The Caribbean Netherlands is a group of 3 islands, also known as the BES Islands and comprise Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba. These islands are unique in that they are municipalities associated with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, together with Curacao and Sint Maarten which have been autonomous countries within this kingdom since 2010. All the islands are popular with tourists and offer impressive infrastructure for accommodating travel and tourism.
Located just 50 miles to the north of Venezuela, Bonaire and its sister island Klein Bonaire are the furthest south of the Caribbean Netherlands. The most northern islands of the group, St Eustatius and Saba, are located within the Leeward Islands and Sint Maarten is further north east.
The best scuba diving in the region is said to occur in Saba and Bonaire, however there are certainly worthwhile sites to visit in Sint Maarten and St Eustatius. Many of the area’s cruise ships will have routes that include Bonaire and Sint Maarten, and it is possible to dive in both these locations.
Bonaire is well-known for its shore diving opportunities, however these reefs can also be reached by boat. Saba is renowned for its interesting volcanic topography that presents dramatic and impressive seamounts and pinnacles. St Eustatius is another volcanic island with dramatic underwater scenery including canyons formed from flowing lava and reefs with giant grooves indicative of its previous volcanic nature. Sint Maarten is located on a shallow plateau where there are a number of wrecks to explore as well as giant boulders that are covered in vibrant corals.
All the islands within the Caribbean Netherlands are well-known for having a wide variety of marine life, and its interesting to note that each island is famous for a specific type of marine animal: turtles in St Eustatius, large pelagics in Saba, sharks in Sint Maarten and interesting critters in Bonaire. The marine life abounds around these islands thanks to the establishment of protected National Marine Parks.
The climate surrounding the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands is generally tropical in nature, with warm air and water temperatures in the range of 75-85°F throughout the year. Usually it is sufficient to wear a shortie or a long 3mm wetsuit.
The coast of Bonaire is home to more than 60 official dive sites, while the uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire has at least 20 official sites. Aside from a wealth of choice when it comes to dive sites, these waters boast fantastic, vibrant corals, an array of sponges and magnificent marine life. The conditions are generally superb, with visibility in the range of 80-100 feet and calm surface conditions. The large reef starts as shallow as 30 feet from the shore and continues to slope downwards into a sandy sea bottom. On the northern side of Bonaire’s leeward coastline is a dramatic sloping reef, whereas the southern coastline boasts a double reef system. The sites around this area are protected and present marine life in abundance. Popular dive sites include La Machaca, Vista Blue, Karpata, the Hilma Hooker Wreck and Jerry’s Reef to name but a few. Divers can expect to see an abundance of eels, turtles and eagle rays and may even be lucky enough to spot the numerous frogfish camouflaging themselves or the tiny seahorses hiding around the reef.
The island of Saba boasts at least 30 dive sites with dramatic volcanic formations. The waters around Saba present immense diversity when it comes to marine life and divers of all levels are well-catered for. Scuba diving at Saba offers beginner-friendly patch reefs as well as deeper dives for more advanced divers. The seamounts and pinnacles surrounding the island are testament to its volcanic history, and are certainly an underwater wonder to behold. There are 5 main diving sites and areas around the island of Saba, namely Tent Bay, The Pinnacles, Ladder Bay, the Windwardside ad Well’s Bay/Torrens Point.
There are at least 36 dive sites around the island of Sint Eustatius with a varied underwater landscape between the northern and southern parts. In the north, boulder slides, shallow lava fingers and lava blocks have formed unique underwater structures which are covered in vibrant corals and sponges. To the south of Sint Eustatius, the formations are altogether different based on their origins from spur and groove lava. A number of the Caribbean’s marine life can be seen around this area including eels, seahorses, flying gurnards, frogfish, rays, turtles, octopus, spotted drumfish and even sharks.
Sint Maarten offers a wide variety of dive sites for all interests – there is wreck diving, shark diving and diving amongst interestingly formed boulders covered in coral. Dive sites are ideally suited for novice divers as the average depth is only 60 feet. The visibility around Sint Maarten is generally in the range of 60-80 feet but this varies greatly on the weather conditions above sea. Divers can make use of the usual great visibility around the area to spot eagle rays, turtles, barracuda, stingray and nurse and reef sharks.
Reaching the Caribbean Netherlands is simple thanks to a number of international airports and well-connected smaller airports on each of the islands. For direct flights to Bonaire from the US and Europe, visitors can fly into the Flamingo International Airport, and connect to Curacao or Aruba through an inter-island flight. Divers will find at least 20 different dive shops in Bonaire which offer boat trips, guided diving trips and diving arrangements for those travelling by cruise ship.
In Sint Maarten, the major airport is the Princess Juliana International, which accepts direct flights from the US. Internal, inter-island flights are possible from Princess Juliana to Sint Eustatius and the island of Saba.
Although there is an airport in Saba, the Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, these flights will connect in Sint Maarten and are usually operated by Winair. Saba is also home to a number of dive operators which speak a variety of languages for added convenience.
Sint Eustatius has a few diving operators to assist with dive training and certification, rental equipment and multi-lingual dive arrangements.
Divers will find plenty of dive centers in Sint Maarten which can help to arrange a diving day trip or even an overnight liveaboard experience. With many of the cruise ships using Sint Maarten as a docking point, dive operators in this area will accommodate cruise ship passengers who are looking to arrange a dive whilst docked.