Trip Report Curacao Trip Report with SB Surge Jan. 2019

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drrich2

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Jan. 2019 Curacao Trip Report

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-----Was blessed to join the ScubaBoard 2019 Surge to Curacao Saturday Jan. 12 – 19th. Took my wife, 5-year old daughter and mother-in-law along, stayed at Sunscape Resort Curacao and dove the 10 boat dives (included in the package deal) with Ocean Encounters. Due to family involvement I didn’t do the optional free shore diving or added cost add-ons such as afternoon boat dives, the Wednesday night dive or an all-day 2-tank trip to Klein Curacao, the small island east of Curacao. We did a couple of topside excursions; a buggy with Scooby Tours and a trip to Curacao Sea Aquarium, plus we stopped at Mambo Beach. My impressions are also informed by a Feb. 2018 cruise stop in Curacao with a bus tour booked through the cruise line.
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-----I write reports with an eye toward helping intermediate divers mulling over a given dive destination; what it offers, how it stacks up again other options whether to go and how to pick from the options if they do. Basically, to jump start another diver’s researching. With that in mind, I’m organizing it this way:

-----1.) My Research Notes on Curacao as a dive destination – posted in a separate thread so things don’t get too congested. Broad destination overview.

-----2.) My experience of diving Curacao’s east coast, 10 boat dives at 10 separate sites, 2-tank morning dives all, with 100-cf tanks diving air, with Ocean Encounters dive op.

-----3.) Impressions of Sunscape Resort Curacao, Curacao’s only all-inclusive resort from what I understand.

-----4.) Impressions of Curacao’s topside, including the capital city, Willemstad.

-----5.) Review of Scooby Tours buggy tour.

-----6.) Review of Curacao Sea Aquarium.

-----7.) Commentary on how I think Curacao stacks up against other dive destinations.

East Coast Boat Diving with Ocean Encounters

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-----We did 5 2-tank boat trips diving east coast sites with modest boat trips from the pier at Sunscape Resort, up to around 25 minutes, surface intervals on the water but surface conditions were nice, mostly sunny/partly cloudy but overcast one day, lighting a bit lower the 1st dive of the day. All sites were pretty close to shore. Only one was a ‘wreck’ – a tugboat shallow enough it’s easy to accidentally surface while over it. I’m used to describing what I consider the ‘average’ mainstream west coast Bonaire reef as sloping down at about a 45 degree angle, give or take; the Curacao reefs I saw tended to slope more steeply.
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-----Ocean Encounters has 4 boats, the Curacao x, with x being Princess, Star, Phoenix or Galaxy. The Princess was used by non-ScubaBoard Surge divers, and Surgers rotated through the other 3, which were not identical. The Galaxy had some overhead netting for storage, a 2-level table with various items, and the tank racks accommodated 100-cf tanks. The Phoenix and Star racks didn’t accommodate 100-cf tanks (so they tucked partly beneath the seating), neither had overhead netting (but the front ‘dashboard’ had some space for dry stuff) and the Phoenix had the table but the Star didn’t. All were fine, but life diving 100-cf tanks was easier aboard the Galaxy.
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-----Ocean Encounters staff were friendly, helpful and fun. Most put their gear on their 1st tank of the day; staff switched out tanks after the 1st dive, and were available if more assistance was needed individually. I benefited because my new BP/W setup wasn’t all ‘dialed in,’ had a little cam band drama, and staff addressed it and told me what they were doing while they did. We were offering sliced oranges and water between dives, and they had a neat system for keeping up with your cup to minimize waste. If I understand correctly, O.E. offers a 2-tank morning dive, a 1-tank afternoon dive, and a night dive on Wednesday (or any day if you’ve got at least 8 people). On one dive a staff took photos of us and the reef our 2 dives one day, and offered the digital photo package for $260 + tax for all photos, divided by however many went in for a group purchase (this was for our group, Group #6 of the Surge; I think there were 12 in our group?). I believe 8 of us went it, and my share was to be $40. I asked the lady if I could use photos from it in our family’s annual photo book; she assured me yes, there were no copyright issues. With that in mind, I’m posting a pic she took of me here (I think it’s allowed).
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drrich2

