Thursday, March 29, 2012

SNUBA at De Palm Island (part 2)

 A day in DePalm-adise with SNUBA (pt. 2)
And the adventure begins!
Coral, coral everywhere!
We begin our wet adventure by following a rope out past the reef. The current today is pretty rough, but it gets easier to control my kicking as the reef slopes downward and we’re not doggy paddling on top of the water anymore. This isn’t new territory for me, as I have my PADI Advanced Open Water diving certification, but this time around I don’t have the heavy and restrictive gear that scuba diving requires of you.  

The Blue Parrotfish showing off his chomps
Effortlessly gliding under the water, I spot my first unordinary fish, the Blue Parrotfish. I say “unordinary” because the so-called parrotfish have unusual mouths – their teeth are coalesced into parrot-like beaks that are used to scrape algae from the coral. 

Nemo’s friends aren’t spotted anywhere in Aruba but at De Palm Island, as it is home to the Blue Parrotfish cove, so naturally they own the surrounding water. Luckily, I don’t have bread in my hand because these fellows are quite the friendly bunch and aren’t afraid to get in your bubble, both personally and oxygen-ally. 

Rainbow Parrotfish

To the right I spot a few of its sisters – the Rainbow Parrotfish. Given its name for a reason, colors of all sorts dot, stripe, and streak across its body. A shade of green you’d only find in a limited edition Crayola Crayon box, like Jungle Green, cloaks the gills of the belly and sides before it meets the goldfish orange colored face and fins. The Queen Angel Fish graces me with her fluorescent-like purple and yellow presence, and while wearing her black and white polka-dot bikini, the Trunk Fish coasts along the white, sandy bottom along the community of brain and mushroom coral. 

Queen Angelfish
Trunk Fish
The water seems to thicken the further out we go, but it’s actually from the depths that the Sun rays can’t get to, so the water darkens as does everything else around. Unaware of what may be lurking out into the deep, I’m sure to follow rule #3 at all costs (not to mention rule #1 and #2 which would clearly have to come first before worrying about the third). It’s an easy swim, as the current drifts me from side to side along the bottom. After 30 minutes of exploring the marine life off the coast of De Palm Island, I hear RJ clinking on his tank as he motions us that it is time to head back. 

It's no wonder I had so many mask marks

Without realizing it, we are at the same rope that guided us out. Slimy from the aged seaweed, I try to grip onto the straw rope, but my hand slips right off from the gooeyness. As if the waves are picking on me, I feel that I’m being pushed and pulled by the current once we get closer to the pier we left at. The suctioning of the snorkel mask indents lines around my face leaving my forehead looking like that of a Neanderthal, lovely. Beauty marks aside, I prepare for my next day in DePalm-adise where I will be experiencing the island yet again by sea, except this time I’ll be on a catamaran. Join me next week for part one of the cruise! 

Max all geared up!
*Interested in doing this with your little ones? You’re in luck! This past weekend De Palm Island launched SNUBA Doo® that allows for 4-7 year olds to participate in a unique underwater experience. The specialized gear for kids is designed so that they wear floatation devices while breathing through a 2nd stage regulator with a mouth piece that fits accordingly. The 10-foot long air line that is connected to a raft that allows for children to stay on top of the water at a close distance while family members SNUBA below them with a certified guide supervising everyone on the tour all times. 

Like father, like son
Getting ready to go under

Max,Dad, and Eveline!
Eveline :)
RJ Johnson III oversees the activity on De Palm Island, and he feels that by incorporating smaller kids, more people will have a chance to be exposed to the wonders of Aruba’s waters. Max and his sister Eveline were the first chicklets to test out SNUBA Doo®. Hesitant at first, the two little ones quickly found themselves eager to take snorkeling to the next level and submerge themselves into the sea. SNUBA and SNUBA Doo® is offered exclusively at De Palm Island six days a week (except Sundays).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

SNUBA at De Palm Island (part 1)

 A day in DePalm-adise with SNUBA (pt. 1)

