-off for air tanks. If you are new to the sport, they can arrange for you to get certified while enjoying the scenery - fish, eels, turtles, coral, and more.

Rebuilding The Coral Reef

The island is so environment-conscious, the effort to save the island habitat has gone beyond conservation to restoration. The staghorn and elkhorn coral, which grow in the shallow waters off shore, were destroyed years ago by hurricanes and disease. Left on its own, it would take Nature a very long time to replace what was lost, so the local dive community decided to help.

Joining forces with the Coral Restoration Foundation in 2012, Buddy Dive began creating a coral nursery and farm. By pruning and splicing pieces of coral together on frames, like hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree, divers are able to build replacement coral reefs. It's a painstaking process, but it is clearly being done with love and devotion.

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Buddy Dive has even created a PADI specialty, so divers can get certified in coral restoration. The initial funding came from a voluntary, dollar/day "tax" on visiting divers, collected by the dive shops. Since then, other people and organizations have joined in the effort to rebuild the shallow coral reef, and some early progress is already apparent.

Ironically, Bonaire, the water resort, is really a desert island, with a landscape that resembles the Old West. Only a few miles inland, dusty trails, cactus, and wild animals (goats & donkeys) are the main décor of the island. The scene cries out for horseback riders, and Rancho Washikemba is ready to answer the call.

The horses of Rancho Washikemba are beautiful and come from a variety of backgrounds - jumpers, racers, quarter horses. Now, they patiently carry tourists with a range of riding skills. The owners of the facility, Bregje Zijlstra and Marc van Breen, are from Holland. (Bonaire is in the Netherland Antilles.) He was in the hospitality industry. She ran a modeling agency. When they came to Bonaire to launch Rancho Washikemba, they did what many of the residents of the island appear to have done: they followed their dreams.

Bonaire: Where Dreams Come True

It's a common story in Bonaire. A dive master who left his banking job in Columbia to find a better life and never looked back. A Dutch couple who were ready for a new adventure bought a sailboat on the internet and, without any experience at all, flew to Bonaire to start a charter boat business. A man who decided that, with all the cactus on the island, someone should open a distillery and make a liqueur out of it -- so he did!

Once they get to Bonaire, those who stay seem to appreciate the fragility of what they have found and want to make sure it survives. The head chef and owner of Capriccio, Andrea Magni, speaks of his community with pride as he goes from table to table, chatting with his diners. He talks about how everyone on the island must pull together, as he tells the story of where he gets his vegetables.

Vegetables are in short supply on a desert island. The bulk of them must be shipped in containers loaded onto a freighter. This, for Magni, however, is only a last resort. Instead, he buys as much fresh produce as he can from an island project designed to help rehabilitate drug abusers. They plant, water, tend, and harvest. Then, Magni buys whatever he can from them, and his customers reap the benefits.

Protecting Coral With Fork and Knife

These are the people who give Bonaire its unique flavor and make it more than a tourist destination. Bonaire is an experiment in sustainability, and the residents seem to have found a way to make it work. Without overselling the point, Bonaire has incorporated its successes into each tourists' visit, by promoting the consumption of lionfish.

The lionfish is a beautiful, though poisonous, fish that doesn't belong in the waters of Bonaire. Scientists say this invasive species arrived in the Atlantic and Caribbean when Florida pet owners put them there. Now, with no predators and a tremendous reproductive rate, lionfish threaten to destroy the coral reefs by eating them!

Bonaire has met the challenge with a simple solution - encourage people to eat lionfish. On a typical night, waiters explain the situation to the customers as they describe the whitefish as part of the daily specials. At Ingridients, for example, the menu includes lionfish as an appetizer, a soup, and a main course.

For the visitor, it's a meal. For the island, it's a calculated effort to maintain the ecological balance of the island. And the fact that it can be both, seamlessly, is another indication that something special is going on in Bonaire.

Photographs ©Lisa TE Sonne,

Victor Dorff was a guest of Bonaire Tourism for a portion of the time he was on the island.