Watersport Playground of the Caribbean
Text and Photography by Walt Stearns, Jul. 1997
When Alonzo de Ojeda came upon the 19.6 by 6 mile island of Aruba in 1499, he claimed it for the Spanish crown. However, after finding nothing more than a barren countryside of cactus prairies and ayos (rock formations comprised of giant granite boulders), the island was dubbed Isla Inutil, a 'useless island.' As a result, Spain never bothered to colonize Aruba. How were they to know Aruba would become, some 490 years later, one of the Caribbean's top watersport destinations? After all, scuba diving and windsurfing were still quite a way down the road.
Part of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), Aruba is the place for anyone who loves sun and surf. In fact, when it comes to watersports, Aruba offers a comprehensive selection.
Forty-two miles west of Curacao, Aruba is part of the Windward Group of islands, recipients of year-round east/northeasterly trades that average 15 miles per hour. For this feature alone Aruba has emerged as one of the hot ticket destinations among sailboarders, playing host to a multitude of windsurfing competitions, including the International Pro-Am Windsurfing Tournament in September.
Below the waves, Aruba is equally impressive. It offers vibrant coral reefs with multitudes of colorful fish, as well as wrecks from several eras of exploration.
During a recent four day stint, I had the occasion to dive with Aruba's top three dive operations. Each played host for a day. This grand threesome included Red Sail Sports, based at the Hyatt; Pelican Tours and Watersports, beachside at the Playa Linda Beach Resort; and Unique Sports of Aruba, beachside at the Aruba Palms Beach Resort. In addition to having all the necessary features for a large watersport operation; quality rental equipment, well maintained compressors and dive boats and well trained divemasters, instructors and captains; I found each operation's level of professional service excellent.
Besides having the ability to provide instruction from a Discover Scuba Course (entry level) to assistant instructor (as well as a long list of specialty courses from PADI), these operations can provide their guests with all of the toys needed for a wide variety of watersports. Want to waterski, windsurf, race a waverunner, parasail, take a wild tow ride on a banana boat or take an easy snorkel/sail trip? Just sign up at the same time you set up your dive schedule.
Diving Aruba: Dive trips customarily cover both the southern and western boundaries of the island. The reef system fringes Aruba's western and southern shoreline. Along Aruba's south coast, the reefs slope from the shallows at 35 feet to a flat sandy plane, with scattered coral heads at a depth of 100 to 130 feet max.
Covering the steep contours of sites such as Sponge, Barcadera, Kantil, Planco, Mike and Lago Reef, (a small sampling) divers will find five to seven foot tall colonies of Giant Slit-Pore and Porous Searod soft corals. Mingling with these dark brown, wavy branches are large, scattered heads of Star, Boulder-Mound and Brain Corals with small progressions of various sponges, including bright Orange Elephant Ear. Flittering above, scores of cigar sized Bogas, Creole Wrasse and Brown Chromis add to the energy of the reef.
Around to the western side of the island, the bottom contours have a much flatter profile. With the exception of Blue Reef, also known as Malmok Reef, most dives along the west coast are relatively shallow, 25 to 60 feet max. Blue Reef starts at 70 feet with wide fingers of hard corals, largely comprised of Brain and Leaf Corals with large Barrel and Purple Tube Sponges separated by equally wide swaths of white sand bottom. Close to the reef is a 120 foot long fuel barge, sunk in 1992 as an additional attraction for both divers and fish.
Aruba has its fair share of premier wrecks. The most popular and colorful is the 400 foot German freighter Antilla. Referred to as the 'Ghost Ship,' the Antilla was scuttled in 1945 by her own crew. As the story goes, the Antilla's engine compartment flooded while her boilers were still superheated, causing an explosion that nearly ripped her hull in two. Today, with the exception of a large gap where the ship's boilers once sat, the Antilla lies in 55 feet of water, listing heavy to her port side, with part of her starboard side breaking the surface. Although visibility often averages between 40 and 60 feet, sometimes dropping as low as 30 feet when there are high winds, there is a lot to see on this wreck. From stem to stern her massive hulk bristles with colonies of corals, sponges and small fish. Along both of the Antilla's two short masts, down to the supporting cables, are such a plenitude of small sponges and corals it becomes almost impossible to identify the ship's structure through the growth. The Antilla's beauty does not end there. During the spring and early summer season, schools of Silversides become a large feature of the wreck.