The SNUBA station at De Palm Island
While at De Palm Island I wait for RJ (the SNUBA dive master) to make preparations for the briefing. In the mean time, sprinkles of water glaze over my exposed arms and seep into the pores on my face as the wind carries over the mist from the water park. Like a kid waiting in line for the triple drop, four looped, backwards rollercoaster at Six Flags, I anxiously await my chance to see the Little Mermaid and Flounder under the sea. Today I am going to SNUBA for the first time ever – how cool! What is SNUBA? Exactly what it sounds like – a mix of SNorkeling and scUBA diving that allows underwater pioneers to dive 25 feet into the sea while connected to a harness that has an air hose attached allowing you to breathe through a regulator. The only difference is that unlike scuba diving, the tank is not carried on your back, but conveniently setup inside a mini-float that is lugged along above the water. The cool thing about SNUBA is you don’t have to have prior snorkeling or scuba diving skills; you just have to know how to swim. 

RJ doin' his thang
RJ returns to our group of eight for the briefing on the do's and don’ts of SNUBA after explaining what it is. Rule #1: Never hold your breath, and always breathe normally through the regulator. Rule #2: Never take the regulator out of your mouth, as this is your breathing device. Rule #3: Always follow your instructor. RJ gets serious, “And men, even if you see a mermaid, don’t follow her. You may never come back” Now that the rules have been discussed, RJ moves into the equipment side of SNUBA. Because we are going 100 feet outside the reef, one would normally think that this would be a strenuous activity from all the swimming. But! That’s where you are wrong. Luckily, this isn’t an Olympic swimming competition, but it's more of a comfortable drift along the bottom floor of the sea. And if this were an Olympic swimming competition, I’d feel like Michael Phelps with my swimming fins to help slice through the water. 

The third item on the list of SNUBA grounds to cover deals with safety and hand signals. Those of you who have done scuba diving before will find this part easy as they are the same. To show that you are Okay! – your thumb and pointer finger are connected shaping a loop while the other three fingers stand tall. Point and wiggle means that whatever you are wiggling to what is bothering you. Thumbs up (which I continually mistaken for “groovy”) means going up and, as I’m sure you can guess, thumbs down means going down. To get our attention, RJ will clink his oxygen tank rapidly, as he will be scuba diving alongside us as we SNUBA. 

We're ready to get our SNUBA on
 (minus the guy kickin' it in the background)
 We’re finally getting to the good stuff with the fourth order of business – what we are going to see! “Friends, if you don’t like fish – I highly recommend you NOT go on this tour.” All jokes aside, we’ll have the chance to spot Yellowtail Tuna, Sergeant Majors, needle fish, grouper, and an abundance of soft and hard corals, not to mention the Blue Parrotfish that reside at De Palm Island.  He splits us up into groups of four, and I’m joined by a lady that’s visiting from the cruise ship and a younger couple from Nebraska. After gearing up with a weight belt, fins, snorkel mask, an air hose, and the mouth guard-like regulator, SNUBA Bri is ready to go! Buttttt not until we comfortably practice our underwater breathing by the pier we swim out from before letting RJ know we feel like Navy Seals. A few bubbles here… A few bubbles there… and I’m ready to Michael Phelps it out into the sea.

Heading out!

Join me next week when I SNUBA out past the rope and onto the bottom of the sea. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Atlantis Submarine Adventure (part 3)

A day in DePalm-adise on the Atlantis Submarine Adventure (pt. 3)
Down the hatch
Elton and the light at the end of the tunnel
Stepping out of the life-size aquarium and onto the upper deck of the submarine, the wind hits my face like a train. My hair tangles every which way, and the smell of the seawater meets my nostrils as the salt sticks to my face like icing on a cake. I step towards the hatch and head down the hole backwards. 

Inside the sub
There are 26 small viewing ports along the side of the sub and a larger one in the front that is as big as an over-sized beach ball. The blue light at the end of the tunnel from the large viewing port glows as the Sun’s rays hit the water, and Elton the Captain motions me his way. Once everyone has taken their seat, the sound of radio signals and beeps blend in with the humming noise of the submarine beginning to submerge. The only things visible from our individual view ports are bubbles and white water from the churning of the engines. “Momma, it looks like we’re on an airplane in the sky,” says the youngin’ next to me. Eager beaver to see the fish, he holds in his hand a set of binoculars, how cute. 

