Ocean Explorers Society

Curaçao and Tell

May 2003

View from BalconyYou gotta love it. I'm on my patio. I have my feet up and a cold drink in my hand. It's quiet except for the birds and the wind. A few yards away are flowering trees; beyond that, some lovely turquoise water. I'm perfectly comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt. As I go for more ice water, the 20 hours in airports, airplanes, and shuttle buses seems completely worth it.

Our trip to Curaçao was born, like most good trips, on an airplane. Still glowing from a great diving vacation and armed with a fist full of half off coupons, the OES members who took the plunge in 2002 resolved to return in 2003. The pictures were beautiful, the reports glowing, and those who stayed home were unhappy with themselves. Convincing the homebodies was a snap, and without much more than word of mouth, we had 24 people signed up.

Most people went for 7 days. Thanks to free flight availability, I had to stay 9. It broke my heart, but I recovered quickly. It seems like getting there is more than half the fun; if you define fun as time schmoozing cabin crews. Almost no matter how you slice it, you have 18 hours between San Diego and Curaçao. You have a couple of choices for flights. You can overnight on the plane, or overnight in Miami. I got to try it both ways on this trip. While I can sleep on planes, it's not my favorite way of socking Zs. Spending the night in Miami is much preferred if you can spare the time and the cash. The other frugal flyer alternative is to fly Southwest Airlines to Fort Lauderdale, spend the night, and fly out of Miami.

My flight to Curaçao actually left from Long Beach. Long Beach is a nice airport and it's only an hour and some from my house in Poway. More importantly, I've noticed that fares can be significantly cheaper out of Long Beach than San Diego. We took a short hop to LAX, and then boarded the red-eye for Miami. Thanks to fatigue and my horse collar pillow, I fell asleep shortly after take-off and didn't wake up until we were on final approach into Miami.

We got to lounge around Miami for a few hours. Everyone was glued to CNN covering the Abraham Lincoln's return to port after an extremely long tour of duty in the Middle East. I looked for Liza in the crowd shots, but never saw her. Ironically, the Lincoln's long tour of duty prevented Liza from joining us on this trip. While making my way to the new gate, I snagged a good breakfast of Cuban pastries. They're flaky like a strudel, but filled with tropical fruit. I gravitate toward guava but would assume that the other flavors are just as good.

Our plane was sparsely populated for the flight to Curaçao. I had a row to myself, so I curled up to catch another nap. I've got to believe your average concrete park bench is more comfortable than an airline seat, but after an all night flight, I was taking anything I could get. I'm sure they designed these seats with someone in mind. I'd like to meet them just to see what they look like.

We had a roller coaster descent into Curaçao, but the pilot handled the crosswinds with aplomb. Curaçao is a typical tropical airport. No jetways and a wide variety of aircraft parked all helter-skelter. As we made our way across the tarmac, the wind and bright sun reduced our eyes to mere slits. I had to wonder if it was always that windy. (Yes, at least as long as I was there)

Once inside the terminal, I joined the queues for immigration. Fortunately the only slugs on the island are underwater. Otherwise we'd have surely been slimed and eaten. Once you reached the clerks, they were very courteous; just slow. I worried that my dive gear would be spinning around the luggage carousel without me. A quick check with the Habitat Curaçao representative revealed that my taxi would be there shortly. But, I shouldn't have troubled myself over my baggage. It was another 20 minutes before the little door disgorged my gear bag and suitcase.

The taxi driver turned out to be one of the nicest people I encountered on this trip. We talked about Curaçao, its schools, its economy, people's livelihoods, and a bit about their politics. Curaçao teaches five languages in their schools; Papamiento, the native tongue, French, Spanish, Dutch, and English.

My compadres who arrived later weren't nearly as fortunate. They managed to overload the Habitat Curaçao bus. It couldn't climb the steep hill so the passengers, except for the injured Kent, got out and walked up the hill.

We were there during elections and they are indeed a big deal. The parties and candidates are color coded, presumably because literacy isn't nearly as universal as in the US. But, the Curaçaoans take their elections very seriously. I found it heartening after the angst of the recent California elections. It's easy to think of Curaçao as somewhat backward when you look at their homes, but their society is both vibrant and alive.

Cinder blocks look like the island's favorite house material. The houses themselves were decently built, but not what we'd call luxurious. We passed various stores and businesses along the way. None of them looked very prosperous. Our route also took us past a lagoon with Flamingoes. The road into Habitat Curaçao is gated with a guard shack.

