Despite its Caribbean charm, mild climate and beautiful dives, Curacao has remained somewhat off the radar for many dive travelers. Word is starting to spread, however, and the island is quickly becoming a must-go diving destination.
words ofMark 'Crowley' Russel. Images of Valentina Cucchiara
Many divers who have visited Curaçao consider it home to the best coral diving in the Caribbean. So biodiverse are its reefs, in fact, that Fabien Cousteau earmarked the island to be the future site of hisProteus lives underwater.
While some might argue that the nearby island of Bonaire is a better place to dive, it's a hotly contested competition under the waves. Tipping the scales in Curaçao's favor, however, is the fact that there's so much more to enjoy above the water's surface compared to its less-developed neighbor.
Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles known as the 'ABC Islands', along with Aruba and Bonaire, Curacao is rich and tragic in history; once a staging post for Spanish conquistadors and then a central hub of the Caribbean slave trade.
Even after the abolition of slavery, many of the island's native population clamored for independence from their former colonial masters, and while the Netherlands Antilles was given semi-autonomous status during its formation in 1954, it was not until the group was dissolved in 2010 that the island really began to take control of its own destiny.
Curaçao's rapid tourism recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic is indicative of the island's growing popularity, no doubt spurred on by significant infrastructure investments, improvements to its roads and airport, and construction of new resorts - such as the Coral Estate Luxury Resort, Zoëtry, and the new Sandals resort – plus enduring favorites like the award-winning Lion'sDive Beach Resort.
“Curaçao gained its independence from the Netherlands in 2010, which led to a greater focus on developing the island's identity and culture,” said Bryan Horne, founder of Curaçao.Dive Curacao. “The economy has grown steadily over the past decade, with a focus on expanding the tourism industry. The island has seen an influx of new hotels, resorts and restaurants.'
Curaçao has also invested heavily in preserving its natural beauty. The island recognized early on that diving and other forms of tourism, no matter how noble, have a significant and negative impact on the environment.
Hand in hand with its growth as a dive destination is the island's adoption of a number of sustainability initiatives such as the PADI AWARE Foundation's Adopt A Dive Site program and the latest Green Fins initiative. For some years now, Curaçao has also been home to a coral regeneration and restoration project run by the Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao, with the intention of protecting the reefs before they are damaged, rather than – as is often the case – repairing them after the damage has been done. done.
Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao
Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2015 as a joint initiative between the existing Coral Restoration Foundation, Ocean Encounters Diving, Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI Foundation) and the government of Curaçao. Pieces of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and elk horn coral (Acropora palmata) are grown in nurseries before being returned to the reef. As of 2023, the project has 40 corals in its nurseries and over 10,000 corals have been planted on Curaçao's reefs.
Underwater, there are few things on Curaçao that aren't to love. The reefs are vibrant, dynamic and full of thriving corals, gathered in a very easy to dive fringing reef plate and gentle slopes, where conditions are almost always easy, the current is almost always negligible, the water warm and visibility almost always 20-30 m (60-100 ft) or more.
Cynics will point out that the 75 species of coral found in the Caribbean don't compare to the roughly 570 species endemic to the Indo-Pacific Coral Triangle, but divers shouldn't assume that 'less species' is equivalent to 'less coral' - far from that. Some of the reefs, especially those at Watamula and Mushroom Forest at the western end of the island, are full of giant stony coral formations, whose branching varieties have unusually extensive and significant growth, partly as a result of the fact that diving on Curaçao – although has grown in numbers over the past decade – it is not done on an industrial scale like other popular tourist resorts.
The dive is broadly divided into 'East' and 'West', following the contours of the island. Most dive centers are located in the eastern half, as this is where the island is most developed. The east is also home to Curaçao's National Marine Park, which stretches from the tip of the island at Oostpunt, to the excellent wall diving at Director's Bay and the popular and photogenic - but shallow - tugboat sunken, with its associated reef and pier.
The west is considered slightly better for diving; a little more protected from the elements, although most of the south coast is well protected and with a little less development on land, the reefs have been less dived than those located closer to the heart of Willemstad and surrounding areas.
The reefs are home to a magnificent variety of fish – snapper, barracuda, parrotfish and grouper are some of the usual suspects, along with moray eels and octopuses, and the big, bad silver tarpon.
Big things are less common - manta rays and whale sharks make occasional appearances, but hawksbill and green turtles are common, and eagle rays, large southern stingrays and nurse sharks are found regularly, particularly in the west.
Macro lovers will enjoy hunting seahorses and frogfish. For shipwreck enthusiasts, Curaçao is home to theSenior Producer, one of the most popular wreck dives in the Caribbean. Fully loaded with a cargo of Christmas goods bound for Venezuela in 1977, the vessel sank shortly after leaving port and is now standing on the bottom in 30m of seawater with easy entry ashore. The coral-encrusted superstructure remains largely intact, with open cargo holds creating an atmospheric passageway.
