Shy pink flamingos, gentle sad-eyed donkeys and elusive sea turtles all share something quite rare in today's world. They flourish on or around Bonaire, one of the ABC isles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) deep in the Southern Caribbean. Each lives in sanctuaries set up by island residents who boast an awareness and level of conservation that few countries can match.
Though ecotourism is one of the latest buzzwords in the travel world, Bonaire, just 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, was a world leader in the field of ecology long before the term was even coined. The island's greatest claim to fame is proudly touted on its license plates -- "Divers Paradise." This is no tourist-bureau puffery, although many believe that the license plates should read "Nature Lovers Paradise." Beyond the diving and snorkeling, there's windsurfing, kayaking, bird watching, kite boarding, fishing, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Many Caribbean islands brag about their underwater worlds, but Bonaire has set the standard by which everywhere else in the world is measured -- it led the way by protecting sea turtles back in 1961, banning spear-fishing in 1971, making it illegal to remove live coral in 1975 and establishing the first marine park in 1979. It also helps that the island is outside the traditional hurricane zone and is a desert island with no river runoff into the sea.
It has been called "Arizona by the Sea" for its climate and abundance of cacti. There is no rainy season and temperatures are consistently pleasant with lows in the 70s and highs in the 80s. Unlike its better-known neighbors, Aruba and Curacao, this isle of about 20,000 residents is quiet and laid-back. There are no flashy Las Vegas-type casinos as in Aruba or a showy pastel-colored capital city as in Curacao.
The first recorded Bonaire scuba diving began back in 1962 when Don Stewart, a would-be California actor, dropped anchor on this small, arid boomerang of an island. Considered the father of Bonaire diving, he was the first to use fixed moorings to prevent coral damage and helped set up the Caribbean's first island-wide underwater park. He has received numerous international awards for his conservation efforts. The park is a United Nations Environmental Program Model Marine Protected Area.