drrich2

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-----The typical dive profile was max. depth 60 feet/18 meters (not enforced), 50 minute duration (it was easy to run a few minutes early; my times ran 51 ½ to 67 minutes (roughly 55 or so average?), head out till turning back at about 25 minutes, coming back a bit shallower than we went out. If there was significant current (usually minimal, at times mild, once I swam into moderate current), we switched to drift diving, the guide towed an SMB and the boat picked us up. Dives were guided, generally with 2 guides so the groups weren’t huge, entering the water with a small separation. Our guide Benjamin showed me a lot I’d have missed without him. I estimate viz. was around 60-80 feet (not the greatest but quite good), water temp. lows around 78 degrees, my average dive depths were 24.56 to nearly 37 feet (you could call it 30 or just a bit over on average?), and my SAC rate on benign dives without fighting current ran around 0.56 cf/minute. My 100-cf (I think AL) tank pressures to start from 8 of the dives (I use my wrist unit for this, and misplaced it so just had the console on 2 dives) ran from 2,850 – 3,120 PSI, trending close to 3,000 PSI.

-----We giant strode in, at dive’s end if there was (mild) current pulled ourselves to the boat via granny line, and the guide took our fins before we ascended the ladder. Our dive sites:

1.) Tugboat.
2.) Sandy's Plateau.
3.) Director's Bay.
4.) Double Reef.
5.) Eel Valley.
6.) Small Wall.
7.) Booby Trap.
8.) Jan Thiel.
9.) Barracuda Point (IIRC, drift dive - we passed through Small Wall to Director's Bay).
10.) New Port.

-----Nitrox and 100-cf tanks are added cost options; I saw no point in paying for nitrox for 2 moderate rec. dives/day (Surge members had a lower than usual price), and my final bill included my share of a $260 + digital photo package ($40 for me, I think), $111.62 per my Quicken record. So, maybe about $70/10 or $7 a tank? Just a reasoned guess and I don’t know whether Surge members got a break on that, so ask if you need to know. I ended one dive with 856 PSI, all others with > 900 PSI, so the big tanks let me hang with our group without cutting anybody’s dive short.

-----Our first dive (Tugboat) I thought the reef a bit lack luster; our second I thought ‘meh’ till I looked up & saw the lushness was shallower. After that, I found the reefs generally quite lush, even deep, with rather dense gorgonian growth in places. If you’re a ‘glass half-empty’ type, you can find dead coral (e.g.: under the top coating of the large patch of staghorn coral) and such, but overall, I was impressed. Overall I have a strongly favorable impression of Curacao’s reef where I dove.
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-----Plenty of small sea life, including things I didn’t see in 8 trips to Bonaire (e.g.: porkfish, gray angelfish), lacking some I saw in Bonaire (e.g.: no scrawled or white-spotted file fish), and a lot of the same (e.g.: sand divers and trumpet fish). Nearly (maybe every?) dive I saw large schools of ‘bait fish’ over the reef. It was mentioned despite this being a marine park it wasn’t protected from everything (yet), and we didn’t see much big stuff – 1 eagle ray, 1 big hawksbill and at least a few green sea turtles, 1 big green moray eel, the barracuda were small and I saw no big grouper – a couple conies and what I think were graysbys. Lots of anemones, and some different species. So non-coral animal life overall good, but I missed the big grouper, reef shark and more frequent ray sightings of the Caymans.
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drrich2

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-----My only concern with Ocean Encounters is their no solo diving policy. I don’t have a problem with it for boat diving – I figure not everyone is as capable as he thinks and avoiding derailing the dive day because someone gets lost may be cause. But free shore diving is part of the package deal, and I resent ‘scuba police’ policies that might interfere with it (my one biting criticism of Grand Cayman, and part of why I love, love, love Bonaire). There are options for solo diving support on Curacao – see my Research Notes for Curacao diving. This was also a family trip so I didn’t want to shore dive anyway, but had I wished to, it might’ve been an issue.

-----Bottom Line: Fine general Caribbean reef diving with lush reef and a nice number and variety of animals, but not much ‘big stuff,’ and from what I gather a reputation for not much big stuff and hardly any sharks. For the shore diver, given the road to move between sites for part of the island is more inland than Bonaire, the site amenities and expectations vary (e.g.: whether you might face a usage fee, but have access to concessions), and some of the shops have anti-solo diving policies (e.g.: Ocean Encounters and the Dive Bus, but do they enforce this for shore diving? I don’t know), it might be logistically a bit more complicated than Bonaire. If you add afternoon and night boat dives, you can get a ‘dive-a-holic’ vacation without shore diving.

