Bonaire’s Haven for Snorkelers

Sunset Beach Hotel

by Joel Simon

Life beneath tropical seas is a world only the scuba diver or snorkeler can fully experience. And, the arid Dutch island of Bonaire, just 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is one of the best Caribbean destinations to learn the skills and enjoy these activities. This is no accident. While neighboring islands developed economies based on commerce, shipping and industry, Bonaire shepherded its primary resource; a lush band of fringing reef surrounding the entire island.

On Bonaire, turtles have been legally protected since the mid-1960s. In the mid-70s, when spearguns were as popular as underwater cameras are today, Bonaire did the unthinkable and outlawed spearfishing. Bonaire’s fish became numerous and friendly. In 1979 Bonaire once again made an unprecedented move, legislating a Marine Park that totally protected everything, living or dead, from the mean high tide line to a depth of 200 feet, including the area surrounding the small adjacent island of Klein Bonaire. Boats were prohibited from dropping anchors. The reefs thrived. Today, Bonaire stands proud as a world leader in underwater resource management.

Abundant friendly fish, calm, clear water, fringing reefs with shallow terraces and an ethic of marine conservation combine to provide a perfect environment for superb snorkeling. Bonaire offers snorkeling visitors a wide choice of accommodations but, for excellent value and an idyllic beach, none compares to the Sunset Beach Hotel.

Visions of tropical paradise are as unique as each individual. Not surprisingly, however, the most consistent element is a palm studded beach. On Bonaire, that vision approaches reality most closely on the 600 foot stretch of white sand that flanks the Sunset Beach Hotel. Playa Lechi is the largest natural beach on Bonaire and offers one of the most delightful venues for snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing, casual dining or simple relaxation.

Interspersed among the abundant palm trees, the hotel has augmented the beach with numerous lounge chairs and thatch covered umbrellas, providing a shady canopy for small circular wooden tables. Sitting at one of these tables, two women still dripping with salt water were engaged in a debate over a fish identification book. ‘It had white spots on an orange body,’ said one woman.

‘Are you sure?’ said the other. ‘I thought the body was more golden brown with darker spots.’ Before they could agree, up ran an energetic girl, mask and fins still in hand, exclaiming: ‘Mom, Mom, it’s still here. I found the same Spotted Drum we saw last year and in just the same place!’ Quickly, they turned the pages of the book until they located the entry on Spotted Drums.

As I passed by, the young girl looked up with an eager smile and asked if I would like to go see her Spotted Drum. How could I resist?

Just off the center of the beach is a shallow, rocky area and, as we snorkeled in calm water, nine year old MaryMae gave me a guided tour of her favorite fish; parrotfish, Trumpetfish, Needlefish, filefish, grunts, tangs, flounders and the Spotted Drum. She knew them all. Afterward, she introduced me to her mother, Johanna, and her Aunt Betty who invited me to join them for a beer. How could I refuse?

‘This is our third year at the hotel and we love it,’ said Johanna. ‘I can’t imagine going to another hotel because of the beach; along with the lounge chairs, the bar, restaurant and the fish. It’s all right here.’

Later, I met with Mary Disanza who, along with Walter Stark, manages the diving and snorkeling operation. Mary and I sat at a table near the rinse tanks, which are conveniently just in front of the shop.

‘We are a PADI Five Star Dive Center but we love snorkelers here,’ said Mary. ‘Just look at the beach. We get far more snorkelers than divers simply because the snorkeling is so excellent. Snorkelers are always welcome to accompany divers on any of our boats as well. In general, we go out at 9:00 am and 2:00 pm. And I always let the snorkelers know which destinations will work best for them.’ The dive center has three boats: the 38 foot cathedral-hulled flattop Sea Explorer, the 36 foot V-hulled Sea Culi and the Sea Horse, a 38 foot craft with a broad open transom that makes exits and entries very simple. All boats are designed to meet the needs of divers and snorkelers with covered areas for shade, along with deep, sturdy ladders.

The shop also offers a full line of rental equipment, including single-use cameras ideal for snorkelers, lights for night snorkeling and a limited supply of prescription faceplates. ‘We feel it’s important people see our underwater attractions,’ said Mary, ‘so we decided to try renting corrected-vision masks. If it’s a matter of just being near or farsighted, we usually can come pretty close to matching a person’s vision needs. This has been especially useful for snorkelers, since they can’t always get as close to the reef as divers.’

