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Curacao
Curacao: Animal Encounters
Of the Best Kind

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block

heir bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Romeo and Paski, two of my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and we laid back into the water as though sunbathing. Then we went back to free swim.

writer swimming with dolphins at the Sea Aquarium, Curacao

Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

Now I don't usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority. "They are on a very light work schedule and every day, it varies. Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don't want to perform – perhaps they're preoccupied with a personal family situation (I didn't pursue that) – the program is called off." As if on cue, a participant related a past experience in which Dolphins used to give rides to people holding on to their fins. Nope, not any more – it was determined that it was too damaging to their dorsal fins and the dolphins didn't like it so it was stopped years ago. I nodded; point well taken… score one for the dolphins.

Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Romeo and I shared a number of shallow dives together and in parting he gave me a kiss. Okay, so he did it because he got a fish but still I thought he was actually smiling at me at the time.

dolphin giving the writer a kiss

Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphins in the ocean, but had never interacted with them. "Most animal encounters are much more commercial," she observed. "Snorkeling with them was a very special, personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be."

And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater. I've been snorkeling before – but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don't usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

the writer and a dive instructor preparing fish food for the dolphins

But at the Animal Encounters experience getting up close and personal with a variety of denizens of the deep is the whole purpose. So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack and so many sting rays that I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body – only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly.

the writer snorkeling with a sting ray

I wasn't really surprised to find the huge loggerhead turtles and sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still, the shark didn't look any less menacing for being behind protective covering. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There's not always a second chance to do that with a shark...

Herbie, the 400-pound goliath grouper who has been king of the hill here for over 30 years pretty much just observed the proceedings. No one messes with Herbie.

Ah so many fish, so little time – I fed as many as I could in the 35 minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling – and actually swimming with the fishes...

Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Snapper, the sea lion. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Snapper do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly. Sea lions are much more genteel when they move – they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still… Snapper had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete but his vocalization unfortunately resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so. But still he was very cute – and, like Romeo, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.

the writer with Snapper the sea lion

A visit to a nearby ostrich farm left me less enamored with animals in captivity. I found it a little sad – not to mention ironic – that they were pushing ostrich meat in the restaurant because it's low in cholesterol; and even more disturbed to discover that most of the young end up on the menu. "Slaughtered" babes reincarnated as wraps, croquettes and burgers. We couldn't convince our guide Alexander to maybe find some more euphemistic term to describe their sad demise....

Admittedly, this was one of those experiences that actually turn out to be more interesting than you expect. First, we learned a lot. Ostriches have no teeth so they can't bite but they can kick like crazy and run at 50 miles an hour. The farm – you know – the one that feeds baby ostriches to its customers – apparently tricks the birds into laying more than they ordinarily would by stealing the eggs before they are hatched. Apparently you end up with a lot of extra omelets that way!

But they are fascinating bird to watch. They walk regally, head held high with a haughty look that conveys a "don't mess with me" demeanor, but with a small pointy little face that can't help but elicit a smile.

the writer feeding ostriches at a farm

I liked them – I did – but I couldn't get beyond the fact that people were actually riding the poor birds, which looked about the last thing the ostrich wanted to happen. Two guys on either side hold the ostrich's wings to keep him from running away with his passenger, who despite the cascading giggles looked absolutely terrified. Alexander basically said that very few people ever really opt for another ride...

Feeding them, on the other hand, felt a lot more charitable. With my back to the outside of the fence and holding a feed bucket in front of me, two birds stretched their necks around me and pecked like crazy at the pellets. I felt like a large feathery cape had suddenly become alive and had gone into a feeding frenzy. I longed to be back among the fishes. More dainty eaters, they.

Let's just say ostriches are not nearly as endearing as dolphins and sea lions. And while I chose not to partake of their meat in the restaurant, I did feel a little guilty at lunch following the underwater swim eating a fried fish sandwich.

newly-hatched sea turtle

And now an animal story for the future based on a rare occurrence this past August 2015 at the Santa Barbara Resort. Turtle hatching!!! Turtles rarely nest on a busy hotel beach, especially one where their access to the ocean is impeded. But nest they did for the first time ever – and once tracks were spotted the Sea Turtle Conservation Agency set up precautions. The resort put a team together that made sure the nest was protected during the incubation of the eggs. They even put together a turtle watch, and under their eager eyes, at least 80 little hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, made it safely to their new home in the water. The good news for avid turtle watchers everywhere – as well as the resort – is that they are expected back again next August.

There are, of course, other more mundane opportunities to interact with animals on the island, in addition to the excellent diving and snorkeling for which the island is known. These include horseback riding, a butterfly farm, viewing bats hanging out in caves, lots of birds and lizards, and if so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iguana, a relative of whom I had just seen scurrying across my path on a hike, showed up instead in a stew. According to chef and owner, Jaanchie, it may "taste like chicken but it acts like Viagra." Ha! At least the iguana had more to recommend it than the ostrich meat. For more information about the aquarium, visit The Curacao Sea Aquarium website; ostriches; turtle hatching.

Related Articles:
Vieques, Puerto Rico; Dominican Republic Outdoor Adventure; Mayan Outtakes; Playa del Carmen; Cozumel, Mexico: Costa Rica; Belize; Destination Dominica

(Posted 5-3-2016)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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