If I didn't already know the national bird of Bonaire is the flamingo, I couldn't possibly ignore that fact once I arrived at the tiny island's shocking pink Flamingo Airport and drove past hotel after restaurant after gift shop, all bearing the image of the flamboyant bird.
With its rosy plumage and languid grace, nothing says "tropical paradise" like the flamingo. But Bonaire's devotion to the iconic bird is about more than a color scheme or evoking a certain Caribbean vibe. Located 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and part of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire is one of only four places in the world where large numbers of Caribbean flamingos breed. More than 10,000 flamingos flock there each year to nest, feed and breed before flying to Venezuela once the season is over.
Bonaire was among the first Caribbean islands to recognize the importance of preserving its fragile ecosystem. More than one-fifth of the island — and 100 percent of the water surrounding it — are protected national parks. Its mangroves, saliñas and marine life make it an ideal habitat for more than 210 species of birds, chief among them the flamingo.
"The people of Bonaire had the good foresight to protect flamingos," said Anouschka van de Ven, communications officer at Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire, a foundation that oversees nature conservation on the six Netherlands Antilles islands. "This is a very important place for the entire Caribbean flamingo population. Without this safe area for them, I have no idea where else they would go."
There are two places to see Bonaire's flamingos: the Pekelmeer Sanctuary to the south and the Washington Slagbaai National Park in the north. Pekelmeer — "salty lake" in Dutch — is located alongside the salt flats maintained by Cargill, which harvests the sea salt. Both the salt flats and flamingos get their signature pink hue from the carotene-rich brine shrimp in the shallows.
Travelers don't have access to enter the protected sanctuary, so many line the outer parameter with binoculars to catch a glimpse of the gorgeous birds from afar. On our journey, we headed north, where we had an "in" at the Washington Slagbaai National Park: Paulo Bertuol, the park's manager.
Outside of breeding season, the flamingos can be spotted by the road around the salt pans or in Washington Slagbaai. Part of Paolo's job is to monitor and track the park's flamingo population. They had been spending the last few late afternoons in one of the park's saliñas, naturally occurring salt lakes that protect the coral reefs and other vulnerable ecosystems.
The saliñas are a reminder of the island's fragility and its past, when the surrounding ocean was nearly 20 feet higher than it is now. They fulfill the same function as the manmade salt pans that provide a favorite food source for flamingos. "The amount of saliñas and environments — exactly like what they need — is what makes Bonaire so unique for flamingos," Bertuol said.
As we made our way toward the saliñas, Paulo pointed out easily missed special places, plants and animals. The beautiful 13,500 acreage includes scenic vistas of hills, beaches, trees and vegetation, and is home to an abundance of animal life such as wild goats and donkeys, exotic birds and iguanas — several of which we happened upon, holding court around a small pond and completely unimpressed with our presence.
It was close to sunset when we spied a small clutch of the graceful birds arriving for their evening meal, a mesmerizing ritual to observe. One by one, they landed in different parts of the lake. Some moved in small groups, others solitary.
We quietly observed the group. One of six kinds of flamingos in the world, the Caribbean variety have a deep pink plumage, black primary and secondary flight feathers, and black-tipped pink and white beaks.
Some stood still, with the elegance of ballerinas. Others strutted about like proud townsfolk at the market.
One burst into movement, starting a water run with long legs flailing like an awkward foal. Gaining speed, it took flight with all the assurance and majesty of a practiced pilot.
An innate choreography seemed to guide the birds' movements as they fed and preened together as if in perfect coordination.
As the day settled into dusk, bird after bird peeled away to retire for the evening. One last flamingo quietly regarded the stillness of the scene.
It opened its wings and straightened its stance, seemingly claiming all it surveyed.
So, this is what sanctuary feels like.