The bubbles begin to churn as we head down
The only kind of snow you'll see in Aruba
Elbert the co-captain chimes in over the p.a. system – “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. Is this everyone’s first time on a submarine? [People nod] Mine too!” There was a second of silence before the crowd began to giggle. As we start to plunge towards the depths of the Bacadera Reef, I notice the white sand that powders over pieces of broken coral reminding me of a winter’s first snow back in the forests of Greensboro, North Carolina. Taking a slight slant downwards, the “snow on the ground” soon disappears and is replaced with villages of coral, sponge, and other marine life. “Open your eyes,” Elbert says, “This isn’t an aquarium; it’s the real Caribbean.” Not sooner than “…bean” left his tongue were my eyes graced with the presence of a school of Bermuda Chubs. “HOLY MACAROL” says the little one next to me. I can’t help but get as excited as he is.

The Bermuda Chubs
Soft and hard coral
The Bacadera Reef isn’t flat, but more like the side of a mountain. My sight is blown away as soon as we are out on the channel and onto the reef. Soft and plant corals sway with the current and look like soggy tree branches, while rock coral resembling brains, potatoes, and mushrooms rest along the hard surfaces that stand as a perfect playground for fish. The natural light of the sun hitting the water gives off a glowing aqua blue shade that is complimented by the purples, oranges, and yellows of the sponges as they sit nestled in between the soft and hard corals. “Kids,” Elbert chimes in, “Open your eyes and take a look at the sponges. If you stare hard enough, you might be able to find Sponge Bob!” My little friend in his skipper hat next to me gasps, “DO YOU THINK WE WILL SEE DORY AND NEMO TOO????!??!!?” Everyone in the submarine laughs. He turns to his mom with a pout look on his face because he was as serious as a heart attack and didn’t understand what was so funny.    

A school of Yellowtail Tuna
As we head deeper, we pass by a sunken ship called the Morning Star. Sunken on purpose to create an artificial reef, we’re graced with dozens of Yellowtail Tuna that zipped here and zigzagged there as if they were playing tag with one another. The deeper we go the less coral we spot because, as Elbert informs us, all that we see is alive. Coral need sunlight and warm temperatures in order to survive. So after 60 feet or so, it’s pretty much only fish that we see. And tires, as the little boy next to me points out, “Mom! LOOK!!! It’s a tire!” “That’s great hunny. Wow. But, I am on a mission to find fishes.” Elton gives me a headset so I can communicate with Elbert and ask questions for the blog. “Hey you ever seen a shark?” I eagerly ask. “Well,” he radios back, “in Aruba you can find sharks in two places: the casino and the timeshare office. HA! 
At the bottom!
135 feet, baby!
Wait. Is that the Star Wars theme song by John Williams I hear? I look to the right of me and see the depth gauge reaching 130 ft…….. 131 ft…….. 132 ft…... 133 ft…..134 ft… I’ve made it 135 feet below the sea! Looking out my little view port I see nothing but white sand and rocks before we begin to ascend up to reality. Like a plane taking off, I slide to the side of my seat.

Nerd alert!
 Lucky me, I get to take one last gawk at the colorful marine life; well, the last time for now at least. I'll be posting about my SNUBA adventure on De Palm Island next week, so be sure to tune in for some more underwater action! 

Doin' the SNUBA!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Atlantis Submarine Adventure (part 2)

 A day in DePalm-adise on the Atlantis Submarine Adventure (pt. 2)

As I take my seat on the wooden benches outside of the shop, I am greeted by a fusion of sounds, sites, and smells – the clunking of flip-flops from little kids running around, the smell of the beach (aka Hawaiin Tropic coconut-scented sun protection products), the creaking of docked boats as they sway with the waves from the marina to the left of me, and the six year old chicklet sitting to the right of me that has a head fully braided with colorful plastic beads that clink together as they dangle from the tips of each individual braid.

The shuttlecraft aquarium on water
The Sub Seeker
Evelien, the supervisor of the Atlantis shop, informs everyone that there is a shuttle boat called the Sub Seeker that will transport us to the 48 passenger, 65 foot long, fully air-conditioned, bathroom-less, battery operated submarine hauling us 130 feet below the Caribbean Sea. Alas, the shuttle boat (that looks like a shuttlecraft aquarium on water) roars over our way. The adults, just as excited as the little kids, flock to the front end of the dock where Evelien takes their picture as a memory keepsake. 

