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Sea Safari

Author Sharon Lloyd Spence on the lookout for seahorses, angelfish and moray eels. Copyright: Sharon Lloyd Spence.My eyes are open but I must be dreaming. Coiled around a grey green branch of staghorn coral is a perfect miniature horse. His exquisite face is equine, but his day-glo orange body is shaped like a question mark. In place of a silky mane, he sports spiffy translucent wings. Gazing into his yellow eyes, I wish I were Thumbelina. Then I could saddle my trusty steed and gallop into the deep for a sea safari.

But I am not Thumbelina. I'm a middle-aged woman prone to seasickness and claustrophobia. Just looking at a boat makes me nauseous. So what am I doing 20-feet under the Caribbean Sea, wearing a 12 pound weight belt, yards of tubing, a buoyancy compensator vest, and 3000 pounds of compressed air? I've discovered the joy of scuba diving Curacao, where you don't need a boat or Dramamine: the coolest creatures and coral gardens are right off the beach.

Thirty-five miles north of Venezuela, Curacao is the largest of the Netherlands Antilles islands with a population of 140,000. Dutch is the official language, but English and Spanish are widely spoken, along with Papiamento, a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and African dialects.

Curacao celebrated her 500th birthday in 1999, after her 1499 discovery by Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Christopher Columbus. By 1634, the Dutch had captured and settled the island. For 180 years, the British and French laid claim to the island, but by 1815, the Treaty of Paris gave the Dutch final parenthood. Today some 40-50 different nationalities live on the island, creating a unique cultural blend reflected in architecture, food, music and dance. Although Curacao's land attractions are very appealing, I've come to explore her underwater beauty. The clear turquoise water is irresistible, a soothing 75F-81F, with visibility averaging 100 feet. I have 38 white sand beaches to choose from, terrain varying from giant cliffs, to windblown divi divi trees, to candelabra shaped kadushi cactus.

Favorite Shore Dives

I spent idyllic days diving and snorkeling off several beaches: Playa Kali, nicknamed Alice in Wonderland, is one of Curacao's best dive spots. The beach lines a small protected cove beneath limestone cliffs, in the Westpunt area on the island's northwest side. A three-minute swim from shore unveils a world of green moray eels, lobsters, mushroom shaped star coral, parrotfish and blue chromis.

South of Westpunt in the Willibrordus area, is Daai Booi Bay, a romantic little beach surrounded by towering cliffs. Five minutes out to the reef had me ogling car-sized brain coral, triggerfish, and spotted moray eels slithering out of rocks.

At the Princess Beach Resort and Dive Shop I enjoyed diving inside an underwater traffic jam. Ten minutes from the pier a junkyard collection of 1940's cars and trucks is strewn on the sloping ocean floor, creating an artificial reef for fish and coral. Aptly named "Car Pile" features giant barrel sponges housing yellowline gobies, purple tube sponges waving from rusty steering wheels, and Queen angelfish darting in and out of old truck engines.

Habitat Curacao, the island’s newest dive resort, offers elegant comfortable accommodations and diving 24 hours a day with expert divemasters. Copyright: Sharon Lloyd Spence.Learning to Scuba Dive

I stayed at the island's newest resort, Habitat Curacao. Nestled on the secluded southwest coast, the 76 room hotel has a stunning setting:terra cotta cottages overlook the ocean, surrounded by gardens of bougainvillaea and clouds of lime green butterflies. Frisky iguanas pose upside down on the walls, orange trupials sing hello at dawn and dusk. Near a wildlife preserve and a 13-mile underwater marine preserve, the hotel is custom designed for divers, snorkelers and marine lovers. A PADI 5 star training center offers four-day certification classes for first time divers, with instruction in the freshwater seaside pool and open water dives in the calm shallow ocean off the dock. Advanced scuba courses are given in navigation, night diving, photography and marine biology. Habitat dive masters are expert, enthusiastic and passionate about the sea.

"Habitat is a relaxed place for divers, especially beginners," says Mike Stafford, Habitat Curacao Dive Operations Manager. "Dive 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with a divemaster, or explore on your own. A rope off our dock leads out to a reef alive with corals, parrotfish, spotted eels, and seahorses."

So that's how a middle aged woman prone to seasickness and claustrophobia, afraid of boats, met an exquisitely perfect seahorse. No boat. No dramamine. No murky depths. My Curacao seahorse was waiting for me right off the beach.

When You Go:

Habitat Curacao, Coral Estate, Rif St. Marie, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. Tel. 599-9-8648800; Fax 599-9-8648464.
Email: curacao@habitatdiveresorts.com.
Website: www.curacao-tourism.com/habitat/index.html.

North American Rep: Maduro Dive FANTA-SEAS, Miami Florida, 1-800- 327-6709. Canadian Rep: Scuba Holidays, London Ontario, 800-265-3447.

Sonesta Beach Resort & Casino Curacao, Piscadera Bay, P.O. Box 6003, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. Tel. 599-9-368800; Fax 599-9 627502; Email: soncura@ibm.net or call 1-800-SONESTA.

For further information on Curacao, call 1-800-3CURACAO; or write to: The Curacao Tourist Board, 475 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10016. Tel. 212-683-7660; Fax 212-683-9337.
Email: curacao@ix.net.com.
Website: www.curacao-tourism.com

More Sea Safari Adventures:

At the Curacao Aquarium, Sharon gets up close and very personal with a lemon shark. Copyright: Erwin Curial.Ever fed a school of twelve-foot sharks? They're wildly hungry at Curacao's Sea Aquarium "Animal Encounters." Rent gear from the dive shop and plunge ten feet into an ocean pool, home to stingrays, lemon and nurse sharks, and giant sea turtles. Feed angelfish, tarpon and groupers; pet friendly stingrays. Sharks and turtles live on either side of the pool, behind plexiglass windows. Handfeed them fish through small window holes. Ever wondered how big a shark's jaws really is?

Dive Animal Encounters – The Curacao Sea Aquarium, Bapor Kibra z/n, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. Tel. 599-9-461-6666; Fax 599-9-461-3671; Email: seaquarm@cura.net. Call for reservations. Diving: $US 55/hour. Non-certified divers required to take an intro briefing. Underwater photos and video available for an extra fee.

Curacao on Land:

One of the reasons Curacao was voted one of the top ten Caribbean islands is there's so much to see on land. We recommend:

Touring Willemstad – Curacao's 17th century Dutch, European and Caribbean architecture is legendary. In 1997, capital city Willemstad was honored with inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List, joining major sites worldwide: the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, the Acropolis and Vatican City. Tour historic Willemstad by trolley to see Fort Amsterdam, the Floating Market, historic mansions, Fort Amsterdam, the Governor's Palace and Mikve Israel Synagogue. Reserve through your hotel, cruise excursion desk or call 011-599-9-462-8833.

Curacao’s Mikve Isreal Synagogue, oldest still in use in the Western Hemisphere. Copyright: Sharon Lloyd Spence. Hike Christoffel Park – Christoffel Park features 1230-foot Mt. Christoffel within a protected 4500- acre wildlife preserve and garden. Hike or drive through prickly pear cactus, divi divi trees, exotic flowers, white tailed deer, birds, and iguanas. Enjoy a moonlight walk or cave tour. Rent a mountain bike, jeep, or four wheel drive. Open Monday - Saturday 8-5pm, Sunday 6-3pm. Western end of the island.