thumb image

I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to adventure travel. I have skydived, bungee jumped, parasailed, swam with sharks, and hopped into cars with strangers heading god-knows-where. But one thing still terrifies me: scuba diving.

Horror stories of burst lungs, ruptured eardrums and decompression sickness (AKA the bends) have kept me snorkeling at the surface for most of my life. It wasn’t until a diver pal recently likened the sport to underwater birdwatching and suggested I test the waters in Bonaire that I decided to tackle my greatest travel fear head-on.

Photography provided by PADI

A Dutch municipality east of Curaçao and 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is one of the best shore-diving destinations on earth. In 1979, it became the first Caribbean island to turn the reefs and mangroves fringing its shores into a protected marine park. Where other tropical destinations are haunted by ghostly bleached reefs, the isle’s 57 varieties of prismatic coral and 80+ dive sites are remarkably well-preserved.

Earning my open-water diving certification from PADI takes commitment. I power through 15 hours of online learning and 10 hours of confined-water training before flying to the capital city of Kralendijk for my four open-water sessions. I’m feeling pretty confident in my newly learned skills until I overhear the scuba die-hards — donning tees with phrases like “Bulls, Tigers and Whites, Oh My!” — on the flight down bragging about their most death-defying diving exploits.  What have I gotten myself into?

Photography provided by Harbour Village

My home base for the week is Harbour Village, a low-key luxury resort with 43 suites and villas, a private white-sand beach, and a dive shop. It’s at Great Adventures that I meet my instructor, Bonnie. A former ICU nurse with more than two decades’ worth of diving experience, she is totally cool under pressure — exactly what this sport requires. The first thing she asks me is why I want to dive. “To see pretty fish?” I offer lamely. Bonnie gets it; spying flashy marine life is what compels many people to plumb these mysterious depths.

All geared up to hit the water, I look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in my wetsuit and tubular Ghostbusters-esque pack. Underwater, however, I feel weightless. Equalizing my ears comes naturally. Other skills, such as hovering and mask clearing, not so much. I loathe the wasabi-burning sensation of saltwater shooting up my nose, and I struggle to stay neutrally buoyant. The more I thrash, the more I float, and the last thing any diver wants is an unplanned ascent.

Photography provided by PADI

The skill I struggle most to master, however, is auto-inflating my buoyancy control device 15 feet under. Bonnie demonstrates for me time and again, but I’m paralyzed by fear, wide-eyed and panting into my regulator like I’m running from a serial killer. After 10 minutes of this, she signals for us to surface and tells me we can try again tomorrow. I’m grateful in the moment but ultimately upset with myself. The next morning, I nail it, and Bonnie applauds my moxie. Now let’s go see some pretty fish.

I am trained to a maximum depth of 60 feet, which is deep enough to see queen angelfish in neon regalia, fat-lipped groupers who lost the genetic lottery, honeycomb cowfish with more spots than a Yayoi Kusama exhibition, dainty seahorses hugging rope coral with their curlicue tails, and dozens of trippy garden eels waving from their hidey-holes in the sand. There’s a small shipwreck with lionfish levitating in its nooks as well as hawksbills sea turtles dancing in an aquatic ballet. When a saber-tooth barracuda with no respect for personal space gives me the creeps, Bonnie gently guides me away (best dive buddy ever).

Photography provided by PADI

Not every activity on Bonaire involves courting death, of course. When I’m topside, I nuzzle burros at the Donkey Sanctuary, the island’s largest animal rescue organization. I pilot a wind-powered Blokart around the seaside track at Landsailing Adventures. I join Cave Tours founder Hans Voerman for a spelunking/snorkeling expedition to dry and wet caves that could easily double as Indiana Jones filming locations. On an especially serene tour of Lac Bay with Mangrove Info Center, I kayak through a canopied forest, admiring the clusters of oysters clinging to tree roots and the magnificent frigatebirds soaring overhead.

I also consume my fair share of adventurous foods during my visit, including a lionfish burger from the Cactus Blue food truck, iguana soup at Posada Para Mira in Rincón, and a five-course vegetarian feast at Brass Boer, the crown jewel of the swanky Delfins Beach Resort. Here, Jonnie and Thérèse Boer, the duo behind the Netherlands’ Michelin-starred De Librije, play with Bonarian and Dutch ingredients to masterful effect, like in the deconstructed apple pie (a favorite of Barack Obama).

Photography provided by PADI

Tooling around the island on my final night — with dazzles of wild flamingos and chalk-white salt peaks shrinking in my rearview mirror — I am so proud of myself for conquering the pit-of-the-stomach dread that once defined my relationship with diving. From my table at bumping beachside eatery Ocean Oasis, I make a toast — to Bonaire, to Bonnie, even to that ugly barracuda. May he never be tomorrow’s catch of the day.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This