The mask
Inside the aquarium
The Elbert the co-captain starts in on safety procedures with a lifejacket demonstration – “Folks, I have bad news…” Everyone stops what they’re doing. “There are only two jackets on board – one for me, and one for captain.” It took a few seconds for everyone to catch on that he was joking. At first the thought of being locked in a submarine however many feet below the Sea did not bother me, but when the next demonstration was on how to use a smoke mask, it all became real. Flying since the age of five, I told myself to “Keep calm and carry on” as it was pretty much the same concept. Hey, at least the crew is thorough by implementing safety precautions.

Speaking of airplanes - while ripping through the waves toward the drop-off spot, the Sub Seeker seems to be experiencing turbulence itself. Good thing we are on water and not in the air! While passing through the Bucuti Channel I witness some features that are only spotted from the mid-section shores of Aruba, like the island’s landing strip that is to the left of us, (the planes literally fly in feet away from the water), and sets of mini islands to the right of us that are heavily populated by mangroves and abandoned wooden shacks that are used by locals for camping. 

Beach-side camping
The mangroves
My nostrils, caked with sea salt that slipped in from the open windows of the shuttle in the back, pick up a burning leaves smell that reminds me of the fall in the United States. “Folks, I apologize for the smell,” (I actually love it), “but here in Aruba we burn our trash, and that’s what you are smelling.” I enjoyed the smell of trash being burned? Gross. That’s just as bad as my brother who enjoys the smell at the gas station pump. 

Our twelve-minute shuttle ride has come to an end. Like sitting ducks wadding in the water, Elbert tells us that we will actually get to see the submarine emerge from the Sea. He calls for me to come from the back to the front so I can get pictures of the submarine ascending (and I didn’t even have to pull the “employee card”). Suddenly, the Sea begins to churn and bubble up like water in a pot on the stove when it begins to boil. Reaching closer to the surface, the dark silhouette (not to be mistaken for the Lochness Monster) soon turns to white as the submarine surfaces. 

About to board the submarine!
Join me next week for part three when I take you below the hatches with me. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Atlantis Submarine Adventure (part 1)

 A day in DePalm-adise on the Atlantis Submarine Adventure (pt. 1)

Downtown Aruba
The downtown flea market
With a brand new pad of paper, a red Pilot Razor Point pen (I just looove the way the ink smoothly glides against the paper), and my Nikon camera I head out for my next excursion. This time I don’t get to walk a simple 20 steps from my office like I did for the Natural Pool Jeep Adventure; instead I have to make my way through the heart of Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital, where I chug along bumper to bumper towards the marina. Along the way I see buildings on the left-hand side whose architecture reflects that of an old colonial Dutch town (as Aruba used to be a colony of the Netherlands). Painted in pastel yellows, greens, blues, and pinks one would think the town celebrates Easter all year round. On the right-hand side is a waterside flea market selling trinkets like old license plates, sand in a bottle with puff paint seashell designs, crayons made out of carved tree bark, and a mix of other handmade Caribbean charms.  

The Velociraptor
Suddenly I spot a Velociraptor. Am I dreaming? Have dinosaurs come back to life? I pinch myself to make sure it’s not one of those modern dinosaur and zombie dreams I often times get from watching shows like "The Walking Dead," or from having been traumatized at a young age by the "Jurassic Park" movie series. No, on the contrary this relic stands still (looking as though he’s ready to pounce with his enlarged sickle-shaped claw) on the roof of a black and white cow printed building where it preys on passer-biers next to an old school and elongated four-door Volkswagen Bug (I don't get it?). I pull up next to it to a stratosphere-like building that’s held up by four stone pillars as it sits on a wooden dock that outstretches to the Sea. There is a sign in the windowsill that says, “A Real Submarine. A Real Adventure.” That’s right; today I’m taking a plunge 135 feet below the Caribbean Sea aboard the 48-passenger Atlantis VI Submarine.

