Bonaire: Diver's paradise - with flamingos

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KRALENDIJK, Bonaire --- On a slow ascent to the surface of the water from 60 feet down, the dive master spots something along the reef and extends her hand with all five fingers wiggling excitedly. It's a signal that can only mean one thing: octopus!

Scuttling around coral, the octopus quickly scrunches up into an eight-armed torpedo and squirts away. Soon, it stops to unfold itself on a sandy patch of the reef -- almost as if to pose the best side of its bulbous, mushy head. Then, it camouflages into the seascape right before our eyes.

It's a surprise to see how quickly the shape-shifter fades into the reef's backdrop. But surprises tend to be the norm in this unique marine park, which has a plentiful array of coral, fish and sea creatures. It doesn't take many dives to find validation in the words on vehicle license plates back on land, dubbing Bonaire "Diver's Paradise."

With more than 350 species of fish on a reef that circles the 111-square-mile island, divers tend to focus on making the most of water visibility that can extend to about 100 feet in mostly calm waters.

The predominant recreational activity often requires the silent communication of hand signals, and it's a quiet that's also often present on land. Bonaire lacks loud discos, and there's little demand for 2 a.m. last calls.

The island offers some nightlife with waterside restaurants, a small casino with $5 minimum blackjack, and bars with acoustic guitar players. The bright lights you'll see at night will most likely be coming from underwater, though, as divers search for small nocturnal sea creatures near shore.

Still, beyond diving and snorkeling, this island 50 miles north of Venezuela has plenty of other activities to enjoy while decompressing for the next dive, or even if you don't dive at all.

Bonaire, which, along with Aruba and Curacao, is part of the Netherlands Antilles, also offers big opportunities for sport fishing. Tuna, marlin and tarpon are among common targets, while fresh wahoo often is advertised on boards outside of restaurants.

The island also is famous for its bonefish, a favorite game fish known for testing anglers with its fight. The island holds several fishing tournaments throughout the year.

Steady winds cool down the hot and sunny afternoons and create excellent windsurfing conditions. The shape of the island is known for shifting the winds into different strengths, creating optimum conditions for both the new and experienced windsurfer.

Kayaking trips are an option. Several dive lodges offer courses, including a full certification course for ocean kayaking. Kayakers can take a more relaxing trip through the island's mangrove forests. The island's Lac Bay area includes four species of mangrove trees, and some guides provide time for snorkeling in the clear waters.

Bird-watching is another island highlight, particularly for flamingos who breed here. Though weather and migration patterns dictate their numbers, the pink stilt-legged birds can outnumber the human population of about 14,000.

Lake Gotomeer in the northern part of the island is a flamingo sanctuary, and a road around one side of the lake allows a close look. But it's best to keep your distance or the birds tend to fly away.

The lake is in Washington Slagbaai National Park, where parrots and parakeets also can be found. The park also showcases the tropical desert environment common to the island with tall, thin cacti and iguanas, who sometimes end up in soup back in the capital.

Bonaire is unique for its shore diving, because the reef begins a short distance from land, descending at about a 45-degree angle to about 130 feet. The island has more than 50 easily accessible shore diving sites, marked along roads with yellow-painted stones. Pickups can be rented to drive to sites on your own. Divers can even find drive-through tank service for compressed air refills.

Besides the fish and coral, large creatures also can be found, including sea turtles and sting rays.

Many hotels along the water heavily cater to divers. Captain Don's Habitat, founded in 1976 by Don Stewart, is a diver's Xanadu, offering diving excursions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The habitat provides just about anything a diver could need, short of gills. The resort also is known for using low-impact construction methods and a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system.

p class="notebox-hed">IF YOU GO

BONAIRE: www.tourismbonaire.com. High season is Dec. 15-April 14. Departures include service from Miami, Newark, JFK, Houston and Amsterdam, though some flights are offered on a weekly basis or only during peak winter season.

CAPTAIN DON'S HABITAT: www.habitatbonaire.com/ or (800) 327-6709.

SAMPLE RATES: $29 for shore diving (covers equipment), $50 for a boat dive, $15 for snorkel or boat ride, $47 for guided cave snorkel tour.


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