In the early 1990 s, armed with a recent degree in anthropology and a recreational scuba instructor rating, I set to work chasing the adventure Iad been craving since childhood. I managed to find employment as a low-level field archaeologist and was training divers on the weekends, desperately hoping that either career would lead to a life filled with international traveling, exploration, and exhilarating experiences.A
In retrospect, I was a bit optimistic about the former vocation: it led to such exotic locatings as Des Moines, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Sioux Fallsaarguably not the caliber of expedition worthy of note on Edmund Hillaryas curriculum vitae. It was my involvement in scuba that ultimately proved a bit closer to what I had been looking for.A
I begged my route into a position as a part-time travel guide for a local dive shop, leading groups of scuba divers to the Caribbean. I was terribly underqualified for a number of reasons, including the rather troubling fact that I had never actually been to the Caribbean. It didnat pay much, but the trade-off for the low salary was worth it: pages of colourful postages in my passport and a regular dose of new experiences that triggered my interest in writing and photography.A
My first journey as a dive leader was to the island of Bonaire. Set approximately fifty miles (8 0km) off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is one of three islands in the Leeward Antilles referred to as the ABCs. This memorable acronym is representative of the individual island names within the chain: Aruba, marking the western boundary, Bonaire to the east, and CuraAao between the two. With the exception of sailors, gale surfers, or scuba divers, the majority of people I talked to knew little, if anything, about the ABC islands. Aruba is familiar in name to most, but I suspect this can be attributed largely to the Beach Boys, who, with a ridiculously enticing aCome on pretty mamaa lyrically invited us to the island via other, more well known destinations like Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas.
In fact, Bonaire scarcely resembles Jamaica or the Bahamas at all. For starters, itas dry. Bonaire medians around twenty inches( 50 cm) of rain every year, a mere spritzing compared to many other tropical destinations. With its cactus-lined roads, darting lizards, and blazing sunshine, its interior feels more like the American Southwest than the lush, palm-covered environment that Caribbean islands so readily bring to mind. It wasnat the islandas interior that brought so many of us there, however; it was what could be found merely off its shores.A
Driven by a tourism economy based largely on scuba, Bonaire had earned the title it boasted on its license plates: aDivers Paradisea. From the islandas protected nearshore reef system and pacify seas to its first-rate dive facilities, Bonaire had become one of the worldas premiere destinations for scuba enthusiasts. I pored through every book and article I could find about Bonaire( a time-consuming task in the years before the internet) in the unnerving and very probable event that someone in my group had the gall to ask their guide a question about the island. Miraculously, the week passed without incident, and I returned to Wisconsin deep tanned, a bit more confident, and itching to travel again.
Other than a couple of jaunts to the Florida Keys, Iad expended little time in warmer climates prior to that first trip to Bonaire. Like so many of us who got our start in the northern latitudes, my diving teeth were cut along murky lake bottoms, in deep frigid quarries, and local rivers. When we wanted a savor of bigger water, we loaded up our gear and drove to Lake Superior to explore one of the countless shipwrecks scattered across the chilly lakebed. I loved these freshwater environments, and still do. Nonetheless, that first experience of exploring the reefs fringing Bonaire was impactful. It was here that I first ensure the staggering diversity of a coral ecosystem, where I learned about its fragility, and perhaps most importantly, whereA I came to understand how cooperative conservation attempts designed to preserve these environments could lead to a successful ecotourism industry.A
Bonaire is where I was first exposed to iconic marine conservationists: people like Don Stewart, the colorful captain whoad sailed into Kralendijk 30 years prior and who was instrumental in house both the islandas dive industry and the Marine Park; and Women Divers Hall of Fame member Dee Scarr, the photojournalist who created the Touch the Sea program, led the sponge reattachment project beneath Town Pier, and who was the second person behind Jacques-Yves Cousteau to be awarded the PADI/ SeaSpace Environmental Awareness Award. That trip to Bonaire so long ago was not simply educational. It was inspiring. Everyone, it seemed, was working together to protect this place: government, individuals, foundations, and dive operations.A