Director’s Bay

Saturday meant diving day, again. Our trip is soon to an end, but we have booked dives for the remaining days, so we will make the most of it. Today, it was just Kelly, me and our guide, Mark Pinnell, going for a dive. Mark is also the owner of The Dive Bus, and we have talked a bit about business, payment methods and marketing over the last few days, since that’s kind of what we do. Since it was just the three of us, we could go diving pretty much anywhere we wanted today. Well, Mark is the one who knows best of course. He took us to a dive spot called the Director’s Bay. Director’s Bay used to be the private beach of the directors of Shell, hence its name.

Directors-bay

The drive really took us out in the boondocks. Dusty dirt roads and cacti as far as the eye could see (well, at least until it was stopped by the ocean in the distance). I was pretty fascinated by the landscape actually. I have never seen so much terrain covered by unfriendly thorns; it was like something out of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”. Before we got to that part however, we drove past the Spanish Water on one side of us and the Caracasbaai (Caracas Bay) on the other. Caracasbaai is a free, public beach and apparently very popular with the locals. It also is temporary home to an enormous monstrosity of steel; I’m not familiar with these types of things, but I now know that it’s a semi-submersible pipeline laying ship. I wouldn’t call it a pretty sight as you hang out on the beach…

Castoro-7-semi-submerisble-pipe-laying-ship

As before, Kelly and I left all of our valuables, including phones and thereby cameras, in the hotel room since car break ins seem to be common. So, no pictures unfortunately. I have to borrow some from other people… This is not the best photo ever, but it shows what Director’s Bay looks like. To be honest, it doesn’t look like much right there. But that’s only because you can’t see what’s below the surface ;).

directors-bay

We parked and geared up, and had to walk down a few stairs to get to the beach. That was the hard part. “Oh, now we have a long surface swim ahead of us”, Mark said. “Two kicks!” And after literally two kicks with my fins, it was already time to descend. Wonderful! That also makes this a great place for snorkelers, because you really just get in the water and there are beautiful things to look at right there.

There are some stories about this place. Some say, that the directors of the oil company were so paranoid about sharks, that they built a big fence in the water to protect them from the non-existing threat. I’ve also heard that it was Queen Juliana of The Netherlands who came to visit the island and build a swimming pool for herself in the sea, after the beach and all other property was left to the Curaçao government when Shell left the island. In either case, the important thing is that the poles are still there, and they are home to an abundance of sea life.

We had two amazing dives. The absolutely only fly in the ointment (an expression I found when I googled English synonyms for “smolk i glädjebägaren”) was, funnily enough, flies. Or maybe they were gnats. Anyway, there were plenty of them and they ruined at least my break. They seemed particularly fond of me, and my sandwich. A very small problem though, in an otherwise fantastic day. We saw so many fish, it was like being in an aquarium. I mean, even more than normal. Imagine swimming in this, for example:

Jaye-Reach-2

Kelly said it was his best dive, maybe ever. Not because we saw something particularly amazing, but because there was so much of everything. We were also able to take our time and look at whatever interested us, since we didn’t have to keep up with a group. Even Mark said that he preferred diving like we did today, slowly exploring the marine life without having to “go somewhere”. He explained that most groups want to go to some point far away and then head back, because then they feel like they’ve “seen something” or achieved something.

On our first dive, we saw long schools of Creole wrasse that created a flowing river over and between the rocks. Mark pretended to be a traffic police who were directing traffic (always the joker ;)). Here are some other highlights:

June 30, 2007 - Lea Lea's Lookout - Queen Angel

We saw two Queen Angelfish

spotted-moray-eel

I found a spotted moray eel moving through the rocks

Kelly showed me some very healthy, nice brain corals on the aforementioned poles; we also saw nice anemones with spotted cleaner shrimps, and quite a few peacock flounders on the sand. They are pretty hard to spot but they were so close to us that we could almost touch them. When they move, they flutter like butterflies over the sand.

Peacock-flounder-camouflaged-on-sea-bed

As I said, pretty difficult to spot a peacock flounder…

 

peacock flounder-85-S

When you do see them though, they look quite amazing with their fluorescent patterns.

On our second dive, we saw a huge French angelfish. Kelly is usually not that impressed by French angels, but this one was so magnificent that he had to reevaluate that. He also discovered some baby trumpetfish.

baby-trumpetfish

When we were ready to head back, there were some guys with spearfishing equipment who got a visit from the police. Spearfishing is illegal in Curaçao, but those guys were only hunting lionfish. Lionfish is an invasive species in the Caribbean and a disaster for the ecosystems there. Apparently they have a huge appetite and no natural enemies. So, people are encouraged to hunt them and kill them, and we’ve been told that this is the only exception to the spearfishing laws. It doesn’t seem all that clear cut though. I think you might need a special license to spearfish lionfish. Either way, the police confiscated all the spearfishing gear, even though they were shown that lionfish was the only kind of fish that was caught. I don’t know if they were fined as well.

