- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

KRALENDIJK, Bonaire — “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 paths.

“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.

It turns out, though, that there’s no need for after-dark snorkelers to worry. They act as allies rather than prey by illuminating tarpons’ dinners 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.

With Aruba and Curacao, it forms the “ABC” islands of the Netherlands Antilles. Compared with similar-size and better-known Aruba, though, Bonaire is far less populated (14,000 residents to Aruba’s 70,000).

It’s also far less hip, which suits visitors to the self-billed “divers 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 is from 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 a plethora of sea life. Spectacular reefs — some reachable only by boat, others just steps offshore — 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, Mrs. Pedersen led a foursome into water already glowing from the nearly full moon and sky full of stars.

The bubbly Mrs. Pedersen, a native of Trinidad, runs daytime tours on a 37-foot sailboat with her stoic Norwegian husband, Ulf.

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, in which schools of fish constantly swim, 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 — Mrs. Pedersen’s crew scans the seafloor. The coral appears more vibrant, partly because its tentacles blossom as it feeds at night.

Pointy sea urchins 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.

Though Bonaire’s waters are comfortably warm year round — hovering around 80 degrees — wet suits 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 Mrs. Pedersen’s outing, the wet suit and all other equipment are included in her standard $15 per-person charge.

There’s no guarantee that her unsightly friend will happen by, however. On this October evening, at least, the tarpon has decided to take the night off.

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