Mary pointed to a large black and white two masted sailboat moored just off shore. ‘Snorkelers also enjoy taking a pirate cruise on the Mistress, that 56 foot Privateer ketch. Mike and Jules Stadnick do an excellent job and usually take folks to great snorkeling sites on the backside of Klein Bonaire. And we also have a water taxi that will take snorkelers over to Klein anytime they wish.

‘We also have people coming here for the Guided Snorkeling Program, which adds an educational component to the activity.’ About a year ago, with sponsorship from the island’s government, hotels and watersport operators, Bonaire implemented one of the most ambitious projects in the world of snorkeling. The program combines classroom experience in the form of 12 entertaining half hour slide lectures, with training and snorkeling outings to some of Bonaire’s premier shallow water destinations.

‘We’re really flexible on what programs we offer, depending on what interests our guests the most. One of the most popular has been the fish ID program. First, we take a look at the slides and then go find the fish in the water.’

Mary suggested we take a walk out on the wooden boat dock. ‘People love snorkeling around this dock because over the years it’s become absolutely covered with marine life, especially Orange Cup Corals.’ The pier is one of the oldest on the island. For Mary, it’s a little like snorkeling amid a Maya ruin.

Two young girls, Natalie and Janell DeWalt, were on the pier, one dressed in a colorful plastic innertube. They watched as their mother and brothers, in the shallow water below, came face to face with an inquisitive giant French Angelfish. Natalie volunteered, ‘We live on the island but mom, who was a scuba instructor here before she met Brian, takes us here with our grandparents to snorkel and have lunch. I like the hamburgers and French fries best!’

Dining at the outdoor thatch covered palapa is casual and enjoyable. The locally famous Kunuku Band plays each Monday afternoon at the manager’s cocktail party. The restaurant also offers weekly beach barbecues and a Bonairean Buffet featuring local cuisine and a lively folkloric dance presentation.

Under the shade of a large tamarind tree near the restaurant sat a mature couple, obviously content with life on the beach. It was Emile and Lillian Jacob, from Newark, New Jersey, perhaps Sunset Beach Hotel’s best known visitors. ‘We’ve been coming here every year for 34 years now and we love it,’ said Lillian. ‘When we first arrived, this tree had only enough shade for Emile and me. Now it can easily shade at least ten people. We’ve seen the island grow and change, but this place has been our sanctuary over the years. We’ve seen kids on this island grow up to have families of their own. Just yesterday one hotel staff member we met as a young man years ago invited us to his grandchild’s birthday party. We really felt like part of the family.’

Just then a neatly dressed man approached and Lillian began pointing an insistent finger at him, saying she wanted to book now for next year. After giving her a gentle hug, he assured Lillian that their room would be available, as it had for the last 34 years! ‘Are you sure?’ she said with a smile, ‘because we are!’ The man was David Hickey, operations manager for the resort.

Over a soft drink at the bar David commented, ‘What we do best is work with people. That’s what this hotel is all about, people taking care of people. Our guests stay here for the casual, friendly ambiance. Our staff is really committed to the place, as are our guests. This gives the hotel heart and is the most important element we have to offer.’ David outlined upcoming plans for renovation of the hotel, which was one of the first on Bonaire. Everything is in place; the plans, materials and financing. Only the starting date needs confirmation. The hotel has 145 spacious rooms, all equipped with air-conditioning, cable TV, direct dial telephones and refrigerators. A giftshop, seaside freshwater swimming pool, watersport hut with sailboards and kayaks and an on-site Budget rental car office add to the resort’s attractions.

As the late afternoon sky turned a rosy orange with the setting sun, I reflected on the wonderful day spent on the hotel’s beach and couldn’t help thinking how great an entire week would be. David’s words still echoed in my mind: ‘People caring about people.’ On my way out, I stopped to say good-bye to Betty, Johanna and MaryMae, who were still relaxing at their little table. Proudly, they showed me some underwater lights they’d rented from the dive shop.

‘We’ve never gone snorkeling at night before but we saw some people in the water last night just around the pier. They said the orange corals were really fantastic, so we’re going to try it ourselves.’

As I was walking away, I overhead young MaryMae ask her mom if she thought the Spotted Drum would be here next year. Johanna replied, ‘I guess we’ll just have to come back and see.’

For more information or to make reservations at the Sunset Beach Hotel, contact Caradonna Caribbean tours at, call toll free in the U.S. or Canada at (800) 328-2288, or fax (407) 862-6000.