IMG_0096

Lionfish: beautiful but invasive

We were very sleepy when we got back to the hotel after our dives. For a while we sat in the café on Octagon square. Then we sat in the beach bar. When we had been sitting around enough, we decided to go for dinner at Rozendaels again. It turned out they were closed –on a Saturday! Well, I’m guessing it’s their only day off a week. We ended up at the Blues Bar again.

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Willemstad, Curaçao

Today was Friday the 13th and our 8th day on Curaçao. Maybe I should have taken a clue from the date, and not expected too much luck for the day’s activities…

After our usual breakfast at the cafe on Octagon Square, we went snorkeling for a bit. It was a windy day and the visibility wasn’t good, so we didn’t stay in for long. After that, I wanted to go and check out downtown Willemstad. Kelly wasn’t exactly excited about my idea… Since living in London, he seems generally tired of all cities, and for vacation he wants to spend as much time in nature as possible. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I also wanted to see some more of the island than the hotel beach and a few dive spots. So, Willemstad was the plan for the day.

Wise from our long walk a few days ago, we decided to take a taxi to the downtown area and save our feet for walking around there. Historical Willemstad consist of four areas (according to Wikipedia) and we were walking around in the two main ones: Punda and Otrobanda. Punda is the oldest part, and Otrobanda just means “other side” in Papiamentu, the local language. Otrobanda and Punda are on opposite sides of Sint Annabaai (S:t Anna Bay), an inlet which goes from the Caribbean Sea into a large natural harbor called Schottegat. Schottegat is also an industrial area that at one point in time had the largest oil refinery in the world. Punda and Otrobanda are connected by a walking bridge on pontoons named Queen Emma Bridge, and when large ships come in (which happens all the time) the whole bridge moves to one side. We walked across the bridge to Otrobanda, and we heard a siren make a loud noise; we gathered that it meant for us to get off the bridge. The bridge is quite long, so it took quite a while to get all the people off it. Then they started moving it so that a ship could go through.

Sint Annabai with the Queen Juliana Bridge in the background.

Sint Annabai with the Queen Juliana Bridge in the background.

On the Queen Emma Bridge

On the Queen Emma Bridge

On the Otrobanda side, we discovered that we were now in the land of cruise ships. Mainly American cruise ships. And that means two things: American tourists, and tourist traps built for American tourists. It was like walking in to a whole different world, a mini U.S.A. with a Caribbean flavor to it. Compared to everything else we have experienced on the island it felt very… fake. There was a fort, an actual fort called Rif Fort, that was built in the 1820’s and is, together with the rest of the area, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour, Curaçao). We did not feel the breath of history though, as the fort is now marketed as “The Renaissance Mall & the Renaissance Rif Fort, located in the historic capital city of Willemstad, offers you the most unique shopping & dining experience of Curaçao.” It has been “redeveloped, by the Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino, bringing new life into the legendary historical attraction. Renaissance Rif Fort offer a warm welcome to visitors. This UNESCO World Heritage Site with its historic and artistic atmosphere now host a variety of shopping and dinning experiences.” We walked around for a bit and then ran in the other direction. It was a very disappointing experience.

School children performing at the Rif Fort

School children performing at the Rif Fort

Rif Fort

Rif Fort

The rest of Otrobanda and Punda didn’t tickle our fancy either. There was no good shopping and no charm. We meant to buy some gifts for people back home, but came up empty-handed. We decided that the best (only) gift we could get for people was the Curaçao liqueur, which is nice for making fancy-looking cocktails.

House in Willemstad

Typical architecture for Willemstad

Car wash in Willemstad

Have a rasta car wash!

Shopping street in Otrobanda

Shopping street in Otrobanda

Panorama of Sint Annabaai

Panorama of Sint Annabaai

Colorful houses in Willemstad

The colorful houses that helped put Willemstad on the UNESCO World Heritage List

We decided to walk back to the hotel rather than taking a cab. We walked past a lot of abandoned buildings that must have been magnificent while they were still in use. There’s quite a few amazing houses around that are now derelict, and I’m not sure why that is. It seems that beautiful properties on a paradise island like this, should be easy to sell.

Beautiful mansion, totally deserted

Beautiful mansion, totally deserted

Imagine owning this property!

