There’s a one-inch thick piece of plexiglass between you and the eight-foot tiger and nurse sharks. Sure, even if there wasn’t a wall separating us, there wouldn’t be any danger because the sharks are well fed. But still. When you slide below the surface of the lagoon at Ocean Encounters inside Curaçao Sea Aquarium, and come within inches of the world’s most perfect predator, something primal stirs in your subconscious.
It’s not really fear, so much. Admiration maybe. Perhaps even awe. Respect, definitely.
This is the “Meet & Feed” program at Ocean Encounters where you’re given small fish to insert through little holes in the plexiglass to feed the sharks. The tiger sharks look at lot bigger face-to-face than when you stand onshore. Mostly you notice how fast and powerfully they move, like quicksilver, pirouetting their 1,000+ pound frames on an axis with less effort than a flick of the wrist.
And then on the opposite side of the lagoon inside another separate area, you can do the same thing and feed enormous, prehistoric-looking sea turtles. Also keep an eye out for the goliath grouper named Herbie. He has the unenviable reputation as surely the ugliest fish in the Netherlands Antilles.
For those inexperienced swimming in the Caribbean, the lagoon is an amazing opportunity to learn the fundamentals of snorkeling or scuba diving. The swimming lagoon is filled with large tarpon, manta rays, barracuda and dozens of other varieties of fish. You’re constantly surrounded by them darting back and forth, close enough to touch, and all of it’s illuminated by the brilliant tropical sunlight streaming from above.
Guests can sign up for either a Snorkel Encounter or Scuba Encounter. The cool thing here is even if you’ve never touched scuba equipment, you can test it out inside the 15-foot deep lagoon, or take lessons to get PADI-certified. Whichever route you go, dive instructors are in the water at all times.
“It the best scuba training environment ever,” says Remco Lingsma, a Dutch dive instructor at Ocean Encounters. “It’s not very deep so you don’t have to worry about equalizing your pressure or anything like that to get close to so much marine life.”
Ocean Encounters is the largest dive operator on Curaçao, with multiple dive shops located around the island including the larger hotels like Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort. Lingsma says he runs snorkel/dive charters aboard five boats out to some of the world’s greatest reefs.
And why is that? What makes Curaçao and neighboring Bonaire, just 35 miles north of South America, some of the agreed-upon best diving destinations on the planet?
“These are some of the healthiest coral reefs anywhere, especially in the Caribbean because there are never any hurricanes,” explains Lingsma. “It has to do with optimal temperature and nutrient rich water too…. But people always say they’ve never seen such beautiful reefs, and you know, we get a lot of well-traveled divers coming through here.”