by Micheal Quinn

Once in a while, maybe once in a long while, you have an experience of such impact that you are immediately aware it will stick with you for the rest of your life.

These moments make-up the dots along our lifeline, the mile markers with which we can look back at the paths we’ve taken over the years. We’ve all had those moments and you’re probably thinking of one right now. Go ahead. Reminisce. I’ll wait.

One such experience took place for me on a relatively obscure dive at a relatively obscure resort on a relatively obscure island just off the coast of South America, which is less relatively obscure as far as continents go.

I guess there’s no such thing as an “obscure” continent really. Except maybe Antarctica. Anyway, the island is called Bonaire, the resort is Captain Don’s Habitat, and the dive site is called La Machaca but to most it is simply, Capt. Don’s House Reef.

I say relatively obscure because John Q. Public knows very little about Capt. Don’s, or Bonaire in general, but amongst divers both are honored almost to the point of being sacred, sort of like fans of Michael Jackson feel about his silver glove. On second thought forget about the Michael Jackson thing. It’s just too creepy.

Bonaire makes up one part of the Leeward Antilles along with Curaçao and Aruba. Together the trio are often referred to as the ABC islands. While Aruba and Curaçao have long played host to throngs of Caribbean travelers, i.e. people who don’t get out much, Bonaire has remained focused on one particular demographic: divers. Almost nothing else.

You’d be hard pressed to find a destination better suited for diving than Bonaire with dozens of awe-inspiring sites mere steps from the shore and dozens more within minutes on a boat.

Bonaire is custom made for underwater activities and everything on the island revolves around its reefs and diving in some form or fashion.

To say it is a diver’s paradise would be like saying “Ronaldo is pretty good at sports” which is, if you think about it, quite an understatement.

Captain Don’s Habitat was one of the original dive operators on the island. Founded in 1976 by renowned underwater environmentalist Captain Don Stewart, the Habitat has been one of the driving forces in Bonaire’s approach to tourism and the preservation of its natural resources.

Whether you stay at Captain Don’s resort or not, no trip to the island is complete without at least visiting what many call “The Home of Diving Freedom”.

When you do visit the Habitat you will notice two piers jutting out from the shore just a few feet from the restaurant and dive center.

The larger pier is for the multitude of boats that come back and forth taking divers to and from the amazing array of sites that the Bonaire National Marine Park has to offer. The smaller pier, called “baby dock”, is for divers only and it was there that I had what is easily the most amazing dive of my life.

Guests and registered divers are welcome to step off baby dock whenever they feel the urge and within just a few fin kicks you are at the top of a gorgeous reef that slopes downward from about 6-23 meters.

A long yellow rope runs from the top of the reef back to the dock so the dive plan couldn’t be simpler; turn left or right, cruise along for half a tank, turn around and come back til you find the line again. It’s so easy you could do it drunk. Actually forget I said that.

The particular dive you are patiently waiting for me to talk about took place at night back in 2007.

My wife and I were sitting on the porch in our rental house up the coast when I threw out the idea of suiting up for a night dive.

One of our friends thought it sounded like a good idea and within a few minutes we were in the truck on the road the Captain Dons. That’s the beauty of Bonaire and the meaning of “diving freedom”.

Because so many of the sites are right off shore there is no need to deal with boat schedules and large groups.

Each morning our dive operator would drop a set of fresh tanks off at the house, which we would load into the back of a rental truck and use throughout the day.

The next morning they would be switched out for full tanks and we’d start all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. You are in control of your schedule and you are in control of your experience.

The drive to Captain Dons took no time and within 30 minutes of first having the idea we were stepping into the water off the end of baby dock, not knowing what was in store.

For the most part the dive was typical of any night dive on a gorgeous, nearly pristine reef.

Bright colors, nocturnal life, and that half frightening/half thrilling feeling of being underwater at night where you can’t entirely shake the feeling that something giant is lurking just outside the range of your light.

This dive was no different, until we were almost back at the dock, when that feeling of something lurking just outside the range of my light turned out to be more than just a feeling because something large actually was lurking just outside the range of my light.

I figured that out when that something large darted in and out of my field of vision with such speed that I almost couldn’t tell what it was. I might never have known if it weren’t for the fact that another, and then another, did the same thing only closer and closer to my mask.

They were tarpon, a school of about five, and some of them were nearly six feet long.

While it’s impossible to tell the weight of a fish underwater, tarpon can come in at nearly 140 kilos at their biggest but the difference between 70 and 140 kilos is pretty much meaningless when they are shooting past your face at 50 kilometers an hour.

Details like that become a little hazy when you’re busy suppressing your instinct to get the hell out of the water before that giant thing eats your hand.

After a few minutes of staring at these beautiful, silver scaled monsters with their distinct lateral lines we continued our way along the top edge of the reef in about seven meters of water.

As with all night dives my flashlight would occasionally disturb some fish or creature that was trying to have a nap under a rocky overhang, or some similar hiding place, and this night was no exception.

My curiosity and sweeping light drove a few small, hand-sized fish out from their resting place, sending them up towards the sandy area above the reef.

Immediately one of the tarpon shot past the left side of my head so closely that his tail actually hit my snorkel.

He lunged forward into my light opening his giant mouth, which seemed to create a vacuum that sucked the small fish directly into it. The tarpon’s body twisted sharply to one side as it swallowed the fish whole and then it was gone again, lost in the dark blue beyond my cone of light.

So that just happened.

It’s in moments like these that you realize the limitations of being underwater and breathing through an apparatus.

When you scream, “Holy Sh*t!” nobody can hear you.

It’s also moments like these that you realize hyperventilating with excitement can drain your tank faster than a broken hose but in such shallow water I wasn’t too worried.

Like any good adventurer that’s just had a once in a lifetime experience, I tried to do it again. And it worked. Turns out the tarpon were following behind us waiting for some helpless grunt or snapper to be more afraid of us than being eaten and leave their hiding place.

The instant some small fish entered our light one of the tarpon would zoom past us, at what seemed like the speed of light, to nail the poor thing right in front of us. It was exhilarating, it was beyond words, and it was clearly a once in a lifetime experience, except that it apparently happens all the time.

This particular family of tarpon are so used to the constant stream of divers along their reef that they’ve developed this particular hunting routine and employ it on an almost nightly basis. Talk about symbiosis.

We spent almost 30 minutes “hunting” with them. I would have spent 30 hours if I’d been able to. It was practically primal.

We’d wait for a moment until one or more of the fish were behind us then we’d set out to drive small fish up onto the sand where the tarpon would snatch them up. Over and over and over again. No wonder they were all so big and fat. They must have eaten 20 fish with us alone.

The come down after the dive was intense as we all three knew we’d just experienced something special. We tried to describe what happened to the rest of our group but there just aren’t words to really convey that kind of feeling.

A Vulcan mind-meld or one of those brain thingies from the Matrix might have done the job but we were left knowing that it was just something the three of us would share forever.

So for those of you who have dreams of being a predator in the deep blue sea, this would have to be the closest you can get to it.

Or if you just want to try and chalk up another one of those life experiences that sticks with you forever, head on down to the Habitat and try it out. Make sure you tell Captain Don and the tarpon we said hi.

Bonaire scuba diving is a once in a lifetime adventure. Check out the best hotel deals here​.

  • March 30, 2016
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