A green mansion

Another forgotten mansion

Close up of the green mansion

Peeking through the fence

The walk back was quite long, and when we got back to the hotel we had incredible cravings for… pizza! We also didn’t feel like going out to a restaurant and sit there and eat. What if we could get pizza to our room? That would be awesome! So, we googled pizza to see what’s around. There were a couple of Pizza Hut restaurants in Willemstad, who deliver. Then I called the hotel reception and asked if it would be possible for us to order Pizza Hut and have it delivered to the hotel. The hotel staff was very helpful and even offered to call Pizza Hut and connect the call to our room, so we didn’t have to pay for the phone charges. We hung up, and waited patiently for a long time. When I realized that it had been close to an hour (!), I called the reception again, and it turned out that our phone wasn’t working – we could make outbound calls but when they called us back, it would just ring and ring and we wouldn’t hear anything. So then they sent a repairman to come and fix our phone, and then we finally got connected to Pizza Hut and ordered some nice pan pizza, yum! We were starving when it arrived, and it was delicious :).

Munching on our much awaited pizza, we thought we would have a nice relaxing evening, and turned on the tv. We were met with news about the horrible terrorist attacks in Paris which had taken place earlier in the day (in the evening in Paris). We watched the news for a very long time and it was an incredibly depressing end to the day.

paris-how-to-help

Beach(ed) life

Thursday and Friday were two non-diving days. It’s funny that I think about it that way. We didn’t come to Curaçao to necessarily dive every day, but once we get started it’s hard not to…

Both days started with breakfast at our favorite café in Octagon square, just below our room. We even had some entertainment from a very vocal bird…

On Thursday we then spent the whole day hanging out on the beach. Kelly had some sort of ear infection and didn’t want to get water in his ear, so he stayed on land. I went swimming and snorkeling for a bit. It was beautiful like before and I’ve become familiar with the reef at this point. I saw two trunkfish together; one little tiny one swimming after a big one! They looked something like this:

Pair_trunkfish_juvenile

Kiruna and Christian, our German dive buddies, were supposed to come snorkeling with us on Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, it became apparent how complicated life gets when you are used to constantly being available online, and then you’re not because you happen to be abroad with no wifi… Actually, Kelly and I were at the Avila Hotel all day, and there they offer wifi practically everywhere, even for the most part of the beach. Kiruna and Christian however, were out and about which meant they could only send and receive messages while being at their hotel or ours. Long story short, a bit of miscommunication made it so we missed each other completely.

Kelly and I went for another dinner at the Blues Bar on Thursday evening. This week it’s Restaurant Week in all of Willemstad with many restaurants participating, which meant that we could have a three course set menu for a very reasonable price.

On Friday, we went to check out downtown Willemstad. But I will save that for another post!

 

 

Vaersenbaai Dive

At 8:35 in the morning we were picked up by The Dive Bus outside the hotel, because today (Wednesday) was another diving day! This time it was Darren, who we met on the first day at the dive center, who was our ride and later our guide. We picked up another couple on the road; they were from New York City but I didn’t catch their names, and they weren’t going diving with us but with another group. Instead we met Ben and Christa from Calgary, Canada who were going diving with us. There were also another couple, so we were a total of six people plus guide, but they drove their own car and kept a bit to themselves, so we didn’t get to talk much with them.

Kelly started the day with a little drama already at the shop ;). A bee came into his flip-flop and stung him on his toe! So we had to bust out the emergency kit to pull the stinger out and clean the little wound. Kelly walked away from the incident unscarred and with all his toes intact :).

The dive site of the day was Vaersenbaai, with a beach in the bay called Kokomo Beach that we entered from. Everyone on the island (or on the internet) has been saying that car break-ins are common, so you shouldn’t leave any valuables in the car. We knew we would drive there and park, so both of us left our phones at the hotel just to be safe. Therefore, we haven’t been able to take any pictures today. Kelly did have the GoPro camera with him though. 

Kokomo Beach

Photo from internet of Kokomo Beach, Vaersenbaai, Curaçao

 

Both dives were amazing. We had good visibility, maybe about 25 meters. The reef was on a steep slope and at the end of the slope was a sandy bottom at about 35-40 meters depth. We were hanging out on the side of the reef at 12-18 meters depth. The temperature in the water was 28-29 degrees (Celsius) so we didn’t need wetsuits, just rash guards and shorts. It really is the most comfortable way to dive.

