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February 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bas Harts Diving and Go West, Curacao

dive by land or by sea: which is best on this island?

from the February, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

In 2004, I retired from the corporate world to work at the things I enjoy -- diving and flying. Still not able to fully retire, I have to wait for my bride of 34 years to finish her career. (I gave her the ring down 45 feet on Palancar Reef, in Cozumel, and I didn't have a lot of money back then, so the fact that the diamond looked 30 percent larger underwater may have helped seal the deal.) In addition to dive trips to old favorites, we try different Caribbean destinations annually, such as Aruba and St. Maarten. In 2013, it was Curacao for shore diving, where my non-diving traveling companions would find plenty to do. Bas Harts Diving specializes in Curacao shore diving, and after a fine experience last year -- as well as falling in love with Curacao -- we broke tradition and returned this past December. Wondering whether shore diving really was the better way to go, I also booked a two-tank boat dive.

With 150,000 residents, Curacao is one of the three islands in the Dutch Antilles, between Aruba and Bonaire and not far from the Venezuelan coast. The airport is near Willemstad, the charming capital, with narrow buildings, each painted a vivid color -- bright yellow next to purple, next to bright orange, next to green and so on. A reef surrounds the island and is accessible for shore diving on the western side, where there seems to be endless named sites just a stone's throw away from others, so you can actually dive two or three sites on one dive.

I arrived Saturday afternoon and settled in my Coral Estates villa. Sunday morning, right on time, Bas knocked on the door. We grabbed a cup of coffee and sat on the veranda. Bas, a hard-working, customer-oriented Dutchman in his early 30s, has lived in Curacao for nine years, building a business as a private instructor and guide specializing in shore diving. Small groups of four or less are his bread and butter. He has a good sense of humor . . . considering he's Dutch. After finding out that Bas was going to become a father any minute, we got down to business.

"So what do you want to do today?" he asked. I told him I had both a new macro lens and a new fisheye lens that needed to be put to the test. (Score one point for shore diving: it was my schedule and plan.) We loaded up his fourwheel- drive truck, and 10 minutes later we were driving down a jeep trail that emerged from the jungle-like undergrowth on secluded No Name Beach. While Bas said we were about to try something different than last year, the site had a similar look to it. Then I spotted a tree with a hole through its trunk 40 feet up the beach. "Hey, Bas, we were here last year," I said. His reply: Last year, we had parked by that tree, and that dive site is Lagun. Today we were at a different dive site called No Name. (That's why there are so many named dive sites on Curacao.) Bas threw out his mats and we sat on the tailgate and suited up. (One more point for shore diving: no rushing.)

We worked our way across the coral beach and into the light surf for our 50-foot swim to the reef. (One point for boat diving: no surf entries.) The reef was healthy and loaded with the gamut of reef fish -- soldierfish, trumpetfish, butterflies, angels, drum, boxfish, tangs, wrasses, lionfish, morays, turtles and all kinds of corals, sponges and gorgonians, but nary a big fish. That's Curacao. Nonetheless, the 82-degree water was blue and clear, with visibility upward to 100 feet. My dive to 65 feet lasted 68 minutes. (One point for shore diving: it's your dive.) Next came a major decision: Head for dive two, or go grab a burger and cold drink, then dive? The burger plan won.

The Sea LionOver a great burger under the palapa at Porto Marie, we planned our next dive based on the macro lens I wanted to use, then headed to Piscado, a small harbor that is home to small fishing boats. We geared up and swam out 100 feet, then descended to swim underneath the boats, listening for other boats coming or going. In less than 100 yards, we dropped down to the reef at 30 feet and behold: Pederson cleaner shrimp, banded coral shrimp, spotted cleaner shrimp, bearded and orange fire worms and lettuce sea slugs. A macro photographer's fantasyland.

My group rented a fine four-bedroom villa in Coral Estates, which is near Willebrordus (the locals call it Wille), 20 minutes northwest of Willemstad. We did a lot of our cooking and grilling outside, getting our food from the excellent but very expensive Centrum Supermarket, which has several locations on Curacao. We also bought fresh fish at Piscado, when the fishermen come in, around 11 a.m. Curacao has many fine restaurants, especially in Willemstad. De Gouverneur is an excellent steak house on the harbor, and the superb Fishalicious in Punda is pricey ($75 to $100 per person, with wine), but well worth it.

A couple of days before my boat dive, Bas and I stopped by Go West Diving's shop, which was close to Coral Estates. From the parking lot, the 24 very steep steps down to the shop could be a concern for some. On Bas's advice, I booked the Thursday trip, which was going to Black Coral and Watamula, sites that can only be reached by boat (one point to boat diving: access to more sites). I was to be there at 8 a.m., as the boat departed at 8:30 and would return at 12:30 (one point for boat diving: a schedule), which meant I could actually tell my companions what time I could meet for lunch.

The Sea LionThat Thursday, I made two trips down those stairs, first with my gear and then with my camera. After checking in with the friendly, professional staff, I boarded their nice 38-foot Delta Custom named Sea Lion, set up to handle 18 divers. I set up my gear and quickly made new friends with a group of Pennsylvania guys who spun stories about Atlantic wreck diving (one point for boat diving: meeting new diving friends).

