"Free" Dive in Curacao

Many warm water destinations pride themselves on how they
take care of visiting divers’ every needs from hauling and
assembling their gear to leading them through dives like so many
teabags on a string to disassembling, rinsing and drying gear at
day’s end. Not so at Curacao, where visitors are encouraged to
fend for themselves. It's not as daunting as divers accustomed to
regimented boat dives might think.

Shore diving is easy off the 38-mile-long western shore, which is
protected from the trade winds that push waves against the
eastern side. The island is rarely hit with hurricanes because of
its location just north of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean

Many operators, like Habitat Curacao – a sister operation to Capt.
Don’s on Bonaire – have a rope leading from its dock to guide
divers. At about 120 feet offshore, a wall begins at 35 feet and
angles at about 50 degrees down to depths well below safe diving
limits. Anytime day or night, just grab tanks and go diving.

Being in total control of the dive allows photographers to wait
until reef creatures overcome their fear and pose for pictures.
Always wanted to get a shot of fish being groomed at cleaning
stations? Maybe an octopus, flounder or scorpion fish changing
colors? Lobsters teaming out of honey holes on their nightly
feeding forays? With no dive master to herd you along with the
rest of the cattle from the boat, you can take your time to wait
for the shot. Once you know where the denizens live, you can
return to reshoot images missed during earlier dives.

If you tire of your resort’s house reef, pick up the dive-and-dive
map in any dive shop. It has descriptions and driving directions
to shore sites all around the island, each marked with diver-down
flags painted on rocks that are numbered to correspond with
those on the map.

Urban divers who miss traffic jams will want to visit the car pile,
an early attempt at creating an artificial reef at about 50 feet. Not
far from this shore-dive site is the tugboat in Curacao
Underwater Park. Remains of an airplane can be visited just off
Sunset Waters Resort. However, the granddaddy of Curacao
wrecks is the Superior Producer, a cargo ship that sank in 1978
just outside of Willemstad harbor. It is 110 feet to the sand with
the wheelhouse rising to 80 feet. Because of heavy shipping
traffic, it’s often visited by boat.

Dive boats provide access to sites that are inconvenient to reach
because of their distance from suitable beach access. Mushroom
Forest is one that is favored for its giant coral heads that
resemble morel mushrooms popping up from a plain at 40 to 60
feet. Corals galore populate Black Coral Forest, at 30 to 100 feet
off cliffs near Land House San Nicolas. Hell’s Corner, near the
tip at Santa Martha Bay, bears the fury of storms. Steep cliffs
nearby and unpredictable currents preclude shore diving, but it’s
a place to keep an eye out for big creatures. A two-hour boat ride
southeast of the island is Klein Curacao, an uninhabited island
known for its pristine reef and beaches for picnicking.

Events worth putting on the diving calendar are the spring Dive
Curacao festival and the fall coral spawn. The festival
intersperses mornings and evenings of diving with talks on
marine life, underwater photography and safety by leading
experts. The harvest full moon triggers coral to spawn, filling the
water column with streams of eggs and predators that travel the
world over to gorge on the feast. Comprehensive lists of the
island’s many reefs can be seen at www.curacao-diving.com
and www.curacao-actief.com.

Between dives, visit Willemstad, a quaint city painted in pastels.
Local fruits are sold at the floating market downtown. Drop by
the Seaquarium to learn about local flora and fauna, and rent a
car to visit the cactus-studded Cristoffel National Park and Hato
Caves, adorned with 1,500-year-old petroglyphs left by the
Caquetio Indians.
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PHOTOS

Contact Bob
Banded Coral Shrimp. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Trumpet Sponge. Photo: Bob Sterner
Sponge. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Coral Head. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Puffer. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Scorpion Fish. Photo: Bob Sterner
Trumpet Fish Ready to Prey. Photo: Bob Sterner
Floating Market. Photo: Bob Sterner
Sponges. Photo: Barbara Krooss
Petroglyphs. Photo: Bob Sterner
Learn about Curacao at:
Getting There

American and Continental are domestic airlines that
fly to Curacao. Pack your passport if you want to
get back into the U.S. upon returning.

Topside temperatures in the 80s F by day are
warm, but pack a light jacket for cooler evenings.
Water temperatures in the low-70s F make a full
wetsuit and hood feel comfortable during days of
repetitive diving.

The desalinated seawater is safe from every tap.
Electricity varies from 110 to 130 volts with a
steady 50 cycles that make electric clocks run
slow, so pack an alarm clock. Local Atlantic
Standard Time is the same as Eastern Daylight
Time.

Local currency is the guilder, but U.S. dollars are
readily accepted. Gamble at the island’s casinos,
but make sure to save $20 U.S. in cash for the
departure tax.

Many resort packages include breakfast, but you’
re on your own for lunch and dinner. Those who
book suites can prepare their own lunches. For
dinner, try everything from Indonesian inspired
Rijstaffel to hearty club fare at the Boat House to
nouvelle cuisine at Astrolab in Willemstad. Check
the fine print on menus and hotel agreements
because tips often are included in the tab.

One place careful divers can avoid is St. Elizabeth
Hospital’s recompression chamber.