Sunscape Resort Curacao

-----A beachfront all-inclusive resort with pretty nice sandy beach with plenty of lounge chairs while we were there, 5 restaurants (buffet, Italian, Japanese, sea food and a grill), some bars (I don’t drink alcohol, but those strawberry ‘smoothies’ (like an Icee back home) I partook plenty of), nice grounds, clean rooms, an excellent kids’ club (our hard-to-please 5-year old loved the Explorers’ Club), various entertainments (e.g.: rock climbing wall, bungie trampoline part of the time, volley ball net, paddle boarding and kayaking, pools, a sheltered beach due to a breakwall of rocks out farther blocking waves), and evening entertainment (e.g.: saxophone player; I didn’t attend much of that) and a good location (fairly short ride to Willemstad, roughly 5 – 10 minute walk to Mambo Beach (a 2-story (?) strip-mall type shopping center, but a fairly crowded beach) and a longer walk (or short shuttle or cab) to the Curacao Sea Aquarium. Very close to the property are bus stops, and across the street and a bit east is Scooby Tours. The front lobby has staff who book a variety of excursions.

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We were in room 5102, Heron building, bottom row 2nd from the right.
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drrich2

drrich2

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-----We were told if we wanted to use the free shuttle, let them know a day ahead, but the buses cost $2 apiece and run every 10 minutes (that was NOT our experience), but we found other transport may stop and offer you a ride (e.g.: guy in a van, or a taxi van).

-----Food was good and plentiful; I don’t think their restaurants would compete well and long as stand-alone operations against competition, but they were fine for us. If you’re a foodie on a perpetual quest and high-end and the regional best, may not be your thing. The buffet was the place for breakfast. There was a small offering near the main lobby with pastries, coffee, hot chocolate, some cookies, etc…
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-----Despite the arid environs there’s a nice lawn maintained with a sprinkler system. I found the property surprisingly easy to navigate (I get turned around easily at Buddy Dive Resort on Bonaire).

Curacao’s Topside
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-----Varied from flat to hilly countryside, tall cacti and thorny shrubby vegetation, and the island ‘feels’ pretty large. Hot and sunny, often with a wind and arid enough we weren’t pouring sweat. Beautiful in its way, though I’d give St. Croix and especially St. Lucia a higher score for good-looking wild areas (note: we didn’t make it to the park with Mount Christoffel, so there’s a lot I didn’t see). The north coast had some beautiful ‘waves crashing upon small cliff face’ scenes, similar to Washington-Slagbaai Park in Bonaire. The one cave of Hato Caves we saw on the buggy tour was rather small and simple – not bit stalactites or stalagmites, likely not the best representation. Our 15-minute stop at the Ostrich Farm was okay; some variety of animals, including a pen with spider monkeys.

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-----Willemstad feels big and downright urban by Caribbean standards; beautiful pastel colored buildings, some large buildings, a scenic waterfront (the Handelskade), the swinging Queen Emma pontoon bridge (foot traffic), the high over-water Queen Juliana bridge over St. Anna Bay (4-lane, for autos), the floating market…there’s plenty to see and photograph walking around. It has a visual charm I’d not seen the like of.

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drrich2

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Scooby Tours Buggy Tour.
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-----Left 3 times/day; the last you miss the Ostrich Farm because it’s closed. Could be hard to make it back in time for the 12:30 p.m. departure if you’re on a morning dive trip and not on one of the 1st two boats heading out. $150/Buggy, and a buddy can hold one or two people. It’s automatic, but loud, feels like it’s running in a fairly low gear, and the signal has to be switched off manually. They have seat belts and an overhead ‘cage’ (roll bar structure, whatever you want to call it) – a serious advantage in my view, taking our 5-year old child along.
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-----Plenty of turning as we zig zagged our way through the neighborhood, headed north across the wilds to the north coast where the waves crashing against the island were scenic, then a winding course through dirt roads (VERY dusty; googles are loaned free, but the flag of Curacao bandanas for scarves are $5 apiece – VERY NEEDED, BUY IT) to visit a cave, then a 15-minute stop at the Ostrich Farm, then home. We had 2 guides; one held traffic up so our little convoy could stay together. The leader told us about things and took some family photos of us. We were each given a bottle of water.

