"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.
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.
Light catches the glinting eyes belonging to Banded Coral Shrimp nestled between the rocks. The gleam also gives away the Arrow Crab and Spotted Spiny Lobster lurking at the sea bottom. While Bonaire's waters are comfortably warm year round — hovering around 80 degrees — wetsuits for night snorkeling aren't a bad idea. Among other benefits, they make it easier to stay in the water longer by maintaining body temperature and offering some buoyancy.
On Pedersen's outing, the wetsuit and all other equipment are included her standard $15 per-person charge.
But there's no guarantee her unsightly friend will happen by. On this October evening, at least, the tarpon decided to take the night off.
If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Flying to Bonaire's Flamingo International Airport typically requires one or more stops; it is a 30-minute flight from the more heavily visited Aruba and 15 minutes from Curacao. American Airlines, Air Jamaica, Continental, Delta, KLM, US Airways and smaller regional carriers serve the Netherland Antilles, which is about a three-hour flight from Miami. The island is on the itinerary of some smaller cruise ships. ACCOMMODATIONS AND EXCURSIONS: Bonaire's resorts are mostly situated around the capital city of Kralendijk and almost universally overlooking the water. Rooms can be had for less than $75 a night, but most are in the $75 to $150 range. Some resorts offer packages that build diving costs into room rates. Most hotels have car rental desks. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are perfect for lugging diving gear or touring the rugged national park on the island's northern end, go for about $60 a day. Activities desks at the hotels can help line up diving or snorkeling excursions, some lasting a few hours and others that go all day. Excursions with Dedrie Pedersen can be arranged by contacting Woodwind Sailing and Snorkeling Adventures; information and sign-up forms available at the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort activity desk, or visit http://www.bonaire.net or call (011) 09-560-7055 or 09-717-8285.
ENTRY: U.S. and Canadian citizens need proof of citizenship, a passport or certified birth certificate with a photo I.D. All others need a passport. A return or continuing ticket is also required. GENERAL INFORMATION: The Web site http://infobonaire.com offers information in several languages or call the Bonaire Tourism Office at (800) 266-2473.