Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Jack Jackson
THE ISLANDS OF ARUBA, BONAIRE AND CURAÇAO are outside the hurricane belt so they are all-year-round destinations. None of the diving operators on Aruba allow solo diving, but the Habitat Resorts on Bonaire and Curaçao do, and diving packages mix boat dives with unlimited shore dives. In the autumn, coral spawning is a big event on all three islands. Hurricane Lenny passed well to the north of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) in November 1999, but generated wave surges that caused rough seas on their normally sheltered south and west facing coasts. Apart from boat and jetty damage, Aruba lost some beach sand and Bonaire suffered damage to low-lying buildings fronting the sea. Some dive sites on Klein Bonaire lost their moorings. The damage has since then been repaired and corals in less than 6m (20ft) of water are now piled up to create ideal shelter for many juvenile species. Divemasters have reported a considerable increase in the marine life of these areas.
Aruba has the best beaches and is the most Americanized of the Dutch Antilles. The island has plenty of other activities and is ideal for non-diving partners or family. The reefs on the leeward (southern) coast mainly slope gently from 5m (15ft) to 18m (60ft) and then drop off at an angle of 40-60° to a sandy seabed with coral heads at 30-40m (100-130ft). The west coast is flatter and, except for Malmok Reef, ranges from 11m (35ft) to 18m (60ft). Diving operators often have their own names for sites.
Aruba has a number of conservation and cleanup programmes, mooring buoys and a marine park. Some divers avoid the peak cruise ship months of December and January when the most popular sites become crowded.
Southeast of the lighthouse, the California wreck 1 rises to 9m (30ft) and is surrounded by large coral formations and an abundance of reef fish including Goliath Groupers (Epinephelus itajara), barracuda and the occasional shark. However, it is located in the choppy seas and strong currents of the island’s windward side, so it is not suitable for novices.
Off Arashi Beach, Arashi Airplane 2 has a twin-engined Beechcraft sitting in 10m (33ft) of water. Its propellers have fallen off, but the passenger cabin is full of shoaling fish. Sergeant Majors, jacks, goatfish, grunts, angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish and pufferfish swim around the outside.
The 120m (400ft) German freighter Antilla 3 requires several dives. She was scuttled off Malmok Beach in 1940 and lies in 18m (60ft) of water, listing to port, with part of her starboard side above water. The hull is festooned with invertebrates and the fish life includes Sergeant Majors, parrotfish, moray eels, Trumpetfish, snappers, Queen Angelfish, groupers and many species of shoaling fish. The oil tanker Pedernales 4 was torpedoed off Hadicurari Beach in 1942 and what remains of her lies in several large pieces at 8m (25ft).
Off Oranjestad harbour 5, the slope gradually drops from 12m (40ft) to 30m (100ft) past heads of Brain Corals, sponges and gorgonias with Green Moray Eels, French Angelfish, Spotted Eagle Rays, stingrays, sea horses and an old pilot boat. Sonesta Airplane 6, a Convair-400, sits upright in 15m (50ft) of water off Sonesta Island. The doors and most of the interior were removed so the aircraft is easy to penetrate and the propellers are still attached to the engines. The site begins around 5m (16ft) and the reef continues down to 30m (100ft).
East of Skalahein 7 is the spectacular wreck of the 75m (250ft) freighter Jane Sea 8, which was deliberately sunk as an artificial reef. Sitting upright with the propeller at 29m (95ft), there is plenty of colour, Orange Tubastrea Cup Corals, Fire Coral and red and pink encrusting sponges are found on the hull and Black Corals on her port side. The wreck attracts shoaling fish, while Brain Corals and Gorgonian Sea Fans can be found around her. De Palm Slope 9, off De Palm Island is a good shore dive from 5m (16ft) to deep water. Mike’s Reef 11, southeast of The Fingers 10 is one of the best reef dives in Aruba. A rock garden beginning at 8m (25ft) and descending to 27m (90ft), it is dominated by Brain Corals, Star Corals and Gorgonian Sea Fans and colourful sponges. Its varied fish life includes Rainbow Runners. Mangel Halto Reef 12 slopes steeply from 5m (15ft) down to 34m (110ft) and has sea horses. Porto (Pos) Chiquito 13 is a pretty shore dive of great diversity down to 25m (80ft). Once called Snapper City, there are countless fish. Easily accessible from shore, it is regularly used for night diving and is popular for observing coral spawning in September and October.