-----It was more fun than I’m making it sound and we’re glad we did it, a chance to see a different side of Curacao.

Curacao Sea Aquarium.

-----I saw 3 main offering groups and know of a 4th.

-----1.) The main facility – a fairly large building with multiple moderate-sized indoor tanks with a variety of creatures (e.g.: a goliath grouper, parrotfish, lobster, etc…), some touch tanks (e.g.: star fish, sea cucumber, conch) and a central area with flamingos (which you can get photographed feeding, and get digital photos and a print version – for a fee).
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-----2.) The outdoor stationary glass-bottom boat setup – go down the stairs and you find a long room with a bench and multiple viewing windows, and watch tarpon, big jacks, really big nurse sharks, a southern stingray and more swim around. Near this area is a separate, fenced off pen with lemon sharks.
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-----3.) The dolphin show – you can watch at no added charge, get a photograph print being kissed by one for $20 (extra $5 to add the digital version) and other encounter services up to scuba diving with them.
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drrich2

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-----I paid the fee for this digital photo of our girl's dolphin kiss experience, so I believe it's allowed use to post here (where it essentially advertises Dolphin Academy Curacao's services - their photographer took the shot):
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-----4.) They have some sort of sea lion encounter. I had nothing to do with that.

The Surge Experience
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-----Remember the M&Ms commercial where the M&M meets Santa Claus, they see each other, mutually exclaim ‘You DO exist!’ and faint? Well, turns out these cyberspace members posting on ScubaBoard are real people…
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-----Dennis (Cardzard) checked on us often to see we were having a good time and no problems; he, Roxanne other members were kind to our high maintenance fireball of a child and we appreciate that. There were only 2 required meetings; that first Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. for orientation, meeting people and prize giveaways, and the last Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. for more prize giveaways, a group photo and to share/reminisce about the experience. The rest of the week if yours – it’s not a constricting, micromanaged experienced, you’re free to do what you want, but the camaraderie on the boat is probably stronger than a random grouping, and some people were helpful at giving me info. (special thanks for WarrenZ).

-----One thing. I’m a chubby, fairly sedentary, pushing-50 introvert with light sensitive eyes, and I tend to lean over, close my eyes and recharge between dives (this is how I rack up big dive counts on solo trips than would exhaust some fitter than me). Apparently I tend to look sick or depressed. Thoughtful people checked on me at times, but really, I’m okay. That’s just how I look on dive boats!

Show Me The Money

-----I give a cost breakdown for trip reports as a starting point so prospective travelers can get a rough budget, then modify the plan from there to suit their needs and resources. Cardzard (Dennis) and Roxanne get good package deals for ScubaBoard Surge and Invasion members, so your mileage may vary. Nothing special about our airfare! Here’s how it shook out.

-----The basic 2019 Surge deal: 7-nights at Sunscape Curacao, all-inclusive (meals, snacks, alcohol, use of various on-grounds amenities), round trip airport transfers, taxes, event t-shirt – for non-diver $1,230, for a diver (with 5 2-tank boat trips and 6-days unlimited shore diving with tanks & weights, gear storage room) $1,600, kids 3-12 $441 (cheap!!!) and kids < 3 free. Prices are for garden view rooms (quite nice, and I’m cheap).

-----1.) Round trip airfare coach via American Airlines for 3 people: $2,612.73. Added mother-in-law later for $912.91. Total: roughly $3,526.
-----2.) 5 Pieces of checked luggage round trip: I think $180.
-----3.) Parking at Nashville Airport: $88.
-----4.) Travel Guard Insurance for health coverage: $214.
-----5.) Cost for the 4 of us to have a garden view room, all meals, free kids’ club and grounds use and me to have 10 dives with Ocean Encounters. They let us all pack into one room. Cheaper for the kid, no real price break on the 3rd adult. $4,640.00. That included tips at the resort!!! (Not the dive shop).
-----6.) Upcharge for 100-cf tanks and the digital photo package ($40?): $111.62.
-----7.) Scooby Tours buggy tour with 2 buggies: $300.
-----8.) Entry for 4 to Curacao Sea Aquarium: $64.00.

