The Dutch Antilles is made up of two groups of islands – the Leeward Islands and the Windward Islands. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are the three islands that make up the Leeward Islands and are also known as the ABCs. The ABCs lie north of Venezuela some 500 miles west of the Windward Islands.
The ABCs are flat, scrub-covered, windy islands. Curaçao and Bonaire are the islands most popular with divers, partly because it’s easy to dive independently whenever you like.
Originally populated by Carib and Arawak Indians, the ABC islands were ‘discovered’ by European explorers in the 1490s and subsequently colonised by Spain and the Netherlands. The European intrusion, as well as the influx of African slaves, has left little trace of the original inhabitants. The official language is Dutch, but it is not the main language, the ABC islanders speak Papiamento, a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch and some African languages (don’t worry, they also speak English). The Dutch Antilles guilder is the currency, but US dollars are accepted.
Aruba receives the bulk of the tourists, but Curaçao, with its very large port, is also a popular stop-off point for cruise ships. Aruba and Curaçao are renowned for their beautiful beaches, while Bonaire doesn’t have any notable beaches. Many resorts are adapted to the exacting standards of American visitors, so expect a high quality of accommodation. The islands are also particularly good for divers with families, as, like many small Caribbean islands, the dive sites are very close to shore, meaning you’re not away for long. Some resorts, such as Sand Dollar on Bonaire, have children’s clubs and babysitters.
Aruba is a popular holiday resort and not just for its diving. Many visitors go to the island for its excellent beaches and superb topside watersports such as sailing and windsurfing. The strong trade winds in the area make this an ideal destination for sailors.
That’s not to say that there is nothing for the diver. In fact, Aruba is one of the best spots in the Caribbean to go wreck diving. There are a number of ship and plane wrecks in the area, and with the Antilla – a German freighter that went down in 1940 – Aruba has one of the most popular wrecks in the Caribbean, which is covered with an array of wonderful tube sponges.
Dive sites tend to be concentrated around the south side of the island, and most of them are a short boat ride away – there is little scope for shore diving.
Most of the accommodation on Aruba is located on or near Palm Beach and the majority of dive boats leave from here or from the marina at Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital city.
In terms of marine life, don’t expect to see anything particularly large. Although manta rays are regular visitors and this is great spot for a number of different types of turtles, divers will be disappointed if they are in search of large pelagics. Expect to see a wide variety of Caribbean reef fish and large sponges in good. condition
It’s widely accepted that the diving in Aruba is not as good as that found in Bonaire, but balanced against that are the superb beaches and the wide variety of topside attractions.
Bonaire is all about diving. The sport is the island’s biggest industry and attracts some 30,000 divers every year. The reason that Bonaire has been so successful in attracting so many visitors lies in the fact that not only does it have some stunning dive sites with an abundance of marine life, but that a National Marine Park has been created. The marine park, which is 2,700 hectares in area, encompasses the fringing reefs that surround Bonaire.
Topside, Bonaire doesn’t have the beautiful beaches that characterise Aruba and is the least populated of the three islands, but the atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful and there are plenty of activities – such as yachting, fishing and windsurfing – to keep you occupied during surface intervals.
Both shore and boat diving are possible in Bonaire, with a wide range both in terms of difficulty and type. Reefs tend to start at the water’s edge and then shelve at a depth of 10m. Depending on the dive site, the shelves vary in width, being narrower to the north of the island and wider to the south. As with Aruba, this is an area for seeing macro marine life – seahorses and frogfish are photographers’ favourites – and there is a wide range of fish. Again, turtles are often seen and the quality of the soft corals is high. Although macro life is the order of the day, nurse sharks, rays and dolphins are sometimes seen and if you’re very lucky whale sharks make the occasional appearance.
Like Aruba, Curaçao sits in the shadow of sister island Bonaire in the diving stakes. Nevertheless this coral island, famous for the liqueur that shares its name, has plenty to offer the underwater tourist. Its dive sites are generally split into two categories: those with small, dainty coral and colourful fish life and those with fantastically large corals and sponge forests home to deeper-dwelling inhabitants. In guaranteed clear visibility and generally sheltered conditions you can enjoy the superb scenes from the Mushroom Forest, the Black Coral Garden and the wrecks of the Superior Producer and the Tug Boat. Currents can be strong in certain areas, but the northwestern side remains relatively calm. On the whole, it’s easy, accessible diving for all levels of experience. Marine life covers the usual Caribbean suspects, but unfortunately suffers the same population problems as the rest of the region. What you won’t find on the reefs is the big stuff – there’s very little chance that you will bump into any pelagics or any real concentration of fish life. However, in the last two years the island has been promoting coral conservation in a big way and things seem to be looking up. An extremely active group of conservationists on the island, Reef Care Curaçao, hosted the first-ever Caribbean Coral Reef Conservation Conference last year. It is promoting a real drive to create marine protected sites to preserve the reefs, increase the population and ultimately bring in more divers.
Heaven for macro photographers and anyone who likes to get a close look at smaller stuff, the Dutch Antilles is an excellent destination for studying spiny lobsters, southern stingrays, barracuda, jacks, parrotfish, French angelfish, turtles, scorpionfish and morays. Look even closer for banded coral shrimp, nudibranchs, flamingo-tongue shells and frogfish. Basketstars, octopus and large spider crabs catch the eye on night dives. Less frequently, tarpon can be seen anywhere in the area, and reef and nurse sharks have been known to put in the odd appearance.
