Diving Freedom in a Great New Location

HABITAT CURACAO

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM AND THERISA STACK



Nudging me, Therisa said, 'Honey, shall we go for it again?' 'Sure,' I replied, urging myself out of bed. I had always wanted to dive my brains out and this was my chance! Our gear was only a few steps down the stairs to the glimmering sea. Scores of tanks stood filled, ready and awaiting our next venture. Strapping our gear on we eyed the indigo blue of the drop-off only yards away. Then we took our fourth plunge of the day, once again eager to experience this teeming sea.

We were at Habitat Curacao, experiencing one of life's best pleasures: total diving freedom. Modeled after Capt. Don Stewart's original Habitat on Bonaire, Habitat Curacao was recently constructed on the undeveloped, pristine southwestern coast of Curacao.

Dive operations manager Mike Stafford explained how the Habitat philosophy came into being on Curacao. Most divers only experience this island at the airport, during a brief stop on their way to other dive destinations. However, the diving off Curacao competes with the best in the Caribbean. There are vertical walls starting at the surface, shipwrecks at a variety of depths, sponges of exaggerated dimensions, all coupled with extraordinary visibility.

Diving Freedom means choices, and choices abound at Habitat. There are two tank boat trips in the morning and the option of two tank boat dives in the afternoon. The boats include two new Pro 42s and a six passenger dedicated underwater photo boat. And, there is always unlimited shore diving available on the house reef and deep slope with more than 400 species of fish and invertebrates only a few fin kicks away from the dedicated dive pier.

Snorkeling in the shallows will reveal magnificent stands of Elkhorn Coral, droves of anemones and a variety of colorful seahorses. There is even a resident Longlure Frogfish, aptly named Samson, who resides between two Purple Tube Sponge branches.

The total dive freedom concept worked so well on Bonaire it was inevitable for Curacao. Habitat Curacao is a PADI Five Star Instructor Development Center offering courses and training in four languages: English, Spanish, Dutch and German. Every PADI course is available with the exception of ice diving! The thoughtful two dock principle is used here: one dock for boats, the other for divers, with a safety guideline strung from the pier through the shallows and over the slope into the depths. This line is especially comforting during night dives, aiding your return to the dive pier.

A beautiful, new, three story dive center, built into the shoreline cliff, provides rental dive equipment, classrooms, dive gear storage lockers and a complete underwater photographic center. The thoroughly planned Underwater Photo Center is managed by knowledgeable photo pro Chris Richards. E-6 film processing, underwater still and video equipment rental, as well as instruction are available from Chris, who knows the waters and marine life of Curacao intimately. Not to be missed are the two slide shows each week at night on the beach by Chris and resident marine biologist, Nico.

Rum Runners restaurant and lounge serves a wide variety of the most wonderful food we've ever tasted in the Netherland Antilles, no need to go cuisine hunting elsewhere! The landscaping is pure Xeriscape, utilizing indigenous vegetation watered with triple treated gray water. Habitat has even simplified the rental car process for those divers who want to desaturate for a day. Since all of the pertinent information is on file, just phone the front desk and pick-up your rental car for a day, week or hour. A shopping bus also stops four times a day to take you to downtown Willemstad at the foot of the famous floating pontoon bridge.

For nondivers and sunworshippers, the most beautiful and least frequented beaches are nearby at the west end of the island, along with the stark but stunning landscape of Christoffel Park. This 4,000 acre preserve will require several hours to explore and is home to the diminutive Curacao deer. Flamingos dot the shallow saltpan with impressionistic brush strokes of pink.

Even the most jaded of dive travelers will find more than enough both underwater and above to stimulate the senses. Now a Dutch island, Curacao was heavily influenced by its Spanish, English and African heritages. Nearly all of the people are fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento. Papiamento is a melodious and colorful blend of African, Spanish and Portuguese with some Dutch and English intermingled. This rhythmic language has long been considered a Creole dialect but continues to change and evolve with the heterogeneous composition of the people. Curacaoans are among the friendliest and most hospitable people weve met in the Caribbean and certainly the most gracious. Their Dutch, Spanish and English architecture blend together, like the people themselves, to form a colorful and awe inspiring island home.

Altogether there are more than 100 dive sites, with 35 of them less than 20 minutes from Habitat Curacao by boat. One of our favorites was Mushroom Forest, with its towering, magnificent stands of Star and Brain Corals. While this is truly a beginner's dive site in 30 to 50 feet of water, the rainbow hues of schooling fish amid the coral castles will mesmerize even the experienced diver. The relatively shallow depth will provide you with extended bottom time to explore the bases of large coral heads and overhangs revealing myriad blennies, hamlets, basslets and juvenile fish along with a wealth of invertebrate life. However, the true highlight of a trip to Mushroom Forest is Mushroom Cave, a huge, safe grotto deeply worn into the shoreline cliff face by wave action over the eons. We felt truly dwarfed by the enormity of the cavern as we approached and swam into the shadows of the cliff face. As we finned deeper into the dimly lit mouth, vast schools of Silversides and Sweepers parted, allowing us to glide with and through their midst. Our dive lights revealed enormous boulders on the floor, blanketed with colonies of Orange Cup Corals. This is truly one of those special, mystical sites that you will want to visit over and over again.

Long Beach parallels a remote and deserted stretch of sandy beach, making for a fabulous backdrop while you're on the surface. Underwater, the corals and marine life are just as special, with the added bonus of schooling Jacks and Barracuda patrolling the drop-off.

Radio City is a reef spilling over the near-vertical wall in only 20 feet of water. Giant orange sponges punctuated the depths, with long branches of Purple Tube Sponges visible throughout the entire realm of visibility.

The wreck of the Superior Producer lies in 110 feet of water with only 80 feet to the decks. She sits upright on an even keel and the combination of currents and depth makes this an advanced dive. Since she sank in 1978 there has been ample time for a variety of marine life to cloak her hull and superstructure. The deck hatches are gone, making the vast cargohold safe and easy to swim through. Orange Cup Corals cover the wheelhouse and companionways, making for colorful photo backdrops.

Sponge Forest, as the name implies, boasts spectacular sponges. Swimming along the nearly vertical wall you are constantly tempted to go farther as the shapes of these large filter feeders emerge from the distant fringes of visibility.

Habitat Curacao can be reached quite easily. ALM Airlines provides nonstop flights from Miami. Staffed with the broadest smiles and the most generous legroom we've experienced in some time, the three hour hop passed very quickly.

We left Habitat Curacao with sadness, certain we would return someday soon, for this is the place for divers who can never get enough!

For more information/reservations, contact Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas at (800) 327-6709, (305) 438-4220. You can send e-mail to maduro@netpoint.com or visit the Web site at www.maduro. com/.