Despite its Caribbean charm, clement weather and beautiful diving, Curaçao has remained somewhat under the radar of many dive travellers. Word is starting to spread, however, and the island is rapidly becoming a must-dive destination.
Words by. Images by Valentina Cucchiara
Many scuba divers who have visited Curaçao consider it to be home to the best coral diving in the Caribbean. So biodiverse are its reefs, in fact, that Fabien Cousteau has marked the island to be the future location of his Proteus underwater habitat.
While some may argue that the nearby island of Bonaire is a better place to dive, it is a very close-run contest beneath the waves. Tipping the scales in Curaçao’s favour, however, is the fact that there is a good deal more to enjoy above the surface of the water, compared to its less-developed neighbour.
Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles known as the ‘ABC Islands’, along with Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is rich and tragic in history; once a staging post for Spanish conquistadors, and then a central hub of the Caribbean slave trade.
Even after the abolition of slavery, many of the island’s native population clamoured for independence from its former colonial masters, and while the Netherlands Antilles was granted semi-autonomous status during its formation in 1954, it wasn’t until the group was dissolved in 2010 that the island really began to take control of its own destiny.
Curaçao’s swift tourism recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic is indicative of the island’s growing popularity, no doubt encouraged by significant investment in infrastructure, improvements to its roads and airport, and construction of new resorts – such as the Coral Estate Luxury Resort, Zoëtry, and the new Sandals resort – plus enduring favourites such as the award-winning Lion’sDive Beach Resort.
‘Curaçao gained its independence from the Netherlands in 2010, which led to a greater focus on developing the island’s own identity and culture,’ said Bryan Horne, founder of Dive Curaçao. ‘The economy has grown steadily over the last decade, with a focus on expanding the tourism industry. The island has seen an influx of new hotels, resorts, and restaurants.’
Curaçao has also invested heavily in the preservation of its natural beauty. The island recognised early on that diving and other forms of tourism, no matter how nobly-intentioned, has a significant and negative impact on the environment.
Hand-in-hand with its growth as a diving destination is the island’s adoption of a number of sustainability initiatives, such as the PADI AWARE Foundation’s Adopt A Dive Site programme, and the more recent Green Fins initiative. For some years now, Curaçao has also been home to a coral regeneration and restoration project run by the Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao, with the intention of protecting the reefs before they are damaged, rather than – as is all too often the case – repairing them after the damage has been done.
Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao
Reef Renewal Foundation Curaçao is a non-profit organisation founded in 2015 as a joint intitative between the existing Coral Restoration Foundation, Ocean Encounters Diving, the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI foundation) and the Curaçao government. Pieces of staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) are grown in nurseries before being returned to the reef. As of 2023, the project has 40 coral trees in its nurseries and more than 10,000 corals have been planted back into Curaçao’s reefs.
Under the water, there is little about Curaçao that is not to love. The reefs are vibrant, dynamic and full of thriving coral, amassed on a very easy-to-dive fringing reef plate and gentle drop-off where conditions are almost always easy, current is almost always negligible, the water warm, and visibility almost always 20-30m (60-100ft) or more.
Cynics will point out that the 75 species of coral found in the Caribbean do not compare with the 570-or-so species endemic to the Indo-Pacific Coral Triangle, but divers should not consider that ‘fewer species’ is equivalent to ‘less coral’ – far from it. Some of the reefs, especially the likes of Watamula and Mushroom Forest around the western end of the island, are packed full of giant hard-coral formations, the branching varieties of which possess significant and uncommonly extensive growth, partly as a result of the fact that diving around Curaçao – while it has grown in numbers over the last decade – is not done on the industrial scale to be found in other popular tourist resorts.
Diving is broadly split into ‘East’ and ‘West’, following the contours of the island. Most of the dive centres are located in the eastern half, as this is where the island is most developed. The east is also home to Curaçao’s National Marine Park, which stretches from the tip of the island at Oostpunt, to the excellent wall dive at Director’s Bay and the popular and photogenic – but shallow – sunken Tugboat, with its associated reef and pier.
The West is considered to be slightly better for diving; a little more sheltered from the elements, although most of the southern coastline is well protected, and with a little less development on land, the reefs have been dived less than those located closer to the heart of Willemstad and the surrounding area.
The reefs are home to a magnificent array of fish – snapper, barracuda, parrotfish and grouper make up some of the usual suspects, together with moray eels and octopuses, and the large and rather mean-looking silvery tarpon.
Big stuff is less common – manta rays and whale sharks put in an appearance every now and again, but green and hawksbill turtles are common, and eagle rays, large southern stingrays and nurse sharks are regularly encountered, particularly in the west.
Macro lovers will enjoy hunting for seahorses and frogfish. For wreck enthusiasts, Curaçao is home to the Superior Producer, one of the Caribbean’s most popular wreck dives. Grossly overladen with a cargo of Christmas goods bound for Venezuela in 1977, the ship sank shortly after leaving port, and now lies upright on the bottom in 30m of seawater with an easy shore-based entry. The coral-encrusted superstructure remains mostly intact, with wide-open cargo holds making for an atmospheric swim-through.