The Habitat itself is a comfortable, though unassuming resort. Rooms are fairly basic; tile floors, air conditioning, patio, small desk, kitchenette, bathroom, and a couple of beds. The beds were tropical firm, but good for a sound sleep after a day of diving. There were chairs and a table on the patio. We supposedly had a garden view, but looking out the back revealed the swimming pool and something that strongly resembled the ocean. A closer inspection found it to be very wet and salty. This is my kind of garden.

Lounging by the poolLounging areas are readily available. The room patios make a pleasant gathering place. They also have chairs around the pool. If you go down to the dock and turn right, there's a lovely little deck next to the water. I spent much of the first day on this deck. Trees provide shade and you're no more than a few steps from the ocean.

They have a restaurant on the premises. It's decent, but it didn't make my top ten list. Aside from Sherman the bartender, service was indifferent. The food was good enough, but the menu needs 4 or 5 more items. They do have a couple of Curaçaoan dishes. The goat burger is excellent, and was easily my favorite dish on the menu. They also make some good soups. View from deckDespite the 90 degree temperatures, a bowl of soup after a morning of diving made an awfully good lunch.

Wildlife is abundant despite the arid conditions. Habitat puts out sugar for the fruit eating birds. I counted eight different species around the resort. Herpephobes beware, they also have a 4 foot iguana, and assorted day geckos. The iguana was gorgeous. I would have taken either the iguana or a gecko home in a heartbeat if I could have gotten him in past customs.

Habitat provides a free breakfast every morning. You can have your eggs cooked to order, or you can partake of the buffet. Some people did both. They have fresh fruit, yogurt, and ingredients for sandwiches. Bring some sandwich bags or a Tupperware container. The fruit and yogurt made a good healthy lunch.

In the United States, we tend to take things like hot water and electricity for granted. However, we twice went without power for a few hours because they were working on the power lines. For some reason, we never did get more than a mild stream of hot water from our tub. I think the idea here was to keep the water use to a minimum. In that regard it succeeded. I made my hot water do double duty by taking my dive gear into the shower with me.

Willemstadt waterfrontWillemstadt is some 40 minutes away by car. We went there for dinner on several evenings. There is a thriving tourist industry in Curaçao, and eateries are plentiful. I was disappointed with the shopping. Unless you were interested in expensive brand names, quality merchandise was hard to find.

The grocery stores are well stocked with American and European brands. I have this great tube of toothpaste. It looks just like the Colgate you'd get at any store in the US, but all the writing is in Dutch. We didn't cook any meals, though you could easily cook something for three or four people using the utensils in the kitchen. Bring your Swiss army knife, they don't provide a can opener. I brought some snacks, which turned out to be a good idea for when I got tired of the restaurant fare.

OK, you've been very patient. Let's get to the diving . . .

Habitat Curaçao is situated on one of the island's better reefs. Easy Divers, the on-site dive operator has two boats, and the tank room is open all the time. They provide lockers for your dive gear, and a place to hang your wetsuit. If you want to go dive on the reef, you grab a tank, gear up, and take the stairs down into the water. This has got to be the easiest dive on the planet.

There is a “full service” dive shop in the resort. They carry some basic dive gear and spare parts. They also rent cameras. When you ask for weights, double check what they give you. About halfway through the trip, I discovered that I was carrying three pounds more than I thought I was.

Dive BoatThey have 2 boats, each accommodating 20 divers. They're reasonably fast, comfortable, and neither had mechanical problems while we were there. JJ and Tukie, the dive masters, were very good. They knew where to find the interesting critters, and were very personable topside. They run morning and afternoon trips. Getting on the boat is easy. They have a sign-up board at the dive shack. It doesn't seem to make much difference between morning and afternoon conditions. Habitat is located on the lee side of the prevailing winds. They're blowing all the time anyway, so you don't get a morning calm of any sort.

Water temperatures were very a boring 85 degrees. There might have been a thermocline, but it was much deeper than I was willing to dive. Vis never seemed to vary much. Mostly an honest 50 feet give or take a few. Within our group, exposure protection varied from nothing at all to 5 mil fullsuits. Most people, including myself, wore 3 mm fullsuits and were just fine. Every now and again, I found myself getting a little overheated. A quick tug on the neck seal let some cooler water in, and I was on my way.

Topside temperatures were 80 at night and 90 during the day. It was always windy, and frequently cloudy. We never got a decently clear night. I would have enjoyed some stargazing time with my binoculars.