From a practical standpoint, much diving on Curacao can be done from shore - a simple matter of gearing up in the parking lot and getting in the water. Guided dives are recommended for the most enjoyable experience, but some dive shops also offer 'drive 'n' dive' packages for regular visitors and experienced divers alike.
The topography of the reef is such that navigation to the entry and exit point is quite straightforward. Surface conditions are such that missing it means little more than a long swim or a slightly embarrassing hike.
Boat diving is much more available than in the past, but there are only a handful of sites not accessible from shore. Boat-only spots such as Watamula are some of the best, however they are not essential to an enjoyable scuba diving holiday and are satisfactorily compensated for by spots such as the equally spectacular nearby spot known as Alice in Wonderland.
Above the surface, Curaçao shines. The capital Willemstad, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, surrounds the natural harbor of Sint Anna Bay, its two central waterfront districts, Punda and Otrobanda, on either side, connected by the iconic Queen Emma floating bridge.
The buildings are an amalgamation of Dutch and Spanish colonial design buildings, painted in a riot of colors that, under Curaçao's ever-present sun, are simply stunning.
The tradition goes back to 1817, when Governor Albert Kikkert complained that the bright sun against the white exterior of the buildings gave him migraines, so he ordered the buildings painted any color but white. Legend has it that the workers went to the local paint factory, not realizing that Kikkert owned a considerable number of shares in the factory until his death two years later.
While it has become fashionable in some countries to try to remove all vestiges of its colonial past, Curaçao has embraced the artistic and architectural aspects of its tragic historical legacy. Some of the old buildings may be of European design, but they were almost certainly built by slaves and later by indigenous labor.
Six forts built during the Dutch occupation of the island, from the oldest, Fort Amsterdam, built in 1636, to the most recent Rif Fort and Waterfort, built in 1827/28, remain intact, well preserved and in use as government offices, shops and catering centers and tourist attractions. There are restrictions on new construction and owners of historic buildings are under instruction to restore rather than rebuild whenever possible.
Juxtaposed against the colorful backdrop of downtown Willemstad, however, Curaçao's Kurá Hulanda Museum offers a moving reminder of the island's dark past and perhaps a reason to understand why Curaçao's Afro-Caribbean population is so proud of their island. . To the west of the new mega cruise ship pier is a monument to Tula, leader of the Curaçao Slave Revolt, at the site of his execution in 1795.
Away from the city, there is much to be explored in Curaçao's countryside. With a hot, arid climate, the island is surprisingly green and home to an exceptional amount of wildlife, particularly birds. The simple fact of traveling between the dive sites will provide visitors with the colorful vision of a flock of flamingos hunting for brine shrimp in the waters of the salt flats.
Off the beaten path, guided tours of Shete Boka and Christoffel National Parks are led by enthusiastic rangers from the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation (CARMABI) and will provide plenty to explore in the afternoons after diving.
Those looking for a little adventure will find ATV tours heading west to explore the interior of the island, and divers looking for a little more might like to visit Curaçao Substation, which offers adventurers the chance to take a ride on a U-Boat Worx C- Explorer 5 submersible to visit the 137m deep wreckage of the Stella Maris.
Launched in June 2010, the Curaçao Substation provides services for tourists and scientific expeditions to explore the depths around the island, with a 360-degree view from the glass dome of a U-Boat Worx C-Explorer 5, or the 'CureSub'. A range of dive tours to a maximum of 300m are available, and Substation also offers a pilot training programme. For those nervous about sitting in a rather small space for several hours on the bottom, the owner built a surface replica for his wife, which is now available for passengers to try out before diving in.
I spent some time on Curaçao in 2008/9 during my career as a diving instructor working forthe dive bus, one of the main diving centers on the island. Although I fondly remember my time there, I always felt that there was something about Curaçao that wasn't finished yet.
Downtown Willemstad was as bright and vibrant as it has been for many years, and while there has never been a time in recent history when Curacao could be considered anything other than a cosmopolitan, thriving island, it simply wasn't as bright as it is today.
In the 13 years since independence, however, it seems Curaçao's colorful character has extended through a solid investment in diving and tourism travel, with a commitment not only to environmental sustainability, but underpinning all of its charm. historical and cultural to create an experience that has earned its place among the world's top diving destinations.
More from the island of Curacao
- Visit Curaçao – the best snorkeling in the Caribbean
- Curacao's top dive operators become members of Green Fins
- Dive Curaçao launches new complete dive vacation platform
- The Story of Curaçao's Iconic Superior Producer
- Rising of Proteus – Fabien Cousteau's Underwater Habitat
Valentina stayed inCoral Estate luxury resortand dove with Laura Van Loon (Dive With Laura). Thanks also tothe dive bus,Go West Diving,Diving and water sports in Blue Bay,Reef Renewal CuraçaonoOcean Encounters,LionsDive Beach Resort,Curaçao substation,CARMABIand Bryan Horne ofDive Curacao.
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Mark 'Crowley' Russel
Crowley (known to his mother as Mark), took his IT job in 2005 and spent the next nine years working as a full-time professional diver. He started writing for DIVE in 2010 and hasn't stopped since.
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