Isla Di Oro Reef 14, off Saveneta, is similar to Mangel Halto. Commandeurs Reef 15 slopes from 12m (40ft) into the depths with Leaf and Sheet coral and rich fish life. Lago Reef 16 is one of Aruba’s deepest dive sites with beautiful coral formations, Gorgonian Sea Fans, sponges, sea anemones and abundant crustacean and fish life down to 37m (120ft). Indian Head 17 is named after a large coral formation resembling a head.
The Cross 18 has good coral heads and an assortment of Gorgonian Sea Rods, Sea Whips and Sea Fans and bountiful fish life down to 18m (60ft). The site has a 3m (10ft) memorial embedded in the seabed. Baby Beach 19slopes from 6m (20ft) to 18m (60ft) with large formations of Elkhorn Coral and Sheet Coral making good hiding places for crabs, lobsters and octopuses. South of Colorado Point, Cabez Reef 20 has rough seas with strong currents. For experienced divers there are amberjack, barracuda and Rainbow Runners as well as many species of reef fish.
Natural Bridge 21, off the largest of the natural bridges near Bushiribana, can be dived during calm weather on the windward side of the island by advanced divers. Descending to 33m (110ft), there are huge boulders and large formations of Fire, Brain and Star Coral, Black Coral, Gorgonian Sea Fans, Sea Rods and Sea Whips and large Barrel Sponges.
THE TERMS LEEWARD AND WINDWARD - WHEN REFERRING TO THE ABC ISLANDS
The expressions ‘leeward’ and ‘windward’ began as geographical terms among sailors describing the position of islands in relation to European ships’ usual point of arrival in the Caribbean - around Dominica or Martinique. Later the terms became political within the old British Empire and are still in regular use - placing Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten (the southern part of Saint Martin) in the Leeward Islands.
However, there is confusion about which islands are in the Leeward group and which are in the Windward group when applied to the Dutch (Netherlands) Antilles. The local population refer to Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao as the (Dutch) Leeward Islands and the three islands to the north - Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten - as the (Dutch) Windward Islands.
Bonaire vies with Grand Cayman and Cozumel as the top Caribbean destination for American divers and is a world leader in the preservation of underwater resources. The whole island is a protected marine park. Two areas have been designated marine reserves where no diving is allowed: north from Boca Kayon to Boca Slagbaai, and west of Karpata. Lac Bay is protected because of its mangroves and sea-grass beds. Heavily dived sites are closed off sporadically to allow recovery. Divers must attend an orientation session and purchase a Marine Park Tag before diving on Bonaire. This tag is valid for one year and is not transferable. Mainland Bonaire has a system of well-marked roads with yellow-painted rocks marking the access points for shore-dive sites. Boat dives are also organized several times a day to all the popular sites and this is the only way to dive the sites of Klein Bonaire.
The cabin of the Arashi Airplane wreck (a Beechcraft) on Aruba is a haven for mixed shoals of fish, mainly Schoolmaster Snappers and French Grunts.
A winch on Aruba’s Jane Sea wreck. It is colourful with Orange Cup Corals Fire Corals, sponges and shoals of Sergeant Majors.
Brown or Yellow-edge Chromis (Chromis multilineata) on Aruba’s Antilla wreck. The dorsal fin and the tail are edged in yellow.
