Updated: Apr 7, 2020
As Mostly Seen From Underwater
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I felt immediately at ease. Not because I was starting a vacation, or at the end of a long flight - it was due to the extreme dry heat that enveloped my body, relaxing my muscles and welcoming me to another foreign land. Curacao is part of the ABC Islands - Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. I chose Curacao because I was travelling solo, and it had the best mix of hostels, nightlife, Venezuelan food and excellent shore diving. As my passion for scuba grew deeper, it was time to advance in the diving world by adding a few more certifications to my credibility. I grabbed my gear and flew south!
I was spending 7 days on the Island, and the days I didn't dive I spent exploring. I took the bus to the northwesternmost tip, Westpunt, where the best beaches are found.
The languages in Curacao are primarily Papiamento and Dutch. Fluent in neither, I was becoming an expert at conversations mostly based on sign language. This really came in handy when discussing routes at the main bus terminal. Many hand gestures and lots of broken English later, I had the correct bus to whisk me north. Not only was I the only non-local on the bus, I was also the least dressed. It must have been 95 degrees, but as I looked around it seemed everyone had on pants, long sleeve shirts - I even saw men in suits! If I didn't stand out already being the only American I definitely did sitting in my board shorts and bright pink rash guard!
As the bus drove north, it navigated through desert terrain. I saw cacti as far as the eye could see, flamingos cooling off in ponds, rolling dirt mountains and gorgeous poppies. Stray dogs, goats and giant iguanas frequently ran about. I read about what to do if a stray dog approached me, and I wondered if I would encounter any once I left the safety of the bus. Turns out, I did - a bunch of them! If you shout at them they cower away...but still, it's a bit nerve racking when you're out wandering solo!
With no cell phone, I felt a spark of excitement by not relying on my usual crutch from home - Google maps. Armed with a paper map (they still exist) and a general good sense of direction (thank you genetics) I embarked on my mile and a half walk through the desert to gorgeous Playa Kalki.
Leaving my clothes on the beach, I tucked my cash and remaining belongings into my waterproof fanny pack (I got over that embarrassment quickly as it was the reason I could snorkel for hours with peace of mind!), clicked my camera into it's waterproof case, and dove in! I spent hours exploring the fringing reefs, seeing tons of life I'd only seen pictures of like peacock flounder, adorable smooth trunkfish and thousands of fish in every color imaginable.
Surfacing from my adventure, I grabbed a mango daiquiri at the tiki hut, laid in the sand and smiled...I felt lucky to escape my home for this paradise. I felt free and exhilarated exploring the Island alone, as I pleased, doing what I wanted to do, no one's bad mood, laziness or objections to deal with. I couldn't stop smiling. From the unspoiled beach harboring a flurry of life below the surface to the limestone cliffs with cacti reaching out from the cracks that surrounded it...I savored the moment of true bliss.
It was time for the goat stew I'd read about at Playa Forti, which is famous for it's gorgeous beach of course - and many daredevils are attracted to it's 32 foot cliff jump. The restaurant was perched on the cliff, and as I ate my stew I watched the locals hurl themselves into the ocean, the sunlight shimmering off the azure sea. The smiling continued.
After lunch, I made my way down to the beach for more snorkeling in a different area. Mask on and snorkel secured, I dove in to discover turtles in the shallow sandy slope near the shore. They were peacefully basking in the sun, swimming through rays of sunlight that penetrated the water. When they surfaced for air I did too, their tiny heads breaking the calm surface.
The diving in Curacao was shore diving. This was due to the fringing reef system surrounding the island. Having only dove barrier reefs, I was used to taking a boat out - sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes. Usually I don't mind as the ride itself yields spectacular views of turquoise waters and tropical shores, as well as time to chat with others on board that share your passion! Since the spectacular reefs were right off shore, we geared up and waded right in, swimming 50 feet out before descending.
I was getting two additional certifications that week. First, I did my Advanced Open Water, which involves 5 types of dives. I was most excited to choose wreck diving since a famous wreck, The Superior Producer, lay just offshore. But first I had to pass a deep dive, since the wreck lay at a cool 100 feet below the surface. To pass a deep dive you need to descend to 130 feet without losing your mind. My instructor warned me I'd start to feel loopy, silly - basically drunk. Known as nitrogen narcosis, your body tissues are absorbing pressurized gasses, and this is the reaction your brain has. It's harmless, although it can be deadly since you start to lose ability to make rational decisions. As promised, my instructor wrote a basic math problem on his slate, and I had absolutely no clue. It looked easy, but my brain just couldn't comprehend it. In fact, I was deliriously happy - and very drunk! When we ascended to 80 feet, he asked me again. I solved it immediately.
I'll never forget the eerie silhouette that suddenly appeared through my mask as we made our way towards the sunken vessel. At 100 feet underwater, I was dealing with much less light than I was used to. All color is gone, except blue. A 240 foot cargo ship, The Superior Producer sunk in 1978 and since then the ocean has embraced its entirety, the ship teeming with life. I'd never been particularly interested in wreck diving - I usually preferred good ol' Mother Nature. But as I explored the ship I had an overwhelming feeling of adventure and intrigue, like I was exploring the past.
With thousands of species to see, many are easy to appreciate just by looking around. But finding most of the true gems means slowing down and really poking around the intricate reefs. The key to finding macro life is to learn to spot what they live in or feed off of. With over 3,000 dives under his belt, my divemaster showed me around the reefs he'd grown to know so well, pointing out tiny creatures I would never have found just by looking around. As we swam along, he wrote names of exotic - and sometimes alienesque - creatures on his slate. Thousands of wonders thrive in Curacao's underwater world, and I had my very own dive guide showing it to me!
Early in my diving days, when I was about 18, I had an awful experience night diving. Our first time, my brother and I were in Key Largo excited to try it out. Long story short, our divemaster didn't even come in the water with us - just took us to the reef, cracked open a beer, and wished us a good dive. For you non-divers out there, this is a huge no-no! Totally unsafe and violates regulations - I've never experienced anything like that since!
Fast forward to Curacao: Knowing night diving is an incredible experience, I was determined to try again. My divemaster was excellent, and the three of us waded into the warm ocean under a glistening moon. Armed with flashlights, we swam out towards the reef. Although the water's visibility was perfect in the darkness, you can only see where your flashlight is pointed. As I shined my light around I was delighted how colorful everything looked! The corals were more vibrant and surfaces sparkled all around me. I saw animals I'd never seen before come out for dinner, including dozens of glistening octopi shimmying around the sand and contorting their squishy bodies into crevices in the corals. Caribbean reef squid inked in surprise and jetted off when we captured them in our spotlights. When we surfaced again, we floated on our backs towards the shore, gentle waves moving us along as we gazed up at millions of stars.
Curacao was a blast! Stunning reefs teeming with life everywhere I looked coupled with incredibly accessible dive sites make it a true diver's paradise. From numerous breathtaking beaches, to happy hours with the enthusiastic dive community, to dancing through the night at the Island's famous beach parties, it really made me want to quit my life and move down to paradise!