Bonaire Divers Seek Underwater Nightlife

"He's silver, he's long, he's big and he's quite ugly."

After watching more than one snorkeler flee the water screaming "Shark!," guide Dedrie Pedersen now routinely advises clients, before they jump in, of a menacing giant that could cross their path.

"He" is a 6-foot-long tarpon that regularly skirts this stretch of Bonaire shoreline at night to feed on small fish, shrimp and crab.

But, it turns out, there's no need for after-dark snorkelers to worry. They act as allies rather than prey by illuminating his dinner with their flashlights.

In Bonaire, when the sun dips into the Caribbean Sea, divers and snorkelers are sure to follow. Visitors to the relaxed Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela don't let the clock dictate their underwater adventures.

It's part of the go-at-your-own-pace flavor that sets Bonaire apart from its Caribbean neighbors. Together with Aruba and Curacao, it forms the ABC islands of the Netherland Antilles. But compared with similarly sized yet better-known Aruba, Bonaire is far less populated (14,000 residents to Aruba's 70,000).

Divers, Not Dancers

And far less hip, which suits visitors to the self-billed "Diver's Paradise" just fine. They're more inclined to go diving than dancing at night anyway.

Walk along the shore after sunset and you're apt to see patches of light permeating from turquoise waters turned a darker blue by the night sky. Better yet, pick up a mask, a breathing tube, a set of fins and an underwater flashlight, and join in.

Marine life after dark is as different as, well, night and day.

Dozens of sites off Bonaire's west coast showcase radiant coral and colorful fish as far as the eye can see. During the day that can be 30 feet down and many more ahead. Daytime snorkelers don't have to search hard to locate an emporium of sea life. Spectacular reefs — some only reachable by boat, others just steps off shore — are prime places for spotting stoplight parrotfish, yellowtail snapper, French angelfish, trunkfish, spotted drum, sea turtles, baby squid and much more.

The night brings out a creepier, crawlier set of sea creatures.

On one recent fall evening, Pedersen led a foursome into water already glowing from the nearly full moon and skyful of stars above.

After-Dark Detectives

The bubbly Pedersen, a native of nearby Trinidad, runs daytime tours on a 37-foot sailboat with her stoic Norwegian husband, Ulf. But for her, there's something special about the more-intimate, after-dark excursions.

"At nighttime, I feel like a detective," she says.

Unlike day snorkeling, where schools of fish are constantly swimming by, the night experience is more of a hunt.

Using high-beam flashlights — decent ones can be found in sporting goods stores or on the Internet for $60 — Pedersen's crew scans the sea floor.

Wetsuits a Good Idea

The coral appears more vibrant, partly because its tentacles blossom as it feeds at night. Pointy sea urchin are much the same. Pencil-shaped fish glide across the water's surface, sometimes bumping into unsuspecting snorkelers.

The same parrotfish that are so busy during the day can be caught snoozing between the rocks. Spotted Moray and Sharptail eels poke out from under sea cliffs.

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