-----That comes out to roughly $9,123.62. Throw in dive shop tip, dolphin and flamingo feeding photos, tips traveling to & from, souvenirs, airport food, yadda-yadda, I’m thinking roughly $9,500 for a family of 4, 1 diving, to enjoy that trip. Ended up costing more than I thought, but 4 people had a fine time and excellent memories.
 
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drrich2

drrich2

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Parting Thoughts

-----To get the full Curacao experiences I’d need to go solo and ‘shore dive the crap out of it’ out in the Westpunt area, likely stay with All West Apartments and dive with Go West, but I don’t think I can. Now that our kid knows what Curacao is, if I announce I’m going without her, there will be child wrath to pay! And my wife ain’t gonna wrangle the kid full-time while I’m off packing in 5 dives/day.

-----Every dive destination has its own charm. It’s hard to compare head to head, because Curacao isn’t all about the diving. If all you want to do is dive amongst the Caribbean’s best, consider the Caymans (esp. Little Cayman) or the outer atolls of Belize (via live-aboard). If all you want to do is eat, sleep and shore dive, hard to match the west coast-hugging road and consistent simplicity of Bonaire for racking up a big dive count.

-----But if you like shore diving with a lot of sites to choose from, good boat diving, sandy beaches and at least some providers enabling solo shore diving (which Grand Cayman has a bad reputation for being opposed to for reasons never fully tracked down to their source), varied topside offerings including a good-sized interesting Caribbean city, Curacao rocks and no clear regional equal comes readily to my mind.

-----I see the Surge as a good way to try a place out and meet fellow forum members. January won’t work for our family anymore because pulling our kid out of school past Kindergarten (which was tough enough; they’re reading and more academically focused than we were) I’ll probably pass on. Roxanne’s pre-trip recommendations for what you need, what you’ll face on-island, videos showing what’s what…hard to beat all that leg work done for you. Representatives from Shearwater were on-hand with dive computers to try – a Teric, Petrel and Nerd, I think. I often heard Roxanne asking if anyone wanted to try, so I take it availability was good.

-----There were many prizes; my wife and mother-in-law both won a Stream2Sea pack each, per the tag an Explorer Kit, and we appreciated that! Someone won a Shearwater Teric, another an Anthony’s Key Trip, somebody a Blackbeard’s Cruise…good times!
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-----Tipping for Ocean Encounters was done at the end of the week via envelopes with our names at the going away party. I had the cash on hand; didn’t see a credit card option. Just a heads up if you tend to run low on cash late on a trip. Just because I didn’t see another option doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

-----A big shout out and thanks to Dennis and Roxanne for organizing the good times! We were blessed and thankful to be there.

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morecowbells

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Thanks for sharing this well thought out trip report! There were plenty of great photos with my favorites being the squid and your daughter with the flamingo. You really need to do a solo trip and stay up near the Westpunt area. I think the diving is so much better on that end of the island. There have been many times that solo divers have approached my husband and I asking if they could join us for a dive. If you make a deal with your wife that you do the solo(or with a diving friend) vacation, and propose her doing a girls trip somewhere, you may be surprised how fast she says "YES"! Please don't get me wrong, I love traveling with my husband more than anything else, but sometimes the occasional separate adventure can be a benefit to both partners. A couple of years ago he and his brothers did a Northern California craft beer pilgrimage. A year later, I did a girls trip to Cozumel. We both had wonderful vacations. The pluses being having a bed to myself with no snoring next to me, alone time retreating to my bedroom or beach to read a book and rest my eyes. The negatives being that I missed my husband who I didn't realize is the best dive buddy until I didn't have him there.

Thanks for posting your comparisons between Bonaire and Curacao. It is a frequent question asked on the forums. You have shed a lot of light on the pros and cons.
 

SayNo2Snow

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Excellent trip report...THANKS! And nice pics. We are heading to Curacao in a couple of weeks. This will be our 3rd trip to the island. Love it! I really appreciated your information about diving and sightseeing down in the Willemstad area. Our past 2 trips we stayed up in Westpunt at Marazul. This trip we'll have 2 weeks back in Westpunt and 1 week with non diving friends in the Willemstad area! We've been to Bonaire 3x too, but not been to Cayman before and is a bucket list destination... I think I need to research it for 2020. We always stay at accomodations where we self cater rather than AI resorts.
Again thanks for taking the time to provide such terrific information and details :)
 
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