The Atlantis Submarine ticket office

Achmira and Evelin :)
I walk inside to get my ticket and am greeted with smiles from Evelien and Achmira, the two ladies that work here. They tell me that there will be a briefing in 25 minutes or so, which is a perfect amount of time for me to browse around and take notes. Background beats of steel drums and brass bands fused together signal that Carnival music has not been put to rest (ours wrapped up nearly two weeks ago). Plastered up on the wall is the depiction of an underwater scene made out of foam and spray painted: Starfish, pink conch shells, cockle shells and orange coral arrangements lay sporadic along the panorama accompanied by turquoise, sea green, and beige trimmings dangling about as they represent the underwater vegetation life with gold fish that catch the light of the Sun as they hang from the ceiling by a clear plastic line. Oh, and a manikin is captured swinging from the rafters in a dive-like position only adding more of a deep sea feel.     
So pretty!

As I continue to peruse around the shop, I notice knickknacks for every age, especially the pirate-themed souvenirs in the front– like the shot glasses that say “Pick your poison,” famous pirate playing cards, and photo albums covers that have a “Me Gots Dis” or “My Treasure” saying on the front. My personal favorite is the tropical-themed section in the back – like the 54 tropical drink recipe playing cards. After flipping through, I come across one that’s called Fuzzy Chocolate Nut. For my friends freezing their bums off around the world, I decide to take a sneak peek at this magic potion so I can warm you up with a little bit of tasteful love from Aruba:

In a warm mug pour the following:
4 ounces of hot chocolate
1 ½ ounces of Peach Schnapps
½ ounce of Amaretto
Dollop whipped cream
A sprinkle of cinnamon
A pinch of chocolate shavings

And for those of you who want a sweet bite out of Aruba, I snagged this Banana Binja Aruban recipe from the Tropical Treats book for just for YOU:

Directions: Peel and cut plantains lengthwise. Melt butter in skillet. Sauté plantains until golden brown on one side and then turn over. Combine the sugar, water, port wine, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Pour over plantains. Simmer until liquid thickens.

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 very ripe plantains
3 tablespoons of port wine
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons of water
3 tablespoons of butter
Dash of cinnamon

My 25 minutes are just about up, and Evelin motions those of us inside the store to head out to the dock. Stay tuned for next week’s part two of the adventure, where I’ll take you along with me as we head towards our dive spot.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Natural Pool Jeep Adventure (part 4)

A day in DePalm-adise on the Natural Pool Jeep Adventure (pt. 4)

While taking a break from the rough side of Aruba, where we make our way in and away from the coast, we head through what is called the “mondi.” Mondi is described as the tropical/desert-like vegetation in parts of Aruba that aren’t highly populated by people, but rather assortments of cacti, Divi Divi trees, weeds… goats, donkeys - you know, the usual. The goats on the island are not wild, but they are brewed for stew (an Aruban delicacy). Don’t worry; Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore is safe and sound. Donkeys were originally brought over by the Spaniards 500 years ago to support their means of transportation, but they have since been rescued and housed at the local donkey sanctuary since 1997. 

In the mondi

Everything is so colorful and spacious out here, especially the Aruban cunucu (coo-noo-coo) (meaning “country”) houses that are coated with shades of salmon and mustard topped with a splash of boysenberry tint on the roof and jade-colored doors with  sticks of purple bougainvillea flowering around the house. I spot a shack up ahead that’s called “Your Lucky Bet,” any guesses? A lottery hut. Yes, in the middle of nowhere – they have to have something to do out here. And right next to it is a mini-supermarket called Wing Wei Woo – I find it hard not to giggle at the name, but nice alliteration nonetheless. 

Getting rather used to the smooth ride alongside the countryside, I’ve thought too soon… The asphalt road turns from an ashtray grey to a dirt fusion of pumpkin orange and otter brown. The jagged coastline draws nearer, where I am welcomed with a faint misty spray from the crash of the Caribbean Sea alongside the rocks forming a blowhole. 

Saltwater kisses from the blowhole
Refreshing nonetheless, I feel like I am in the cool-off zone under a misting tent at an amusement park. Surprised that the last leg of the journey is not as brutal as I had anticipated, I am able to ease back into my seat. I guess I forgot that “off-roading” in Aruba doesn’t only mean rough and tough, just that there is no road period. Pieces of limestone that peek up from the ground catch the Sun’s rays, glistening as it reflects, portraying as though we are on an ice rink where the Range Rovers serve as our skates. The majority of the trip was confined to some kind of path, where now the lane of dirt road is more than six cars wide. Picking up more and more speed, it feels as though we are gliding across the Mario Kart themed level of Cheep Cheep Island. 