Most Bonaire diving takes place on the leeward southern and western coasts. The coastline consists of coral rubble or sand beaches down to a drop-off from 5-12m (16-40ft) to more than 40m (130ft). In the centre of the southern section, between Punt Vierkant and Salt Pier, there is a double-reef system referred to as the Alice in Wonderland 42 double-reef complex. The reef slope is at a shallow angle and descends to a sandy channel at 20-30m (65-100ft), then there is a second reef on the other side. On Klein Bonaire, buttresses and steep reef slopes are dominant. On the windward, east side of the island there is a shelf and then a drop-off 12m (40ft) from the shore, this descends to a coral shelf at 30m (100ft) and then drops down to the ocean floor. The sea here is rough for most of the year, but often calms down in October or November.
One of the most popular dives on Bonaire is under the town pier in the capital, Kralendijk. For safety reasons due to shipping movements, permission is required.
Most of Bonaire’s sites are on the sheltered south and west coasts. The shallow reef flat is thick with Elkhorn, Star, Fire and Staghorn Coral, Gorgonian Sea Fans, Sea Rods and Sea Whips with nudibranchs, sea horses, Peacock Flounders, angelfish, butterflyfish, goatfish, Trumpetfish, pufferfish, Black Durgon and Spanish Hogfish. The drop-offs have Brain and Star Coral, Elephant Ear, Barrel and Tube Sponges, groupers, grunts, trunkfish, wrasse, snappers and parrotfish with pelagics deeper down. Tubastrea Coral grows in the shade.
Located along the northwest coast of Washington Slagbaai Park, Playa Bengé 22 has strong currents. A classic example of spur and groove formations, the shallows have Star and Staghorn Corals, Blade Fire Coral and large Gorgonian Sea Fans. The drop-off is a long swim out to 40m (130ft) and has Tiger Groupers and stingrays. Just north of the no diving reserve, Boca Slagbaai 23 has six concrete replicas of cannons buried for the film Shark Treasure. There are barracuda, Tarpon, Whitespotted Filefish and shoals of Palometa. At the southern end of the cove, there are two real cannons in 3m (10ft) of water. The drop-off begins at 12m (40ft) and drops to 40m (130ft) with Horse-eye Jacks, Tiger Groupers and Schoolmaster Snappers.
Just north of Kralendijk and off the national parks foundation, STINAPA Bonaire (Stichting Nationale Parken), Karpata 24 spur and groove formations from 10m (33ft) down to sand at 30m (100ft). Heading east, exploring the drop-off, divers will find several large anchors and great marine life. La Dania’s Leap 25 is one of Bonaire’s few vertical walls, with numerous canyons and sand shoots. Off Devil’s Mouth, Rappel 26 is one of the best dives on Bonaire with large gorgonias and Star Corals and an abundance of nudibranchs in the shallows. There is a cave sheltering large groupers 73m (240ft) south of the mooring. Ol’ Blue 27 lies just off a long coral beach, west of 1000 Steps 28. A shelf at 6m (20ft) extends seaward for 90m (300ft), covered with rich marine life. The drop-off descends from 10m (33ft) to sand at 45m (150ft). In front of the southernmost of the Radio Netherlands transmitter pylons, 1000 Steps has a gentle slope to 10m (33ft) with stony corals and gorgonias. A steeper drop-off then descends to 40m (130ft) with shoals of Schoolmaster Snappers. Hawksbill Turtles, Manta Rays, dolphins and a Whale Shark have been seen. Originally called Witches Hut, Weber’s Joy 29 is a favourite with underwater photographers. The shallow reef shelf drops off from 13m (40ft) to 40m (130ft) with healthy corals and fish life.
Barcadera 30, opposite the Bonaire Marine Park Headquarters, Andrea II 31, just north past the desalination plant, Andrea I 32 and Petrie’s Pillar 33, are good dives for novices. At Cliff 34, in front of the Hamlet Villas, north of Captain Don’s Habitat, a channel runs through Elkhorn Coral onto a shelf with gorgonias and stony corals. The drop-off descends as a short wall from 9m (30ft) to 22m (70ft) then slopes to sand at 40m (130ft) with abundant fish life. The house reef at Captain Don’s Habitat is called La Machaca 35 after the wreck of a fishing boat. Most of the reef fish encountered on Bonaire can be found here, including Bigeyes and Tarpon.