A short distance from the Antilla, lying in 35 feet of water, is the scattered wreckage of the oil tanker Pedernales, sunk February 16, 1942, by a German U-boat. Although popular for its easy depth and abundance of small reef fish, not all of the wreck is here. Soon after it was sunk, the U.S. Military cut the Pedernales into three, taking the forward and rear sections and leaving the torpedo-damaged midsection behind. The salvaged halves were later welded together, becoming a troop carrier used for the Normandy invasion.
Back around Aruba's south side, midway down the coast, is the wreck of the Jane Sea, a large, fully intact freighter resting upright on the bottom under 95 feet of water. The deck of this 250 foot ship rises to a depth of 60 feet with its aft wheelhouse at 45. Since its placement on the bottom some eight years ago, the Jane Sea has developed nicely, sporting numerous colonies of vivid red and pink encrusting sponges intermixed with Orange Cup Corals and small deep water seafans. Of particular interest is the freighter's massive rudder and six foot high propeller.
Equally alluring, straight out from the Sonesta Beach Hotel's private island is the fully intact fuselage of a Convair 400. Confiscated by the Aruba Government during a drug smuggling takedown, this moderate sized, twin prop aircraft (similar in size and shape to a DC-3) was placed on the bottom, upright at a max depth of 45 feet, through the collective efforts of some of Aruba's watersport operators. A fully intact aircraft wreck this large is a rarity. For easy penetration, the only items removed before its sinking were the two main entry doors (fore and aft) and most of the interior.
With the exception of some currents along the south side, water conditions are generally unchallenging. Water temperatures average between 78 and 82°F year-round, making anything heavier than a 2 to 3mm jumpsuit, shorty or dive skin unnecessary. With conditions this favorable, not only is it easy to get in two to three dives a day, but it is a great place for a nondiving spouse or friend to get certified.
Other Activities: Aruba has more to offer than just diving. There is plenty to do and see on land. Mixed with its arid climate with little annual rainfall the island's interior scrub and cactus prairies look like something found in the American Southwest. You can visit sites such as Aruba's 100 foot natural bridge, made of coral and carved out by the surf's continuous pounding, as well as the chapel of Alto Vista, built by Spanish missionaries in 1750. Almost everywhere along the way you will see divi-divi trees, with their long branches flowing in the direction of the prevailing winds.
Aruba is an old island with a modern face. From Oranjestad (the capital) to hotel row along Eagle and Palm Beach on the west end of the island, stately resorts, casinos and shopping centers tempt visitors. Shopping holds a high priority on the island.
Most of Aruba's populace speak fluent Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento. Dutch is the official language but English is the most widely spoken.
Like its two sister islands to the east, Aruba occupies the same region below the Caribbean's Hurricane Belt, keeping it fairly free of these high wind terrors. Between the region's steady tradewinds and location close to the equator, the year-round temperature customarily ranges in the mid 80s (°F).
While casual, light clothing is the rule by day, evening can be a different matter. Packing some dressier clothing might be a good idea. Aruba offers gourmet restaurants, nightclubs and a host of casinos. For about the first six weeks of the new year, the island surrenders itself to the wildly colorful Carnival, the celebrations for which can start in the early hours of the day and last into the wee hours of the night. Other activities can include an 18 hole round of golf at Aruba's Golden Links Certified Tierra del Sol course or tennis.
Travel Information: Flying from Miami International Airport, the island's own carrier, Air Aruba provides daily, nonstop service to the island with flights to both Bonaire and Curacao. In addition to providing on time departures and gracious service to and from Miami, Air Aruba also offers nonstop flights from Baltimore, Newark and Tampa.
After clearing customs and immigration, a De Palm Tours bus will transport you to your hotel of choice and back again when your stay is over. This convenient, round-trip service is provided with almost all hotel packages, unless requested otherwise. If a rental car is your preference, the going rate is $38 to $40 a day for a compact model, $60 for a Jeep type vehicle. In addition to its own currency, the Dutch florin, U.S. currency is both widely accepted and commonly used.
For more information on diving Aruba, contact the Aruba Tourism Authority at (800) TO-ARUBA or write to the U.S. office at 1000 Harbor Boulevard, Weehawken, New Jersey 07087.