Ice skating rink on land
Cheep Cheep Island
Alas, we have made it to the, as I like to call it, Natural (not so anymore) Bridge. Made out of coral limestone and having stood at more than 23 feet above sea level with a length of over 100 feet, the bridge collapsed in 2005 from an unknown cause. “Nothing lasts forever,” Rocky jokingly mourns. “But don’t worry. We’re not going to bring you here for a broken bridge.” Two of six natural bridges on the island, we also caught a glimpse of the Baby Natural Bridge (how original). 

The Natural (not so anymore) Bridge
Seeing all this water makes me have to go to the bathroom; luckily I brought 50 cents with me, as the tourist trap charges per use – genius. Inside there is a batido stand, or a fruit shake bar, that quenches anyone’s thirst on a hot day such as today, like every day in Aruba. I go for the double banana and strawberry shake that eliminates the need for milk or sugar. Natural, healthy, and self-sufficiently sweet, the batido lady looks at me and says, “I have been serving batidos for over 14 years, so you can imagine the variety of fruit combinations I’ve been asked to blend. But never have I been asked for a banana, banana, and strawberry shake.” Try it. You won’t ask for any other wild, tropical, this, that, and the other combination.

The Baby Natural Bridge

Wish Garden
We pack back into the jeeps towards the Alto Vista Chapel, our next stop. Along the way I spot a display of stones towered on top of each other, as if people were playing Parker Bros. game of Jenga. This arrangement of rocks that spreads wide along the coast is known as the Wish Garden, where people stack rocks on top of each other and make one wish per rock. Rocky starts in on the history – “You have to place six rocks on top of each other and make a little wish for each. After placing a seventh rock on the sixth, one makes their biggest wish or desire before putting a $20 bill under the stack. If you leave it there for 20 minutes and come back to find the bill gone, your wish will come true. Who wants to try it?” Rocky laughs. The Wish Garden was actually a myth started by tourists taken from the fishermen’s tactic of stacking rocks to mark their fishing spots. 

So if I buy the rosary necklace, do chips come with it?

Alto Vista Chapel
Like a lizard picking up speed and running on its hind legs, so are we; fishtailing it to our next stop. Rocky is sure to embrace the experience even more when he swoops alongside the dirt hills, where I feel like Tony Hawk on a skateboard winding from ramp to ramp. We make it to Alto Vista Chapel, the first chapel on Aruba. A truck is parked outside with its back open. An interesting display of an assortment of beaded bracelets and rosary necklaces are complemented with Cheetos, Fritos, and Doritos… how enticing. Even more enticing is the boa constrictor I see laying upside down, as if he were surrendering. “Hungry much?” Rocky asks. These boas are not native to the island. Rather they were brought in from boats that transport fruits and vegetables from South America years ago. Everyone and their mother’s duty are to play bounty hunter when they see these heavy-bodied and patterned snakes because they are feeding off our indigenous animals. 

The California Lighthouse
Making it to our last stop of the day, the California Lighthouse, everyone looks exhausted. Talk about hair like Tina Turner – more like James Brown’s mug shot from 2004. The sprinkle of saltwater kisses that’s masked any revealing skin was instantly coated with dirt from the dust clouds while off-roading. The California Lighthouse was named after the California steamboat that crashed off the north coast of Aruba during its travels from Liverpool to Venezuela in 1892. As we secure ourselves back into the Range Rovers, we head towards the hotels to drop off all 16 (everyone is still on board) guests. What a day, what a journey. Ready to jump in the shower and rinse off the sun, sea, salt, and sand that’s caked on my arms, legs, and face, the guaranteed adrenaline-pumping tour was a mission accomplished. Thanks for experiencing it with me!  

Brianna Brown after the Natural Pool Jeep Adventure

Stay tuned for next week’s “A Day in DePalm-adise,” where I’ll be taking you underwater on a submarine adventure.