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Curacao Reef and Dive Guide

Researchers off Curacao are venturing to greater depths as seas rise and shallow reefs become threatened. This new exploration of Curacao’s coral reefs is leading to new discoveries and documentation of new creatures. Traveling to another world might not seem a realistic vacation option, but it is possible when you SCUBA Dive Curacao.

Snorkelers and divers do it every time they descend into the seas around us. Fish, crustaceans, reptiles and slimy ink-spraying, tentacle waving, glow in the dark creatures inhabit ivory, jade and sapphire Caribbean waters that beckon exploration. Shipwrecks, grasses and corals of all sizes, shapes and textures rise from the silty bottom, providing shelter from predators, a place to feed and to mate.

Waterproof charts help identify everything from tropical fish to sharks, rays and sea turtles inhabiting the coral reefs that protect coasts from eroding. But as seas rise and reefs disappear faster than rainforests from warmth and pollution, more divers are venturing deeper and gathering information that the Smithsonian Institution is using to learn about underwater creatures in the Caribbean.

Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP)

The researchers for the past several years have been working off the coast of Curacao on what they refer to as a Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP). Their destination: a little-studied twilight zone known as the mesophotic, or “middle light,” reefs. The researchers hope, in part, to determine how deeper reefs might help more shallow counterparts survive global warming and pollution.

As part of this effort, the Smithsonian researchers have collected species such as the deep sea toad fish that uses feet-like fins to walk the ocean floor and the banded basslet that, with long, dark body and prominent vertical lines, hails from Indo-Pacific reefs, an area near Asia where the world’s center of strategic gravity is said to be shifting.

Shallow Coral Reefs of Curacao

Shallow reefs surround the volcanic island of Curacao, which sits outside of the hurricane belt in the southern Caribbean’s Dutch Antilles. Many of the sites are accessible from shore, and a dive bus is available to transport travelers to them.

Squid, scorpion fish, moray eels and sea turtles are drawn to the reefs off Caracas Bay, while seahorses float upright amid soft corals and gorgons at the popular Jan Theil beach. More formidable barracuda and rays ply waters around dense star, table and brain coral-filled reefs within Snake Bay near the sleepy village of Boka Sami. (Threaten a ray, and it’s likely to swim away. Step on it, and prepare to get stung).

Mushroom Forest, with its mushroom-shaped coral formations is among the most celebrated sites, as is Playa Kalki (aka Alice in Wonderland) with corals blossoming like flowers. For the most species of coral and fish in one place, experienced divers prepared for deeper seas, choppy currents and unpredictable wave action might consider Basora, which is often named one of the world’s top three dive sites.

Curacao also boasts a swimming hole known as Blue Cave and wrecks like the 164-foot (50 meter) Superior Producer in waters 40 feet (18 meters) to 100 feet (30 meters) deep off the coast of Otrobanda. The funky carpile off Marie Pompoen beach is pretty much just what it sounds like: A heap of cars. They span waters 60 to 150 feet (18 to 45 meters) deep, and they’re accompanied by trucks and construction equipment – all intentionally scuttled in the 1960s as a means of creating an artificial reef.

Diving 1,000 Feet / 320 Meters for Research

The Smithsonian researchers are going deeper. They’re making beyond-SCUBA descents as deep as 1,000 feet (320 meters) inside of a five-person mini-submarine known as Curasub.

In doing so, they’re discovering new species of fish and mollusks: A tusk shell hermit crab that uses its large claw to conceal its shell opening, for instance, and a colorful and tiny blenny that stretches a mere .78 inch (2 cm) and boasts iridescent fins. The Smithsonian researchers named the latter Haptoclinus dropi, for the research project through which it was discovered.

Smithsonian researcher Carole Baldwin has said that the discoveries have been “a huge surprise. Everyone thought, ‘Been there, done that.’”

Curasub’s design is based on a 30-year-old Aquarius submarine off the Florida Keys that researchers continue to use. The mini-submarine affords 60-plus feet (30-plus meters) of visibility and is open to the public at a cost of $650 per person. That’s about the cost of a more typical two-tank drift dive with a Curacao dive operator.

The Risks of Diving Deep

Certified open water SCUBA divers sporting wet suits, masks and fins, air tanks attached to their backs, are typically advised to venture only as far as 130 feet (40 meters). Beyond that, the water becomes cold and dark, and the weight of water above is so pressure-filled that the gases from the tank become an anesthetic, altering the diver’s consciousness to the point of complete debilitation.

There are other risks associated with deep dives as well: Holding the breath for too long can cause high blood carbon dioxide levels that can reduce brain and nerve function and cause confusion. Oxygen at a certain point becomes toxic, distorting the senses and causing seizures. When divers ascend toward the water’s surface, dissolved gases can bubble inside the body, causing what’s known as “the bends,” or decompression sickness.

In short, the risk of drowning increases. Thanks to modern-day dive computers, however, divers with wristwatch-like devices are able to measure time and depths to more safely calculate their ascents. Likewise, more readily available “enriched” gas mixtures such as trimix and heliox provide alternatives to the standard 21 percent oxygen-79 percent nitrogen mix that, with trace gases like helium and argon, is referred to as air.

Dive with an Instructor in Curacao

Deep diving nevertheless requires knowledge and experience. Divers interested in learning more about deep diving in Curacao can call upon any number of dive instructors, dive resorts, guided shore and boat dive operators on the island. There is something on Curacao for beginning to advanced divers, for those who prefer exploring at night to naturalists interested in how creatures interact with each other and the environment around them.

About Curasub at Substation Curacao

Curasub itself is located at Substation Curacao and is owned by Adrien “Dutch” Schrier, proprietor of a 19-unit Dolphin Resort “therapy” hotel on the island and the Curacao seaquarium with boat tours and animal encounters lagoon. The website for this mini-submarine boasts that the body doesn’t experience any pressure changes inside of it – and that the vessel exceeds safety standards.

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About Author: Michelle Sheldone

Michelle Sheldone is an award-winning writer and the author of "Historic Walking Guides: Florida Keys." She launched her career at Family Circle magazine, where she worked as an entertainment editor. She has since contributed to newspapers, magazines and travel guides and handled marketing for government, education, travel, hospitality, fashion and conservation interests.

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