From a practical perspective, much of Curaçao’s diving can be done from shore – a simple matter of kitting up in the car park and walking into the water. Guided dives are recommended for the most enjoyable experience, but some dive shops also offer ‘drive ‘n’ dive’ packages for regular visitors and experienced divers.
The reef topography is such that navigating to the entry and exit point is fairly straightforward. Surface conditions are such that missing it means little more than a long swim, or slightly embarrassing walk.
Boat diving is much more widely available than it was in the past, but there are only a handful of sites not accessible from shore. Boat-only sites such as Watamula are some of the best, however, they are not essential for an enjoyable dive holiday, and satisfactorily compensated for by the likes of the equally spectacular nearby site known as Alice in Wonderland.
Above the surface, Curaçao shines. The capital Willemstad, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, surrounds the natural harbour of Sint Anna Bay, its two downtown waterfront districts, Punda and Otrobanda, on either side, connected by the iconic floating Queen Emma Bridge.
The buildings are an amalgam of Dutch and Spanish colonial-design buildings, painted in a riot of colour that under Curaçao’s almost ever-present sunshine, are simply stunning.
The tradition stems back to 1817 when Governor Albert Kikkert complained that the bright sun against the white building exteriors gave him migraines, so he ordered the buildings to be painted any colour but white. Legend has it that the workers trotted off to the local paint factory, not realising that Kikkert held a sizeable number of shares in the factory until his death, two years later.
Whereas it has become fashionable in some countries to attempt to remove all traces of its colonial past, Curaçao has embraced the artistic and architectural aspects of its often tragic historical legacy. Some of the old buildings may be of European design, but they were almost certainly built by slaves and, later, the indigenous workforce.
Six forts constructed during the island’s occupation by the Dutch, from the earliest, Fort Amsterdam, built in 1636, to the most recent Rif Fort and Waterfort, built in 1827/28, remain intact, well preserved and in use as government offices, shopping and restaurant centres and tourist attractions. There are restrictions on new construction, and owners of historic buildings are under instruction to restore, rather than rebuild, wherever possible.
Juxtaposed against the brightly coloured backdrop of downtown Willemstad, however, Curaçao’s Kurá Hulanda Museum provides a poignant reminder of the island’s grim past, and perhaps a reason to understand why Curaçao’s Afro-Caribbean population is so very proud of its island. Just to the west of the new cruise-ship megapier stands a monument to Tula, leader of the Curaçao Slave Revolt, at the place of his execution in 1795.
Away from the city there is much to be explored in Curaçao’s interior. With a warm, arid climate, the island is surprisingly green, and home to an exceptional amount of wildlife, particularly birds. Just travelling between dive sites will provide visitors with the colourful sight of a flock of flamingos sifting for brine shrimp in the waters of the salt flats.
Off the beaten track, guided tours around Shete Boka and Christoffel National Parks are run by enthusiastic park rangers from the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation (CARMABI), and will provide much to explore in the afternoons after diving.
Those looking for some adventure will find ATV tours heading out west to explore the island’s interior, and divers looking for that little bit extra might like to visit Substation Curaçao, which offers adventurers the chance to take a ride in a U-Boat Worx C-Explorer 5 submersible to visit the 137m deep wreck of the Stella Maris.
Launched in June 2010, Substation Curaçao provides services for both tourists and scientific expeditions to explore the depths around the island, with a 360-degree view from the glass dome of a U-Boat Worx C-Explorer 5, or the deeper-venturing ‘CuraSub’. A number of dive tours up to a maximum of 300m are available, and Substation also offers a pilot training programme. For those nervous about sitting in a fairly small space for several hours in the deep, the owner built a topside replica for his wife, which is now available for passengers to try before diving.
I spent some time on Curaçao in 2008/9 during my career as a dive instructor, working for The Dive Bus, one of the island’s top dive centres. Although I remember my time there fondly, I always felt that there was something about Curaçao that wasn’t quite finished.
Downtown Willemstad was as bright and as vibrant as it has been for many years, and while there was never a time in recent history where Curaçao could be thought of as anything other than a cosmopolitan and thriving island, it just wasn’t quite as shiny as it is today.
In the 13 years since independence, however, it seems that Curaçao’s colourful character has extended through a solid investment in dive travel and tourism, with a commitment not just to sustainability of the environment, but sustaining all of its historical and cultural charm to create an experience that has earned its place among the world’s top scuba diving destinations.
More from the island of Curaçao
- Visit Curaçao – the best of Caribbean scuba diving
- Curaçao’s leading dive operators become Green Fins members
- Dive Curaçao launches new one-stop dive vacation platform
- The history of Curacao’s iconic Superior Producer
- Proteus rising – Fabien Cousteau’s underwater habitat
Valentina stayed at the Coral Estate Luxury Resort and dived with Laura Van Loon (Dive With Laura). Thanks also to The Dive Bus, Go West Diving, Blue Bay Dive and Watersports, Reef Renewal Curaçao at Ocean Encounters, LionsDive Beach Resort, Substation Curaçao, CARMABI and Bryan Horne of Dive Curaçao.
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