Diving in Bonaire, Home to the World's Oldest Marine Reserve
Gritty 35mm photos capture the feeling of being 80 feet below the surface among a well preserved jewel of the Dutch Caribbean
SeaLife ReefMaster RC, Canon AE-1, Nikon 28TI
Nate Stephenson is a photojournalism major based in Santa Barbara, CA aiming to pursue a career in documentary style visual storytelling with an emphasis in film photography.
Bonaire is a tiny island municipality of the Netherlands in the southern Caribbean, located some 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. In a world where dying reef is so unfortunately common, the reef surrounding Bonaire is well protected and full of life within the oldest marine reserve in the world.
I’ve been curious about underwater ocean film photography for years, but didn’t know the first thing about it. Always being too broke to afford a water housing and never taking the plunge into Nikonos territory fueled an illusion of underwater 35mm being a difficult world to tap into. Then the SeaLife ReefMaster RC came along, a little 35mm dive camera I snagged off eBay a few months back, ahead of a planned Bonaire trip. The bright yellow housing and duck tape-secured batteries make it less than posh, but the voice it gave me to even slightly express how it feels to be 80 feet underwater next to a towering wall of coral surrounded by fish certifies it as the best $14 I’ve ever spent.
"Having the most expensive equipment isn’t the only ticket to creating images you love."
My family first brought me to Bonaire at age four and the healthy reef and freedom that comes with shore diving has brought us back more than 10 times since. Government restrictions on fishing and pollution have helped create a healthy relationship between humans and the fragile coral reef ecosystem. And as such, many argue the island offers the best shore diving in the Caribbean and should certainly be mentioned when speaking of world class scuba diving locations.
On my most recent trip I decided to shoot black and white film for the entirety of my underwater experience, to achieve a more dramatic and contrasted effect that I felt would pair nicely with the amount of grain the ReefMaster creates. I wanted to the images to speak more towards the actual feeling of being underwater rather than the literal, in color, representation of what I saw. And to remind all who shoot that having the most expensive equipment isn’t the only ticket to creating images you love.
The protections placed on the reef and fishing gives much of the underwater life no reason to fear people. It’s hard to explain how special it feels to interact with sea creatures that aren’t instinctually threatened by you. Sometimes it felt like certain fish almost want to have their photo taken, as they slowly swim within feet of the camera sharing some sense of mutual curiosity.
Above the surface Bonaire’s desert climate provides a home to a wide array of wildlife and flora. Flamingos, parrots, aloe vera plants, divi divi trees, forests of cati, colorful lizards, and a shit load of donkeys—this is just some of what gives Bonaire an environmental diversity unique to its character and charm.
The mountains of white sea salt extracted through evaporation of the surrounding pink and blue mineral-tinted salt water ponds on the southern half of the island serve as the island’s main export and make for a unique manmade landscape. While the abandoned stone slave huts in the nearby areas act as a chilling reminder to the dark history of slave labor in Caribbean.
Come January I plan to return to Bonaire to continue the pursuit of extra grainy, black and white underwater photographs. I would definitely encourage any scuba diver or lover of the ocean to visit this Caribbean jewel and support the island’s reef protection efforts. After all, if we don't protect our oceans now, there won't be anything left to inspire the next generation of curious divers, photographers, and adventurers.