Irene and Paulene, our two Dutch divemasters who knew what they were doing, divided us into two groups. I got Paulene, who briefed us on each dive and gave the rules about max depth, safety stop, etc. Sliding along at the site Black Coral, I saw the typical trumpets, drums, soldiers, boxfish and barracuda among the plentiful corals and sponges. Paulene let us do our own thing while keeping the dive moving along. From the front of the group, I would get and return the OK sign from her, but never felt I was being rushed during our 58-minute dive, as I lagged behind, stopping to shoot pictures.

Back on the boat, we snacked on orange slices and raisin rolls as we moved to Watamula. My camera bobbed around in a rinse tank with several other cameras and lights, which made me a little nervous (one point for shore diving: personal space). On the way, we stopped at the shop's dock to pick up another diver who couldn't make the 8:30 departure. It was less than a five-minute delay, but demonstrated Go West's flexibility and customer service. Irene did a quick current check (it was barely noticeable) to determine which direction we would go and where the boat would moor for pickup. The dive went from 25 feet to 60 feet, and the entire bottom was covered with small coral mountains and valleys that we glided through. Star, plate, brain and soft corals were plentiful, as were typical reef fish. Spotted morays cowered in the crevices formed by the abundant coral growth. A beautiful dive that I wished would not end. In total, I logged 113 minutes on two boat dives. I have been on too many boats that want you to head up at 30 minutes, 45 tops. It was nice to dive the whole dive. On shore, Go West had large rinsing tanks and freshwater showers, then it was three trips up and down the steps, with wet gear weighing a lot more than the dry gear I brought down.

Bas told me they were not capable
of getting their advanced course
done. It was a lot of money to
refund, but he said he would have
to let them know and do it gently.

I finished the week making more shore dives with Bas, including one at the Superior Producer, an open wreck in the Willemstad harbor. A 200-foot-long supply boat that sank in 1977, she sits upright at 107 feet and is the home to many fish, including a large green moray that made its home underneath the deck stairs amidships. Shore diving is tricky, unless you have someone like Bas to show you where the "steps" are.

The Sea LionOn one day I had reserved dives with Bas, he also had a couple booked for their advanced openwater training, so he didn't charge me. The couple had just received their openwater certification the week before. While we were gearing, Bas asked the woman, who was 5'3" and maybe 125 pounds, how much weight she needed. She asked for 18 pounds. Bas in all his best Dutch etiquette said, "No way in hell am I putting 18 pounds of weights on you!" That was the first sign that maybe their openwater course had left much to be desired. After their first dive, Bas told me they were not capable of getting their advanced course done and done correctly before they left the island. It was a lot of money to refund, but he said he would have to let them know and do it gently. As we walked back to the truck, the man asked Bas, "How did we do?" Bas replied, "I can tell you that you won't be getting your advanced openwater from me." So much for gentle. He said if they wanted to do the next dive and two dives the next day, he would guarantee they would leave Curacao better divers and would have some of their advanced requirements signed off. They agreed and thanked Bas for his concern and honesty. He not only kept the money they paid, but got a nice tip as well.

So, boat dive or shore dive in Curacao? It appears that the score is tied at three points each. When I thought about writing this, I was sure shore diving would outscore boat diving by two to one. I was wrong. I guess that it comes down to personal preference. If you're there to spend the day diving places not many people go to, and doing what you want to do, then Bas Harts is the ticket, at least for a couple of days to get the lay of the land before you go it alone. If you want to make a couple of morning dives before spending the afternoon doing something else, then Go West Diving is a good choice. Either way,you will find diving Curacao well worth your time.

Oh, and Curacao also offers a lot to nondivers. There are two nice golf courses and a couple of upscale casinos that would like to see your money. I visited several great art galleries, my favorite being Nina Sanchez's, who paints island people and places using all the brilliant island colors. Of course, there are plenty of shopping opportunities around the Old Fort in Willemstad; afterwards, I crossed the floating bridge to Punda to enjoy the outdoor cafes.

I left after a week, filled with good Caribbean diving, good food and plenty of activity. The next day, Bas's wife gave birth to a baby boy, Nade Harts. Congrats!

-- J.P.W.

Divers Compass: Bas charges based on the number of divers in a group, but estimate $130 per person for two tanks, including pickup ( www.bashartsdiving.com ) . . . There are small beach shops at many dive sites that rent tanks within 100 yards from the entry point; you'll pay about $9 per tank, plus $6 for a fill . . . Most of the free Curacao tourist guides found at the airport and hotels have a map of the dive sites, but my favorite is a $9 waterproof map with all the sites, fish ID and other useful info ( www.frankosmaps.com ) . . . For boat diving, Go West ( www.gowestdiving.com ) and Ocean Encounters ( www.oceanencounters.com ) are the most popular . . . My Coral Estates villa had four bedrooms with AC, four bathrooms, a large kitchen and private pool in a gated community on the water for $2,800 per week ( www.coralestatevillas.com ) . . . D&D Car Rental met my group at the airport, with a second car and driver to help us transport our luggage to pick up our SUV ( www.ddcarrental.com ); we paid $500 (cash only) for the week.

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