Bruce Bowker would never describe himself as an icon, a pillar, a pioneer, a giant, a champion, a legend or a hero. Yet he was all that and so much more.
Bruce was born on April 16th 1947 in Milford, New Jersey, USA. The youngest of two children, his dad was a pharmacist/drugstore owner. His mother owned a small store and worked in the drugstore. Bruce became fascinated with diving at an early age, during family trips to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in the mid-50s. By the eight grade, Bruce knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. During a career planning day then, Bruce told his teacher he wanted to be a professional diver. He wasn’t sure the teacher believed him. In the early 60s he received his first certification card from a local dive club. In 1972 a NAUI certification followed and in 1973 during a YMCA instructor’s class in Princeton, Bruce met Captain Don Stewart. Don asked Bruce if he’d like to work for him for three weeks and even though Bruce had never heard of Bonaire before he said “Yes!”. Bruce became the first ever full-time dive instructor on Bonaire. The 3 week plan turned into an almost 5 decade long adventure. Bruce became a PADI instructor in 1975 and in 1980 he started his own business, the Carib Inn, together with his wife Liz.
One could say “and the rest is history”, but this is where history (and his story) really started. Bonaire’s diving tourism was in its infancy and Bruce was instrumental in nurturing it to maturity. Several dive site names are inspired by Bruce. “Rappel” in the North got its name because Bruce and his friends got to that dive site from shore by rappelling down with ropes in full dive gear. And “The Lake” was originally called “Lake Bowker” in honor of Bruce. He played an important role in many important moments of Bonaire’s dive related history such as the sinking of the Hilma Hooker wreck in 1984, but none more so than saving Klein Bonaire for future generations.
In 1995 the owners of Klein Bonaire, a group of real estate developers called Development Corporation Klein Bonaire, applied for permits for future hotel development on the island. Bruce Bowker and others started the FPKB, the Foundation Preservation Klein Bonaire, headquartered at Carib Inn. They raised funds and awareness over the coming years through shear dedication and passion for nature. In 1999 they were able to secure the necessary funds, 5 million dollars, in part due to help from the Dutch Royal Family. On December 30th 1999, Klein Bonaire was purchased from the owners and donated to the people of Bonaire under the strict stipulation that it should never be developed. It is now officially designated as a Protected Area and it is part of the Bonaire National Marine Park. Throughout his life and his career Bruce has always served in places where the island needed him. In the FPKB in the 90s. Later on in CURO, the Council of Underwater Resort Operators and for the past 15 years as an active board member of STINAPA, the National Park Foundation. Bonaire owes Bruce a great debt for all he has done.
Carib Inn grew steadily with more units being added over time, the dive shop being built in 1985 and a classroom on top of the dive shop in 1996. A lot of the work he did himself with the help of his dedicated team. Bruce turned into an expert cabinet maker and wood worker. He was world-renowned for his customer service and his technical skills. If you had a problem with a piece of dive equipment that no-one else could fix, Bruce was your man. He could do true magic, even with a good portion of his fingers missing. And often at a price so low that it shocked people. His retail store was literally a diver’s dream…a scuba candy store. The resort enjoyed the highest occupancy rates on the island due to a steady stream of loyal guests who kept coming back year after year. One had to be ‘allowed’ to book a room. It was a privilege, not a right. And one had to live by Bruce’s rules and regulations, which were ever expanding. But although this all may sound rather strict, guests and staff at Carib Inn never felt like anything less than family. Bruce has changed countless lives quite literally. He changed lives by introducing people to the underwater world, but also simply by being Bruce. His quick wit, his dry humor, his straight-forward directness and honesty, his unparalleled drive and work ethic, his incredible love for nature but above all his big humble stubborn heart with which he touched the hearts of all who were lucky enough to meet him. His guests were his family, but so was his staff. Bruce has had a dedicated and loyal team since day one, and many of his team have worked for him for decades. Those team members now have to miss their rock, their friend, their boss, their Bruce.
Sadly, 7 months ago his dear wife Liz passed away. It shocked Bruce to the core, but it did not break him. Bruce was a superhero. Bruce was unbreakable. Sadly that turned out to be untrue. While working on a project at Carib Inn, Bruce had an unfortunate accident that he could not survive. His relatives, staff and closest friends were able to say goodbye to Bruce during a ‘virtual wake’ last Saturday night. Bruce passed away peacefully an hour later. Hopefully to be with Liz again and he will definitely repair a few regulators along the way. You leave a big void now Bruce. We’ll all do our best to fill that void with the values that you instilled in us. And we’ll try to follow in your footsteps, they are big shoes to fill.
Bruce was preceded in death by his parents, Arnold & Ruth Bowker, and his wife, Elizabeth Bowker-Dove. His is survived by his sister, Sally Szelag; his nieces, Sandi Szelag and Lynne Culbreth; his nephew, Bob Szelag; and great-nephew, Tanner Ferraro.
Bruce will be cremated in a private ceremony. A celebration of life will be organized for all those that loved Bruce.