An Island to Ourselves: Curaçao

We’re in a bright-orange rigid-hulled inflatable boat, and we are racing (as much as one can race in 7-foot swell) into the wind. My knuckles are white from gripping the center console — and it’s a good thing I’m holding on tightly, because the boat has just caught air. Come to think of it, it’s also a good thing that I pulled on my wetsuit back at the dock, because I’m so drenched that this boat ride could just about be classified as a dive.

We’ve only seen one other vessel since we left the harbor — a large fishing boat that was headed in the opposite direction. The absence of boat traffic strikes me as odd, and I lean toward the captain, a quiet Dutch expatriate, and bellow, “So, do a lot of divers go to this site?” The captain looks at me evenly, one lip raised in a not-quite-smile, and replies, “No.”

What does his “no” mean? Of course, it could be a simple reply. And there’s always the possibility that it means “I can’t really hear your questions over the engines. Please don’t bother me while I’m driving.” The tipoff here, however, is in the half smile, which on the face of the stoic Dutchman transforms “no” into something more along the lines of “No, and it’s their loss, because you’re about to have your world rocked.”

That smile pretty much says it all about the island of Curaçao: It may seem like your everyday Caribbean dive destination, but there is nothing everyday about Curaçao’s spectacular — and spectacularly uncrowded — dive sites. We get our first hint of this before we even board our flight, while we are still entrenched in the ever-popular airport game of “spot the diver.” Boisterous, dive-flag-marked groups are everywhere, headed to Grand Cayman, Bonaire, Honduras and Mexico. No such group is gathered at the gate to Curaçao, which instead contains a busy mix of families, businessmen and young couples comparing shiny wedding rings. I had the distinct feeling we were onto something.

A colorful row of houses
One of the most-photographed waterfront views in Curaçao, the Handelskade features colorful examples of colonial Dutch architecture.

My suspicion is confirmed with a vengeance during our very first dive at Eastpunt. There isn’t another boat in sight as we roll in and descend to a coral-lined cavern at 95 feet called the Love Cave (named for a nurse shark tryst once witnessed by a lucky diver). Although there is no romance on view today, the large spiny lobsters dispersed among the cracks in the cave’s ceiling are a nice consolation. There is no time to loiter, however, as a mild current pushes us along a sloping reef, passing hawksbill turtles, moray eels and large tube sponges in a gradual ascent to 60 feet.

We arrive with time to explore one of Curaçao’s most fantastic sites: Tarpon Arch. It almost goes without saying that sites named for a particular creature can be unreliable for delivering interactions with the marine life in question (I’m looking at you, Love Cave), but in this case the name is completely accurate. More than a dozen tarpon circle lazily under the large coral arch, joined by a large African pompano suffering an identity crisis. We admire the unafraid tarpon, distracted only momentarily by a bold octopus busily hunting among the sponges.

We break the surface, where there are still no other boats in sight, and head back around the point of the island to take a look at a south-facing site called Guliauw (our crew has named it “Best Reef”). We drop in and poke around a shallow lagoon for a bit in search of nurse sharks, finally giving in to the lure of the adjacent wall and dropping over the edge. We pass sponge after sponge — red barrel, yellow vase and purple tube — and finally pass around a corner to discover a dense garden of black coral so extensive that the entire wall takes on a fluffy, dreamlike appearance. We surface and head back toward the harbor. We have not seen another diver all day.

A very pretty playa with crystal blue waters and a sandy beach that has very few people
Playa Kenepa Grandi (Knip Beach), located on the western side of the island, provides a glimpse of this idyllic, uncrowded paradise.

The trend continues as we head to Klein Curaçao, an uninhabited island eight miles southeast of Curaçao proper. When we approach, I figure that solitude has gone out the window. It is a weekend, and the lee of Klein looks like a mild traffic jam, with several other dive boats weaving between moored speedboats and large snorkeling charters. The aqua hue of the shallow water and cerulean tint of the cloudless sky are interrupted only by a strip of powder-white sand upon which a pair of swimsuit models cavort for a photo shoot (no, I’m not kidding). Given the scene, I feel fortunate that anyone’s attention can be swayed by scuba at all.

We leave the crowds behind, and by the time we have pulled up to the northernmost point of the island, diving is all anyone can think of. This site, Shark Cave, is accessible only on the calmest days, and it seems that we have hit the jackpot. Green and spotted morays gape from a soft-coral- and sponge-covered wall as we descend 120 feet to the (shark-bereft but tarpon-filled) cave. The adjacent reef is dotted with anemones and large purple tube sponges, and a glance into deeper water reveals the nurse sharks, watching us smugly from under a rock.

Yellow grunt school near coral
The only underwater crowd in Curaçao, a school of grunt, gathers next to a sponge at Klein Curaçao.

We swim into the shallows for our safety stop, passing narrow ledges caked with cup corals and sea fans, as a cluster of reef squid observe us from just beyond camera range. For our next dive, we head toward South Point on the opposite tip of Klein for a completely different experience. We descend to 110 feet, where we are followed by several large barracuda as we admire a sloping wall thick with vase sponges and black coral trees.

The next day we head toward Westpunt to dive two of Curaçao’s most famous sites, and although most of the island’s dive operations run regular trips here, we seem to have the area all to ourselves. Watamula looks nothing like what we’ve seen at either Eastpunt or Klein. The seascape here is composed primarily of hard corals, with so much pillar coral that some areas resemble towers of melting ice cream. A variety of moray eels peer from the reef as schools of grunts and squirrelfish weave past.

