There is a dive site on the Caribbean Island of Bonaire that was not named for the fish one might see, the coral formations, or some romantic reason. It was named for the way in which the first divers entered the water. The name of this dive site is Rappel. The idea behind such an unusual method of getting in the water was to see if rappelling -descending a mountain or the face of a cliff by using ropes – was possible in full scuba equipment without too much danger.
Stan Gdowksi, a mountaineer, and diver from New Jersey, traveled to Bonaire with all the necessary gear and was in charge of all the aspects of the rappel. He also explained the techniques to me and together we made many practice descents on small faces of cliffs with the scuba equipment. Finally, after I felt reasonably assured that I was ready, a suitable location was chosen for the actual rappel in full scuba gear. We soon found it was possible, without too much danger, but the main feature of the entire exercise was what was discovered upon entering the water. Before this no one had dived in the area and neither of us expected such beauty underwater. Photographs from 1974.
Rappel is like no other reef on Bonaire. The 65-foot sheer face above the water line continues underwater to a depth of about 35 feet. Here the reef flattens out to a ledge about 50 to 70 feet wide before taking a spectacular drop to several hundred feet. Both the shallows and the drop-off are covered with corals of every description.
Just below the present-day water level there is a beautiful undercut formed when the oceans were lower. It is very much like swimming in a cave but with one side completely open. Waves smash overhead, causing a churning of white water and a deep rumble, that a diver can both hear and feel. Pockets of air trapped in crevices and holes disappear when a wave strikes and then suddenly return as the wave recedes. All along this cavern are orange cup corals, many of which, because of the low light, are out feeding. Their tiny orange tentacles wave relentlessly in the surge.
There is also a pair of French Angelfish that make this area their home, along with a large Tiger Grouper. Lately, a school of 10 or more Barracuda have been frequenting the reef.
Because the shallow area directly under the cavern is well covered in shadows from the overhead cliff, interesting available light photography can be done easily. Contrast from the outlined undercut and the blue water gives a very unusual effect. Sunlight beams down from the surface. Divers need only swim a few feet out of the shadow to become completely covered in strong sunlight, enough that a strobe is not absolutely essential.
At one time a very small section of Rappel was used as a dumping area for electrical fixtures such as air conditioners and small transformers. This was long before the rules governing the protection of Bonaire’s reefs were in effect. The dive operators on Bonaire got together, and with the help of about 10 divers, removed almost every piece of debris, making Rappel perhaps one of the most beautiful and unique reefs on Bonaire.
Nowadays at Rappel
The dive boats from all the shops and hotels take trips to Rappel and tie up to the permanent mooring there so no anchors will damage the reef. It is no longer necessary to push off the top of the cliff with rope and carabineers, laden down with full scuba gear to see the reef and fish. If you actually want to do Rappel the classic way you can bring your ropes – but the trip back up the cliff is a bit harder than getting down.
It is interesting after more than 30 years since the first and only two divers to have done this, how many people now claim they rappelled with Stan and me that and other days. Oh, how history changes over the years!!