Kralendijk Town (North) Pier 36 is only 9m (30ft) deep and the pier’s stanchions are home to a rich world of small invertebrate life and other creatures seeking shelter or a meal. The fish life includes juvenile French Angelfish, Frogfish, drums and soapfish.
Calabas Reef 37 is another good site with prolific marine life including Creole Wrasse. The drop-off starts at 9m (30ft) and slopes down to 27m (90ft). Lighthouse Point 38, off Punt Vierkant Lighthouse, has a sandy sloping bottom rather than a drop-off. There are lots of Gorgonian Sea Rods, Sea Whips and Sea Plumes together with Staghorn and Star Corals and great fish life down to 30m (100ft). Punt Vierkant 39, north of the Trans World Radio transmitting pylons, marks the start of the double-reef system, part of the Alice in Wonderland complex. Almost everything is found on the many dive sites here.
The 72m (235ft) freighter Hilma Hooker 40 was caught carrying marijuana and deliberately sunk north of Angel City 41 in 1984. She now rests at the bottom of the reef slope on her starboard side at 30m (100ft), the highest point of the vessel is at 18m (60ft). Salt Pier 43, the salt loading pier, is like Town Pier with the stanchions covered in coral and sponge growth and acting as shelter for many juveniles. South of it, Salt City 44 is still part of the double-reef system with stony corals, Palometa, Sand Tilefish, Garden Eels and, occasionally, Eagle Rays and turtles.
Turtles are seen regularly south of Salt Pier. The water gets rougher and the currents stronger on approaching the southern tip of the island and losing the shelter from the wind. Off the more southerly group of slave huts, Red Slave 45 is only recommended for advanced divers, the fish life is abundant and includes Nassau groupers and large pelagics.
Massive Orange Elephant Ear Sponges (Agelas clathrodes) can grow to 2m (6½ft). The fish is a Dusky Damselfish (Stegastes fuscus).
A shoal of Smallmouth Grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) find shelter among the stanchions of Kralendijk’s Town Pier in Bonaire.
Klein Bonaire’s sites are treated as boat dives, although many are close to shore if you are already on the island. Most sites are good for snorkelling. Many of them are similar with small differences in topography and fish life according to the substrates and currents.
Sampler 46 is the most northerly dive of Klein Bonaire. The shallows are mostly sand with patches of finger, Brain and Mustard Hill Corals, together with parrotfish, French Angelfish and snappers. The drop-off begins at 12m (40ft) with gorgonias, sponges, stony corals, Spotted Moray Eels, Trumpetfish, cowfish, Whitespotted Filefish, soldierfish, squirrelfish and jacks down to 40m (130ft). Heading west, Knife 47 and Leonora’s Reef 48 have Elkhorn Coral in the shallows, Yellowfin Mojarras, Bermuda Chubs and Yellowhead Jawfish.
