Saturday, March 29, 2008

Curacao Breezes: The Beginning of a Destination

We drive through the candy colored downtown of Willemstad, a historic city on the Dutch island of Curacao, whose pretty pastel buildings date back to the 1700s and head further south along the road that parallels the Atlantic Ocean. We are on our way to Breezes Curacao, an all inclusive resort with 1500 feet of private white beaches, aquamarine pools and views, on an ultra clear day, of the shoreline of Venezuela.

We could, my 13-year-old daughter and I, decide to do nothing but lounge at the resort. It has, after all, more than all the comforts of home including both Japanese and Italian restaurants, an open air buffet filled to the brim with all sorts of luscious foods (including, my daughter, Nia, and I discovered, wonderful desserts) a trapeze (for the much more adventuresome than I) and even an ice skating rink. Why not just grab a beach towel and head to one of the chairs that were shaded by palms?

Well, there was so much to do on the island and, conveniently, just steps from the door of our room. The Curacao Underwater Marine Park begins at Breezes Curacao and stretches 12 miles to East Point, the island’s most southeasterly tip. The resort has snorkeling equipment available (and also offers dive lessons and trips to reefs further offshore) so we decide to don masks and explore the warm waters. It’s as easy as stepping off the beach into the ocean and suddenly, beneath the calm surfaces of the sapphire waters we’re in a picturesque world where colorful fish dart in and out among two shallow wrecks and canyons of corals are home to star fish and sea anemones. Underwater interpretative markers provide information and give the feel of a walk in the park.

We’re just barely dried off and Nia wants to head down to Mambo Beach, just a short jaunt from Breezes. It’s a hip, lively place with open air restaurants, shops, music and miles of white sand. We poke around in the shops and then continue on to the next beach where the Curacao Sea Aquarium is located. We pay our money and wander past the aquariums filled with all manners of marine life from sharks and eels to anemones and delicate coral. In the hands on section, we pick up orange starfish and sea anemones that seem totally unconcerned to be touched by human hands.

Feeling somewhat adventuresome, we decide to take part in the ‘Animal Encounters,’ advertised as the only place in the world where you can hand feed sharks, sea turtles, stingrays and colorful tropical fish in one dive. We have bathing suits under our shorts so it’s just a matter of changing and putting everything into a locker and then we’re ready. Since we’re not PADI certified, we’re given a 30-minute instruction course in using the equipment which includes wearing it the pool. There’s also a lecture on how to handle the animals safely.

It’s a total immersion adventure and after our lessons, we’re allowed to swim among sharks, rays, turtles and numerous fish who like us because we’re carrying food. But not to worry, there is always a sea life expert nearby.

After feeding our underwater friends, we shower, buy photos of our encounter (I can’t wait to show my friends the photo of me nonchalantly feeding a shark – I surely don’t have to mention that he was harmless and there was a animal behaviorist just out of photo range) and then head back in time of keep our dinner reservation at Munasan, the Japanese steak house at Breezes. There’s a show going on later tonight at Jimmy’s Buffet and we don’t want to miss it.

The next day we head back to the aquarium. In the past, we have kissed dolphins in Playa del Carmen and petted dolphins in the Bahamas. We were once even knocked off a platform by a playful dolphin in Cancun. But we had never gone diving with dolphins and we were determined to change that. There are eight levels of dolphin encounters here and we choose one of the harder ones – diving with dolphins.
Starting at the dolphin platform, our dolphins poke their heads out of the water and seem to be listening as our instructor teaches us a little bit about blue-nose dolphins and then shows us hand signals which we’ll use to “control” our dolphins. The dolphins are rewarded from a large bucket of fish whenever they respond correctly.
But there are no negative consequences for a mistake. Instead, they’re just ignored and the trainers either try again or move on to other instructions. Our instructor, a pretty blonde girl named Annabelle, tells us that the academy is adamantly opposed to withholding foods as a means of motivation and that even if a dolphin makes mistakes all day long, he or she will be fed a required daily diet regardless. It’s never an issue with the dolphins who are with us today, as I soon find out, because they don’t make mistakes and instead seem to genuinely enjoy splashing around with humans.

But I’m vaguely apprehensive at first (what if my dolphin doesn’t like me?) we slip into the water. Almost immediately two dolphins swim over to us and start making the echo like sounds that seem to indicate they’re happy. Good.

Nia, who never met a dolphin she didn’t like, has no trust issues and immediately adjusts her snorkeling equipment and then dives under the water. Her dolphin quickly follows while mine (how do they know?) waits for me patiently at the surface while I adjust my mask.

I decide to hang around on the surface, petting my dolphin and when he seems to insist, giving him a kiss. We then swim further away from the platform and are told to hold our arms straight out from our sides. With a rush through the water, two dolphins scoot themselves under my arms, I grasp their dorsal fins and suddenly we’re speeding towards the platform. I knew dolphins moved fast just by observing them, but to be part of the dash through the water is another experience entirely. Before we can go crashing into the platform, the dolphins slip out of my embrace and turn around. It is Nia’s turn for the dolphin ride.

We spend almost 45 minutes in the water and when it’s time to climb on to the platform, I feel a touch of sadness. I’m gotten so use to our silky smooth friends with their large grins and strange UFO type sounds, that maybe I’m just a little dolphin like now too.

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