If you were set down in the arid center of Curacao, you might think you were somewhere in the American Southwest -- until you looked beyond the cactus prairie and caught a glimpse of the azure sea. Although not as well known to divers as Bonaire and Aruba, the other two members of the Dutch "ABC" island group, Curacao has much to offer.
Located below the Caribbean's hurricane belt and lying diagonally to the region's prevailing winds, Curacao's elongated, 180-square-mile mass creates some 35 miles of superbly sheltered coastline and spectacular, undeveloped beaches.
A short distance from shore, the water performs an inviting transition from light green to a rich shade of sapphire. This color change provides a clue to the island's underwater topography, which typically begins with a gentle slope to a depth of 20 to 30 feet, then tumbles steeply to depths well beyond 100.
With reefs close to shore, minimal rainfall and no rivers to sully the clarity of coastal waters, Curacao offers excellent shore diving. Venture to the water's edge anywhere a road passes close to the ocean and there will most likely be a great dive site nearby. And because most sites feature life-encrusted slopes, divers can literally pick their depth.
In the upper shallows, multitudes of soft corals like giant split-pore sea rods and devil's sea whips bid for space between heads of star, brain and pillar coral. Just yards below the edge of the reef's crest, sprays of tube sponges and orange elephant ear sponges intermix with long serpentine strands of red and brown wire corals.
The terrain does not drop off as fiercely on the western end of the island, but there is an even greater abundance of colorful sponges along with taller, more pronounced coral heads. Among my favorites is a region known as Banda Abau, which includes sites such as Lost Anchor, Black Coral Gardens and Sponge Forest.
One of Curacao's most cherished dive sites is the wreck of the Superior Producer. Measuring 240 feet in length, the freighter stands upright in 104 feet of water. Her steel skeleton and intact superstructure are enveloped in sea life. Colonies of tiny orange cup corals decorate the wreck with vivid orange finery. The corals become particularly evident at night when their blooms glow like fire.