We surface, and our captain asks, “Want to see something interesting during your surface interval?” We know better than to turn down an offer like that, and the boat motors toward a nearby pier where several small fishing boats are moored. In one, a fisherman cleans a pile of feathery lumps. “What the heck are those?” I ask. “Lionfish,” the captain replies. A moment later, we watch in confusion as a gaggle of snorkelers passes us, shouting excitedly to one another. I am all for limiting the spread of this invasive species, but it seems odd that tourists would be so gleeful about seeing fish carcasses. I look at the captain questioningly, and he laughs and says, “Look down.” We peer into the clear water just as four green turtles swim past. The smallest turtle is lugging around a chunk of fish gill as big as its own head.

You’ve never seen two people enter the water faster. An hour (or possibly two) later, after we’ve shot our fill of turtle photos and heartily debated whether we should bother with another dive or stay put, we clamber back into the boat.

We’re still hooting with delight over the turtle bonanza when we gear up to dive at Mushroom Forest. This shallow site, like many others near Westpunt, is dominated by hard coral, but with an unusual twist: The bases of the coral heads have been so eroded that they resemble outsized versions of their namesake fungus. Add in some encrusting sponge for a bit of color, and a dive here has an otherworldly Alice in Wonderland feel. This is likely why it is considered Curaçao’s signature dive. But once again we seem to be the only ones in on the secret.

A spotted octopus hunts for dinner
A hunting octopus steals attention from the tarpon at Tarpon Bridge.

We thank our captain profusely and bid him farewell; the next morning we’ll begin exploring one or two of Curaçao’s numerous shore dives. At this point we have yet to encounter a single other diver underwater, but we fully expect that to change when we pull up at the beach adjacent to the Superior Producer, hailed as one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean. The ship sank just outside of the harbor in December 1977 when her cargo shifted, and since that cargo included quite a bit of liquor, the event kicked off a party that — according to locals — lasted for two glorious days. The Producer has long since been relieved of her booze, but divers still flock here to admire this upright, intact behemoth in 110 feet of water. The building of a cruise-ship pier adjacent to the site about a decade ago created a bit of an obstacle: Divers are not permitted at the site when a cruise or military ship is present, and this can limit access quite a bit. Our research has revealed only a single day during our weeklong visit when we can dive the site, so we head there early in anticipation of a crowded wreck. We are shocked to discover that we are the only visitors on the beach, but we don’t spend time discussing matters. Instead, we gear up and enter the water before we can say “sleeping in.”

We approach the majestic ship from the stern, noting incredible visibility, several dozen large tarpon overhead, sponge and coral covering the superstructure, and a watchful spotted moray peering from the engine block. The adjacent reef is equally gorgeous, so when it’s time to turn around, we swim in slowly, admiring cowry-decorated sea fans and anemones hosting colorful shrimp in the shallow water. We emerge to discover a significantly more congested beach, and several people approach to ask us about visibility and current (factors that can occasionally make this a challenging dive). By the time our surface interval is complete, however, nearly all the others have returned from their dives, so our second exploration is as private as our first.

Sponges cover the leg of a pier
The sponge-covered pilings of Baya Beach pier are well worth a closer look.

On our final dive day, we’re drawn to dive a site that we know we’ll be sharing with others: the Tugboat. This small wreck is situated in 20 feet of water next to a sloping reef, so it’s visited regularly by classes and novice divers, and it is also a common destination for groups of snorkelers. Sure enough, despite an obscenely early arrival, the beach is packed with people donning gear. A bit of speed on our part gets us a blissful 10 minutes of alone time on the pretty site, and we are able to appreciate the glassy sweepers crowding the wheelhouse, the grunts schooling next to the propeller, and an octopus hunting before a large group of snorkelers materializes above us. We begin swimming back toward the beach, but when we spot the structure of the Baya Beach pier, we can’t resist a closer look. Our impulse is a good one: We are rewarded with beautiful sunrays filtering past pilings laden with sponges and feather duster worms, and we have the small area all to ourselves.

We can’t bring ourselves to pack a minute before it’s obligatory, and the lure of our resort’s house reef becomes too much to take. Snake Bay harbors an incredible array of small marine life including frogfish, a seahorse or two, a snake eel, arrow crabs and shrimp. During the swim in, we are distracted by the fleeting sight of a tight baitball swirling past with a couple of ravenous jacks giving eager chase.

We’re rinsing our gear when a couple approaches. They are divers from Arizona, and they want to know all about our visit. Which was our favorite site, they ask, and was it amazing? We rave about Eastpunt and Westpunt, Klein Curaçao, and the incredible shore diving. One of the pair looks at me, his voice lowered, and he stage-whispers, “So give it to me straight — are there going to be crowds of divers everywhere we go?” I can’t help but channel my inner Dutch expat as I half smile and reply very simply, “No.”

How to Dive It

Getting there and getting around: Many airlines fly into Curaçao, and a number of car-rental agencies are at the airport.

Illustrated map of Curacao

Water temperatures and exposure gear: Water temperatures range from the high 70s°F in the winter to the mid-80s°F in the summer. A shorty or 3 mm wetsuit is adequate for most divers. For shore diving, thick-soled booties are a good idea.

Shore or boat: Curaçao boasts a fringing reef, which means that a staggering number of fantastic dive sites are just a short swim from the beach. The shore diving here is phenomenal and should not be missed, but several popular sites, such as Mushroom Forest and Klein Curaçao, can be reached only by boat. Many dive operations offer packages that include a combination of shore and boat diving.

Surface interval: The city center of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, has been recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. A stroll along the waterfront to view the colorful Dutch colonial architecture is a must.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016