The dive sites around the southwest corner of Klein Bonaire are as good as any in the Caribbean. Ebo’s Special 49 is a microcosm of all that is good in Bonaire’s diving. The drop-off begins at 8m (25ft) and slopes into the depths. The slope is overgrown with gorgonias, sponges and Black Corals and it harbours countless fish. Carl’s Hill 50, at the northwest tip, has a wall down to a sandy bottom at 22m (70ft) before sloping off to 45m (150ft). The shallows have Elkhorn and Pillar Coral and prolific fish life, including shoals of Blue Tangs. Carl’s Hill Annex 51 also has sea horses. Mi Dushi 52 has abundant fish life. Valerie’s Hill 53 has numerous sponges and Black Corals. Near the lighthouse, divers can experience problems with currents, but they are not as strong as those at Munks Haven or Southwest Corner. Rich stony and gorgonian coral growth mark the shallow shelf. The drop-off has undercut Star Corals forming mushroom-like shapes and it harbours many species of fish, including Goliath Groupers. Twixt 54, Munk’s Haven 55 and Southwest Corner 56 have similar Staghorn and Star Coral interspersed with gorgonias and sponges in strong currents. The drop-off slopes steeply from 12m (40ft) down to sand at 37m (120ft), with countless fish. Forest 57 and South Bay 58 are similar dives. Joanne’s Sunchi 59 has sand chutes, large tube sponges and good fish life. Bonaventure 60 has both Lined and Longsnout Sea Horses. Nearest Point 61 has lush gorgonian growth on the sand. The drop-off begins at 13m (40ft) with Black Corals and abundant fish life in deeper water. The dive sites nearest the mainland shore are the most sheltered and have large stony corals.
SHORE DIVING AND THEFT
Dive operators can organize suitable vehicles for shore diving. Some operators have their own or are in a position to arrange a 10 per cent discount. Double-cab pickup trucks are the preferred vehicles. Divers should remember to take with them only what they need in the water. It is not advisable to leave valuables in an unattended vehicle while diving. Some shore dives on Curaçao are accessed from private property and in these instances there is a small charge for entry.
A day boat on a fixed mooring above Giant Slit-Pore Sea Rods (Plexaurella nutans). They grow tall with thick stalks and very little branching.
The most European of the three islands, Curaçao has more variety above and below water. Willemstad, with its colonial architecture, Christoffel National Park, restaurants, casinos and variety of water sports will occupy non-diving companions.
Curaçao is much larger than Aruba and Bonaire, so the diving operators outside Willemstad tend to be spread along the leeward coast and only dive on the sites that are within a 15-minute boat ride of their jetties. Divers who wish to dive further afield can hire a vehicle for a shore dive.
The typical fringing reef is a shallow reef shelf in 5-12m (16-40ft) of water, a drop-off with a 45° slope or less, and then sand shelving into the deep. The reef is steeper at sites in the middle and east of the island. Shore diving is better in the north, while in the south the drop-offs are steeper with depths of 40m (130ft) and usually less than 150m (500ft) from the shore. Coral diversity is high with some 50 hermatypic species recorded.
The entire western side of the island, from Noordpunt (North Point) to Oostpunt (East Point), is one large dive site. The stretch from West Point to the Light Tower on Cape Saint Marie is called Bando Abao Underwater Park and that from Bullen Bay to the Princess Beach Hotel is called Central Curaçao Underwater Park. These are unofficial parks, but the stretch from Princess Beach to East Point has been declared the Curaçao Underwater Park.
A diver surveys the massive Boulder Star Corals (Monastrea annularis) at Curaçao’s Watamula dive site. It vies with Mushroom Forest as the finest site off Curaçao.
A diver looks into the wheelhouse of the wreck of the Superior Producer. The inside of the wheelhouse, shaded like a cavern, is covered in bright Orange Cup Corals (Tubastrea coccinea).
Conditions at the northwestern sites are calm. The southeast has less shelter from rough seas and currents, but sites may be calmer in the early morning. The major shore sites are marked with numbered white stones, similar to the yellow ones on Bonaire.
The reefs on Curaçao see fewer divers and have slightly more variation in topography than those on Bonaire, but the organisms encountered are much the same. Bluespotted Cornetfish are more common in the shallows. The drop-offs begin at 5-12m (16-40ft) and descend below 40m (130ft). Deeper down, the stony corals, sponges and gorgonias become denser and shelter a multitude of invertebrates including lobsters, Banded Coral Shrimps and Christmas Tree Worms.
When conditions are good, Watamula 62 is Curaçao’s finest reef dive. It is similar to Mushroom Forest, but even more lush and overgrown. The seabed is a gentle slope covered in Star and Brain Corals, gorgonias, anemones and vase, basket and tube sponges that shelter a multitude of fish and invertebrates. Depths are below 40m (130ft).