We saw so many interesting things! I can’t even list all of them. These are the major attractions:

Barracudas, Snapper Cobera (very large fish), several shrimps, scorpionfish, peacock flounder, lionfish, trumpetfish, bearded fireworm, porcupine fish, orange spotted filefish, scrawled filefish, spotted drum, lots of smooth trunkfish, yellowhead jawfish (3 of them together), many lizard fish of different colors and patterns, stoplight parrotfish (juvenile and adult), princess parrotfish, French angelfish, sea anemones, Christmas tree coral, sea urchins, all kinds of hard coral of course (like very pretty, purple stovepipes and brain coral), etc… Kelly and I watched several sharptail eels, who look like brownish-grey snakes covered with white/yellow spots and with colorful markings, and they were very active. Kelly got some amazing footage with the GoPro camera. On the second dive, I even saw a sharptail eel catch and struggle with a fish, and then eating it! It was very dramatic, a fight to the death, and not something that is normal to see. On the second dive we also got closer to a site with many wrecks; I have read that there are car wrecks, boat wrecks and even crane wrecks out in the bay. Some are very deep, and our goal was not to see wrecks on this dive, but we did come upon what looked like a part of a ship.

After the dive we had some sandwiches, provided by the dive center, before heading back to Willemstad. Kelly and I stayed with Darren for a while at the dive shop, and we went over all the fish we had seen on the dive, using Darren’s fish book to name all the species and varieties. It was educational and fun :). Then we booked two more dive trips with them, Saturday and Sunday, and got a ride back to Avila hotel.

That evening we again went to the Blues Bar out on the pier. They really make nice food, to a more reasonable price than the other restaurants we’ve been to, and they have very friendly and attentive staff. It’s nice to sit there and look out onto the pitch black ocean, and see the lights from all the boats out there in the night. Also, this evening there was live entertainment!

 

Blues Bar daytime

The Blues Bar during the day

Blues Bar stage

At the Blues Bar, the stage is on top of the bar!

View from the Blues Bar

View from the Blues Bar

View from the Blues Bar

View from the Blues Bar

A Day in between Dives

Today has been pretty uneventful, but that was a good thing. I have been struggling with a headache for at least a couple of days now, I haven’t slept well and I think I strained a muscle in my upper back. In conclusion, I needed some rest and also some light exercises and stretching for my back and neck. I got all of that today and now I feel much better, ready to go diving again tomorrow. Kelly hasn’t been feeling awesome today either; he’s had a bit of a headache all day. Maybe it’s just the heat that we’re not used to. 

We started the day with breakfast at the cafe on Octagon Square just below our room. They have really tasty sandwiches and good quality tea. Even though it’s been nice to eat our own food out on the balcony for a couple of mornings, it hasn’t exactly been a culinary treat. Kelly brought his laptop to the cafe, to work on editing the GoPro material. Once he’s made some nice videos, I’ll share them. 

 

Kelly working on laptop

Kelly working hard on his video material.

  
Our balcony

Our balcony is the one with clothes hanging to dry…

  
Octagon Square

The Octagon Square and the Octagon itself

 

Kelly spent a large part of the day working on the video from our snorkeling and dives. It really is a lot of work to turn it into something useful and interesting, finding the interesting bits, cutting away the boring parts and adjusting colors. I spent much of the time blogging; that’s why all the recent posts were published today… Other than that we sat on the beach and just relaxed. We watched some pelicans hunting fish! Kelly went back to the room in the late afternoon/early evening, but I stayed until the sun set, and took a little swim before heading to the room to freshen up for dinner. We ate at the Blues Bar again – this night was burger night, and it was very tasty. We even had some “Bahama Mamas” and felt like Dr Kelso in Scrubs… 😉

  
 

Legs on beach

The mandatory legs-on-beach picture…

 

Pierbaai Reef

We got picked up by Nanne from The Dive Bus at 8:35 on Monday morning. He took us to the dive center where we met the other two people who were going diving with us: Kiruna and Christian, a lovely couple from Germany. We got our equipment, assembled it, and had a briefing of the dive. Since this was our (my) refresher dive, Nanne reviewed hand signs, air consumption limits and other basic concepts. Then we put on all our gear and walked across the street to the bay and got in the water!

A lot of diving in Curaçao is entering directly from the shore, which is partly why we chose to go to this particular island. You don’t need a boat to get to nice dive sites. I have only done one shore dive before – in the violent waves of the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best, or most comfortable, diving experience. Here in Pierbaai – “the pier bay” in Dutch – it was a whole different experience. Like at Avila beach, there were breakwaters to protect from the waves, so it was a very calm and protected area to descend in. 

We started the dive with Nanne and me reviewing some basic skills together, like regulator recovery and mask clearing. I didn’t have any problems doing these things, but it felt good to take the time and go through them anyway. It was a confidence builder. Then we all practiced buoyancy together, and that was even more valuable. When we all had our buoyancy under control, we hit the reef! It was a great dive: easy, shallow and long, with lots of neat things to see. 

