Diving Freedom Comes to Curacao
by Stephen Frink, Nov. 1997
Diving Freedom, a philosophy espoused by Captain Don Stewart, became the foundation for one of the Caribbean's most popular dive resorts, Captain Don's Habitat on Bonaire. In short, it implies that once divers display their C-cards, they will be assumed to be knowledgeable, self-reliant and possess common sense. A visiting diver will be expected to stay shallower than the standard depth limit of 130 feet, dive with a buddy and follow the safe bottom time limits of his/her computer or tables. Beyond that, however, no one will force divers into groups or make them adhere to the whims of divemasters. Of course, the dive staff is able and willing to provide guide services or assist with safety issues but they won't cram their expertise down the throats of their guests.
Diving Freedom also suggests that divers should be able to dive whenever they want, 24 hours a day. This philosophy has earned a large and loyal following. So, when a second Habitat was built, this time on Bonaire's sister island, Curacao, the commitment to Diving Freedom was laid long before the first concrete block.
Location: The folks at Habitat know their market; divers. In looking to build a new dive resort, they wanted to integrate all the things that worked for their divers at Habitat on Bonaire. One of Bonaire's attractions is the calm water on the island's leeside but to find that on Curacao was somewhat challenging. While Curacao is only 30 miles west of Bonaire and is subject to the same prevailing trade winds, only the southwest side presents a consistent lee. Since you can't offer unlimited diving 24 hours a day without quality shore diving, Habitat looked for suitable land to develop with this essential criteria in mind. Southwestern Curacao it was!
The resort: A first glance at Habitat Curacao will confirm it is a very special resort. In this first phase of development, 18 square kilometers of land was landscaped with natural vegetation and a small beach was built along the rocky shoreline. However, the sand is contained at the water's edge so as not to degrade the visibility for shore diving. The resort includes 56 junior suites, all overlooking the blue Caribbean, and 20 cottages along a rugged bluff, making this property the perfect size for a dive resort; big enough to justify the necessary dive infrastructure but small enough to remain intimate and friendly.
When you stay at Habitat Curacao you really appreciate all the thought and planning that went into making this the ideal property for scuba divers. The dive shop is built right at the water's edge, with the important areas, such as airfills and guest gear storage, on the lower level. There are two docks (just like Papa Dock and Baby Dock at Habitat Bonaire), one of which is used for shore dive entries/exits; the other is used to load the dive boat. There are gear rinse tanks and freshwater showers near the docks. A large sturdy wooden table doubles as a place to rest tanks when donning them and a place for underwater photographers to service their cameras. A spacious classroom and offices are found on the second level. The top floor of the dive complex houses dive retail, equipment rental and the underwater photo center.
Nor did Habitat Curacao scrimp on the necessary equipment. There is a pair of 15 cfm air compressors and cascade air storage bottles, plus fill stations at the dock and near the parking lot in order to make life easier for those planning shore dives. There is a brand new Pro 42 custom dive boat; a second will be delivered by the fall of 1997. Both are powered by twin turbocharged diesel engines able to cruise to the more distant dive sites in one-half hour. Most of the dive itinerary is within 15 minutes of the resort. There are 250 new aluminum tanks in the popular 80 and 67 cubic feet sizes and new Sea Quest rental gear.
Even the rooms were built with diver convenience in mind. Each of the junior suites has an exceptionally large balcony or patio; allowing guests to store dive gear and other clutter outside. Rooms offer two queen sized beds and feature air-conditioning, direct dial telephones and a small refrigerator and stove. All rooms overlook the ocean and exit toward a central courtyard with a scenic freshwater pool. The dive complex is very near these junior suites, as is Rumrunners at the Reef, the quality restaurant/lounge that provides a diverse menu and a comfortable environment for apres dive libations.
The 20 cottages require a fairly significant hike to the docks. Featuring two bedrooms, one bath, a living room and a full kitchen, these attractive units are a convenient and economical option for two couples or families with children. Divers would be inclined to leave their gear in the guest gear storage for the week but this can still be a tedious trek. A rental car, of course, eliminates this problem, and hotel shuttles to the cottages are also an option.
Speaking of rental cars, Habitat offers Toyota Hilux four door pickup trucks in its rental fleet. These can be rented by the day for just $47. You will have already left a credit card imprint when you checked in, so if you feel like exploring or taking off for shore dives, just ask for the keys at the front desk. The charge will be added to your bill at the end of the week. This is such a logical and civilized system for car rental I can't believe it is not available everywhere!
The diving: Those who have yet to try the diving at the southwest end of Curacao are in for a very pleasant surprise. There has been minimal diving traffic through the years, so the corals are prolific and in excellent shape. Curacao doesn't have the vertical walls of the Caymans or The Bahamas but there is a precipitous reef slope that typically begins in about 30 feet of water. It offers abundant Orange Elephant Ear and giant tube sponges of various hues. Usually there is a broad shallow reef plateau in 10 to 30 feet of water that is dotted with coral heads. This area will be rich in tropical reef residents and macro life. Visibility is typically 70 to 100 feet.
Some dives may be structured as drifts but this is owing to a shortage of good mooring buoy sites rather than excessive currents. Most boat dives are done at moored sites in relatively gentle conditions. Usually, a two tank boat dive is available both morning and afternoon, with night dives scheduled upon request. The following is a very brief overview of some of the popular sites accessible from Habitat Curacao.
House Reef, in front of Habitat, will likely be visited several times during your holiday because it is both convenient and quite nice. A simple giant stride from the dock and a few fin strokes seaward puts the diver in the midst of scattered coral heads and a sand community populated by Peacock Flounders and Lizardfish. At around 25 feet the coral concentration becomes denser and the sponge growth begins. This reef was home to four frogfish during my recent visit.
At Radio City as many as six frogfish have been found within a five foot square section at the base of the mooring line. Sandchutes at the edge of the drop-off at 30 feet lead divers to giant sponge and Black Coral formations. Mushroom Forest is a Curacao icon notable for a shallow cave at water's edge filled with Copper Sweepers and seasonal schools of mas bango (Bigeye Scad). The shallow plateau is incredibly diverse, with massive Star Coral heads undercut and decorated with orange and red encrusting sponges. At Hell's Corner all manner of hard coral decorates the shallow reef; Brain, Staghorn, Pillar and finger corals. Playa Jeremy offers the weird and seldom seen Flying Gurnards in just 15 to 20 feet of water and a high probability of sighting turtles at greater depths. Aside from the corals and sponges that make Pigeon Wall a good dive, there are scores of cars on the bottom between 50 and 110 feet, apparently from a barge that sank here.
The queen of Curacao wreck dives is the Superior Producer. A 250 foot coastal freighter that sank just outside the harbor entrance in 1977, she now lies intact and upright in 110 feet of water. The top of the wheelhouse is at about 80 feet and the view from within is ablaze with orange from the amazing concentration of Tubastrea corals.
Curacao is about 2 hours and 50 minutes flying time from Miami and is easily accessible from several North American and European gateways. I flew ALM Antillean Airways and found it an exceptionally easy connection. All Habitat packages include ground transfers to the resort via Taber Tours. Just stop by the desk in the arrival hall at the airport, present the voucher received with confirmation materials and enjoy an easy 20 minute bus ride to the resort.
For further information and special low cost vacation packages, including airfare, contact Habitat Curacao at (800) 327-6709 or locally at (305) 438-4222. Contact the resort directly via e-mail at Maduro@ netpoint.net or visit the Web site at http://www.curacaotourism.com/habitat.