At Westpunt Playa Kalki 63 is also called Alice in Wonderland. The bottom slopes gradually, and from 9m (30ft) it resembles rolling hills covered in coral. There are gorgonias and Star Coral at about 18m (60ft) and Plate Coral below 30m (100ft). Near Landhuis Jeremi, Playa Jeremi 64 offers easy shore diving, protected from most of the weather and ideal for night diving. Flying Gurnards are found on the seabed at 5m (16ft).
Playa Lagun 65 is one of the island’s top dives. There are several small caves and a 45° drop-off at 10m (30ft), which descends to a second drop-off at 45m (150ft) with profuse marine life. Off the point south of Santu Pretu66, Mushroom Forest and The Cave 67 vie with Watamula as the island’s top dive site. It is named after the many large heads of Star Coral that have been eroded at their base to turn into mushroom shapes. There is a drop-off, but the main interest is on the inshore shelf at 12-15m (40-50ft), where the coral heads are a riot of colour from encrusting marine life. The animals include turtles and Nurse Sharks. Directly inshore, The Cave is 6m (20ft) deep with a huge entrance. Shoals of sweepers dash around, Tubastrea Cup Corals encrust the roof and slipper lobsters crawl around.
Off San Nicolas, Rediho 68 and Black Coral Garden 69 have no shelter, so conditions can be rough. The steep drop-off begins at 12m (40ft) and descends below sport diving depths. There is a colossal Black Coral forest and profuse fish life. Turtles are common while Manta Rays and Whale Sharks have been seen. Lower House 70 has a rich slope from 9m (30ft) to sand at 40m (130ft). Lobsters and Spotted Drums are common. At Port Marie Beach, The Valley 71 is another of the island’s top sites - two healthy parallel reefs, with a valley in between, which are home to a variety of reef life, including Nurse Sharks. Off Habitat Curaçao, Saint Marie (Rif) 72 is another top dive with abundant marine life.
Either side of Cape Saint Marie, Light Tower 73 and Seldom 74 are for advanced divers. The drop-off is a steep slope from 7m (23ft), with strong currents giving healthy marine life, including a shoal of barracuda.
South of Snake Bay 75, Kaap (Cape) Mal Meeuw 76 can be rough, but the currents along the wall produce healthy marine life. Off Blue Bay 77, The Wall 78 falls off steeply from 9m (30ft) into the depths with Sheet Coral, Black Coral, gorgonias, turtles and Eagle Rays. Piscadera Playa Largu 79 is a popular spot to see sponges spawning in September and October.
Just west of the harbour entrance, the wreck of the Superior Producer 80 sits upright on sand at 34m (110ft). Parts of the hull and the interior of the wheelhouse are carpeted with Orange Tubastrea Cup Corals and colourful encrusting sponges.
There are several top dives off Jan Thiel. Sandy’s Plateau 81 and Boca di Sorsaka 82 have dense coral growth and prolific fish life. At Caracas Bay, Kabes Di Baranka 83 and Caracas Bay Lost Anchor 84 have a wall descending to a ledge at 33m (110ft) before shelving into deeper water with lots of pelagic species. Tugboat 85 is a wreck small enough to be photographed as a whole. There is a 45° sloping drop-off from 9m (30ft). Offshore Fuik Bay, Kathy’s Paradise 86 and Smokey (Punt’i Sanchi) 87 have strong currents.
There are a number of spectacular sites approaching the East Point (Punt Kanon) that are exposed, with strong currents, but worth the effort by experienced divers. No Way 88 has an old Spanish cannon at 3m (10ft). The tiny uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao, almost two hours southeast of Curaçao has more top sites.
The islands of St John in the US Virgin Islands and Tortola in the BVI in the background are separated by a narrow channel.
The group of rocks known as the Indians in Sir Francis Drake Channel has shallow diving, but can only be reached by boat.