All the reefs looked healthy. I didn't see any evidence of coral bleaching, though I did see a fungus eating the coral head. The divemaster removed it wherever he found some. The reef structures still showed hurricane damage. The 25 foot waves from Hurricane Mitch dislodged coral heads and sent them rolling down the reef. You could easily pick out the path from the crushed elkhorn coral. However, the reef appears to be regenerating.

We saw plenty of juvenile fishes, but full sized adults were hard to find. This is probably due to local fishing pressure. Fishermen in skiffs were a common sight all along the island.

My first dive was actually a snorkel at the reef off Habitat. I don't do that much tropical diving, and being in water warmer than 70 degrees was something of a shock. So was seeing farther than 15 feet. I was treated to a school of eight or nine blue tangs, and lots of smaller fish on the reef and around the breakwater.

We also had some excellent night dives at the Habitat Reef. There was a monster green moray eel that liked to hang out at the boat mooring. I measured this rascal at seven feet long. There are also octopi, various fish, and anemones in the sand shallows off the docks. These shallows are only 20 feet deep and well illuminated by the hotel lights so even novice night divers can try out the diving. Nighttime brings out loads of tiny crustaceans and they're really attracted to the light. One anemone gorged itself with tiny shrimp as I held my dive light over it. In a separate incident, a barracuda swam straight into my dive light veering away at the very last moment. It was the only barracuda I saw on this trip.

Porto Marie is a dive site worth requesting. Down the wall, it's the typical Curaçaoan coral reef. Up at the top, it's a mixture of coral heads and sand situated near shore. I settled into the sand near a coral head to observe a small moray. As I watched the moray, I felt a sharp tap on my arm. I looked around for one of my dive buddies, but they were elsewhere. A couple more taps, and I'm getting somewhat annoyed. My dive buddies are still at the top of my suspect list. Yet another couple of taps, and I finally identify my assailant; an angelfish defending its nest. This is a small black fish with a really big attitude. He wants me out of there and he's not about to back down. A pair of ruthless charges against my fingers, and I'm ready to give the little guy some peace. As I move away, my piscine adversary retreats into the coral head, secure in his ability to repel even the largest of invaders.

My favorite site was Mushroom Forest. This site is thick with coral heads, hence the name. The coral heads are home to numerous small creatures. Getting in close revealed a variety of small shrimp, crinoids, and anemones. Christmas tree worms were common, and some coral heads looked more like a tree farm than a coral head. You never had to go very far to see something interesting.

We had one truly outstanding dive where we found both a frogfish, and seahorses. Both are very well camouflaged. Alas, I'm very near-sighted and it took me a lot of effort to spot them even when they were pointed out.

I had problems with sensory overload on the first few dives. There is so much to look at that my little cold water brain got overwhelmed by all the life and ended up seeing lots, but comprehending very little. If you're a low-vis diver, you'll be best off taking your first few dives at the Habitat Reef before you start burning your boat dives.

Photoheads will find plenty to shoot. I found plenty of macro subjects, and anyone with a Nikonos and a 20 mm lens will want for little. Unfortunately, my camera was malfunctioning and I only took 2 rolls of film.

Now for the big question, would I go back? Absolutely. Our group price at Habitat was an extraordinary value. The rooms were comfortable and clean. The hotel staff was adequate, if somewhat unmotivated. I'm not the most experienced tropical diver, but I would rate the diving at A-. The boats were decent, and the Curaçaoan divemasters were excellent. I really like having the option of grabbing a tank and going diving any time I want to.

Loading the vanMy return trip was a huge improvement over the out-bound leg. We spent the night in Miami, which turned out to be a great move. There are numerous hotels around the airport and many are reasonably priced. The concierge at out hotel suggested we have dinner at Catch of the Day in Little Havana. This was easily our best meal of the trip. Mojitos, seafood, Cuban cuisine, and Salsa music are an unbeatable combination. I'm spending an extra day or two in Miami on my next trip.

Dave's Trip Tips:

 

Many Thanks to:

Mark Clausen for getting this trip started.
Jon Parkhurst for handling reservations.
Photo Credits: Eileen Parkhurst, Pam Stone-Cencak
Kevin for some amusing videos, especially the frogfish falling of the coral head.
The rest of the OES travelers. Good company for any kind of  times.
Group Photo

Copyright 2003, 2004, David Ambrose All rights reserved.


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