NEED TO KNOW
When to go
The prime time to visit the islands is probably January to April. Having said that, visitors to the ABCs are unlikely to be disappointed at any time of year, due to the fairly constant climate and very light annual rainfall.
Coral spawning occurs in the September to October period: this event can be accurately predicted, as it is connected with certain phases of the moon. If you want to witness the coral spawning, check the dates with your chosen dive centre. However, it may affect underwater visibility, which will drop below its usual 20–35m range.
TYPES OF DIVES
The coral gardens to be found on the gentle slopes of Curaçao and Bonaire’s marine parks are particularly suited to a close examination of tiny Caribbean creatures. Knowing that you’re unlikely to spot large animals cruising by, means that you can concentrate on the sometimes weird and always wonderful reef creatures.
Curaçao and Aruba both have wrecks to dive, interesting both for their history and the marine life they encourage and shelter. The most notable of all the islands in the ABCs is the Antilla off Aruba.
WATER AND AIR TEMPERATURES
Diving is possible all year round, with air temperatures remaining fairly constant at 26–29°C, and water temperatures rarely dropping below 27°C. It can rain at any time of year, although wetter times of year are May to June and September to November. The rain usually comes in short, sharp showers. The ABCs are officially outside the hurricane belt, but are affected by storm damage and tidal changes during particularly severe hurricanes, such as Hurricane Lenny in 1999. The ABCs are subject to a constant breeze. Curiously, September is the least windy month – unless, of course, there’s a hurricane!
- Anyone diving the Dutch Antilles marine parks is required to pay a minimal charge (usually US$10–15, this takes the form of a dive pass or dive tag, depending on which island you’re on) that goes towards the upkeep and policing of the parks. On Curaçao the dive-tag charge is voluntary. Divers in Bonaire must attend an orientation meeting before their first dive to learn about marine park rules and their own potential impact on the underwater environment.
- If you are hiring a car to go shore-diving, be very careful about what you do with your car key and what you leave in the car, as theft is not unknown. The best option would probably be to make sure you have two sets of keys, leaving one in the hotel safe and attaching the other securely to a D-ring inside your BC pocket while you dive. Leaving it under the wheel arch is not a great idea.
- Twitchers, take your binoculars! All the islands are good for bird watchers, but you might find that national parks – including Bonaire’s Washington Slagbaai National Park and Flamingo Airport, a breeding sanctuary for 10,000 flamingos, and Curaçao’s Shete Boca and Christoffel national parks – yield the greatest variety.
The waters around Bonaire were given Marine Park status in 1979. The reefs are rigorously policed and permanent mooring sites for boats mean that anchor damage is kept to a minimum. There is a choice of 80 dive sites, mainly along the leeward side of the island, protected from the easterly wind. The Town Pier is the island’s most famous night dive, and is noted particularly for its orange cup corals but, due to its popularity, can be pretty busy. A good alternative is the Salt Pier, a magnet for marine life, just north of Pink Beach: ask in advance about this one, as your dive centre has to secure permission for everyone who dives it.
Carl’s Hill is one of more than 20 excellent reef dives around the small island of Klein Bonaire. It must be dived by boat, and has a steep, sponge-covered wall that begins about 20m offshore, dropping to sand at just over 30m. As well as reef fish such as blue tang, trumpetfish, scorpionfish and spotted drum, shoals of fish such as bar jacks make an appearance, as do barracuda. Named after photographer Carl Roessler, this is a gift of a dive to any photographer.
Curaçao’s diving is all along its west coast, where the sites are more protected from the ever-present wind. The southwestern part of the island is a marine park and in 1992 the Curaçao Reef Care Foundation was formed to promote the conservation of the underwater environment. Just north of the marine park, very close to the coast, is the wreck of the Superior Producer. Boots are a must for this dive, as you walk in over rocks and coral through the surf (this entry can be tricky in particularly windy weather) and swim down to the wreck, which has its deepest point at 35m. Overloaded cargo holds (carrying clothing) caused it to sink in 1977, but as the wreck was rapidly plundered, the ship was picked clean and now makes a very good dive with an intact structure. Access to the wreck is not possible if there is a cruise ship in the vicinity.
- Suit: Most divers will be comfortable in a 3mm or 5mm shortie.
- Torch and backup: Essential for night and wreck dives, but also good to have at hand for dives such as the Salt Pier and Town Pier in Bonaire, where much of the marine life is in shadow.
- Underwater camera: if you don’t have your own, it’s not difficult to hire a camera and flash, particularly on Bonaire and Curaçao. Conventional and digital cameras are widely available for hire.
Aruba new charter flights (which started in 2003) with First Choice from Manchester and Gatwick operate direct to Aruba between May and October. Otherwise fly via Amsterdam with KLM, or via Miami.
Bonaire via Amsterdam and Curaçao with KLM, or via Miami and Curaçao.
Curaçao via Amsterdam with KLM.
British Airways (UK to Miami), tel: 0870 8509850, website: http://www.british-airways.com
First Choice (UK to Aruba), tel: 0870 850399, website: http://www.firstchoice.co.uk
KLM (Amsterdam to Aruba and Curaçao), tel: 020 8750 9200, website: http://www.klm.com
Virgin Atlantic (UK to Miami), tel: 01293 450150, website: http://www.virgin-atlantic.com
Winair (internal Dutch Antilles flights), tel: 00 599 545 4237, website: http://www.fly-winair.com