Curacao: An underwater wonderland

Curac¸ao is blessed with a diverse reef environment on a foundation of volcanic limestone.

08/17/2008 3:01 AM

08/13/2008 1:25 PM

When it comes to diving, Curac¸ao delivers. Offshore is an underwater wonderland of pristine reefs, volcanic walls, sandy valleys and a sprinkling of wrecks.

Pearly white-sand beaches and aquamarine bays lure divers. Lush, multihued corals explode in a riot of colors and distinctive shapes. Long and slender purple tube sponges, waving soft corals, sea fans and spiraling sea whips are clustered with elk, fire and plate coral varieties creating a delightful underwater garden.

Mushroom Forest is legendary for its towering odd-shaped star corals. Clams and sponges eroded the base of these coral domes, creating slim pedestals and caps that look like portobellos.

Sixty-five world-class dive sites skirt the 40-mile southwest coast from West Point to the lighthouse on Cape St. Marie in the Caribbean Sea. Diving is also popular on a day trip to the tiny uninhabited island of Klein Curac¸ao, 90 minutes boat from the mainland. Here divers drift along deep and dramatic walls where sea turtles and larger marine life lingers.

Because the fringing reef lies close to shore, divers can opt for short boat rides to the sites or dive right from the beach. Big rock boulders, painted bright red with a white ''diver down'' stripe, are an easy way to identify the nearly two dozen shore dive sites. Favorites include the house reef at Habitat Curac¸ao and Alice in Wonderland, off Playa Kalki.

Shore diving is popular at Playa Porto Marie, a stunning beach lined with thatch-covered umbrellas. As the beach slopes into the deep, divers discover a cluster of hollow cement balls sprouting new-growth corals and housing tropical fish. This artificial reef was created to reestablish parts of the reef damaged by a storm.

Beyond lies The Valley, a dive site where a valley runs between two parallel reefs.

Curac¸ao is known for its wealth of micro life, and tiny creatures like cleaner shrimp, gobies and miniature armies of smaller sea life can keep divers entertained for an entire dive.

Elvin's Plane Wreck is Curac¸ao's newest dive site. Last year the Fokker Fairchild, an island-hopper that used to fly flew between Aruba, Bonaire and Curac¸ao, was hoisted over a cliff and towed to its present location off Ocean Encounters West End Dock.

Superior Producer is Curac¸ao's largest wreck, resting upright in 100 feet at the mouth of Willemstad's harbor. Kaleidoscopes of colorful corals blanket the decks of the sunken freighter. Tiny silversides hide in the wheelhouse, parting like liquid mercury when divers, or the occasional grouper, swim through. Currents here are often strong and dives are dependent on boat traffic entering the harbor.

Tugboat is an old wreck resting upright in the shallows, home to a bevy of tropical fish and reclusive moray eels. A short swim away, divers will find an interesting drop-off wall and dock pilings with lots of nooks and crannies for critters.

Wrecks of another kind -- junked cars -- now lie in their underwater abode on the aptly named Car Pile reef. Divers sunk this eclectic collection of cars, trucks, earth-moving equipment and tires to create an artificial reef and underwater habitat for marine life -- creating an underwater traffic jam perfect for photos.

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