After the first dive, Kelly and I decided to go along on a second dive as well. During the second dive we didn’t need to spend any time on skills or buoyancy practice, so we had more time to explore the reef. We also went deeper, down to 18 meters, and stayed longer at depth. 

Dive #1 lasted 52 minutes, max depth 14 meters, and we saw:

Spotted drum, porcupine fish, French Angel, trumpetfish, scorpionfish (small), spotted moray eel, and trunkfish.

Dive #2 lasted 49 minutes, max depth 18 meters, and we saw:

Cow fish, lionfish, several squids (one time I saw six of them at once!), slender filefish, jawfish, blue tang, burrfish and a sharptail eel that looked like a white snake with grey spots on it. 

Here are some pictures from above water. Underwater footage will come later :).

 

Local wildlife

I love the pedagogical setup 🙂

  
Map of the dive site

Map of the dive site

  
Briefing by Nanne

Briefing by Nanne

  
  
Selfie

Selfie time… 🙂

  
Christian, Kiruna and Kelly

Our company for the day, Christian and Kiruna from Germany. And Kelly of course!

  
America vs The World vocabulary

“The rest of the world” hehe…

 

Snorkeling success!

Sunday morning started with a little bit of sleeping in. I think it was well needed, because we haven’t slept well since we got here. I feel more jet lagged than I can remember ever feeling before on a trip. I’m tired in the evening, but still have a hard time going to sleep. Then I wake up at four or five in the morning, and get a bit more of restless sleep until 7 am or so. Then I wake up tired, which isn’t nice. I still can’t complain too much, because I wake up to a beautiful sunny view every day.

We had breakfast on the balcony with the food we bought yesterday in the grocery store. It wasn’t fantastic taste wise, but it was nice to have our own breakfast. Then we got our gear together and headed out to do some snorkeling at the hotel beach. One of the main reasons we chose the Avila, was that we read that the snorkeling just outside would actually be really good.

When we got down to the beach, we discovered that the wind was really strong and there were white caps near the shore. We almost changed our minds about going snorkeling, and felt a little bit silly standing there with fins, GoPro camera, rash guards – all kitted out while people looked at us like we were crazy. But then Kelly could see where the water was calmer and we decided to start there. Avila beach has two sides, east and west, and both have man made structures, breakwaters, built to protect from the waves and creates two little coves with calmer water. We went in the east cove and started exploring the far side of it, where the visibility was better. It did not disappoint! We saw lots of fish there, such as a school of beautiful blue tangs. After a little while we were confident enough to go outside the breakwaters, and that’s when the real fun begun! We were swimming (or mainly floating on the current) along a reef and saw all kinds of interesting things. Here I’ve made a list and added a couple of professional images for reference. When Kelly has edited the GoPro footage I will post it on the blog as well!

Lionfish  

Trumpetfish

Filefish

Blue Tangs (school)

Spotted trunkfish

Bluehead Wrasse

Yellowfin Damselfish

Blue Chromis

Nassau grouper (?)

Black Durgon (?)

Foureye butterflyfish

Sergeant Major

Fairy basslet

Elkhorn Coral

Brain coral

After this first successful snorkeling experience, we had a nice, healthy lunch (smoked salmon salad, so no, I’m not being sarcastic) at the beach bar and then headed back to the room to look at the video from the GoPro camera. While just clicking around randomly, we found a scorpionfish that Kelly didn’t realize he had filmed! Excited by this discovery, we decided to go out snorkeling again, inside the breakwaters. This time we knew what we were looking for, so Kelly managed to find three scorpionfish, one of them really large! Scorpionfish have dorsal fins charged with a very potent and painful poison, so you really don’t want to touch them. At the same time, they have incredible camouflage that makes it easy to do so if you’re not careful not to touch anything. They lie completely still, waiting in disguise for prey to pass them by so they can suck them in to their mouth and swallow. This is what a scorpionfish looks like:

We had a nice evening on the beach after snorkeling. We relaxed and watched the sunset. Then we finished the day with a great dinner at the Blues Bar out on the pier. It was the best meal we’ve had on the island so far. There were some locals eating there too, clearly on “date night”, so it must be a pretty good restaurant even if you’re not staying at the hotel.

Iguana

An iguana hanging out on the neighboring hotel beach!

East side Avila

The other side of Avila beach (east)

I have tried to embed a cool animation of Kelly on the beach, but since WordPress keeps crashing I’ve given it up for now. Here’s a link instead!

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3KIQ0awh56KVzhNMWFoXzduaWc/preview