Helping save Curaçao one tree at a time
03/28/2018 - 03/28/2018 83 °F
Standing proudly with my paddle, after my day with Ryan de Jomgh’s Kayaking Expeditions
One of the reasons that I iike to read other people’s travel blogs is they often give you ideas about what to do in a country you’re planning to visit. I was so busy leading up to my Curacao trip that I essentially did no research ahead of time. I knew I had never been there, and I knew there was lots more to do than lay on a beach. And that was about it. So, while waiting out my four-hour layover in Toronto, I took advantage of the free airport WiFi to read up some about my destination. More and more each year, I have found TripAdvisor to be a good “crowdsource” of information. One thread led me to the blog “Curacao in 91Days” (http://curacao.for91days.com) - written by a German and American pair of travelers. One of the things Juergen and Mike did was go kayaking in Curacao’s mangrove swamps.
Curaçao’s rocky coastline, where the second half of my kayaking would take place
I try to seek out new experiences when traveling, and though I’d been kayaking before , this sounded different. An internet search revealed their guide’s Facebook page, Ryan de Jongh’s Kayak Experience (https://www.facebook.com/Ryan-de-Jonghs-Kayak-Experience005-999-561-0813-131252130259872/). The 47-year old Ryan is a competitive sport kayaker and adventurer who has dedicated himself to protecting Curaçao’s environment. His signature cause was to replant and reestablish Curacao’s mangrove forests. Many of these vital marine ecosystems had been cut down and destroyed by industry throughout Curacao’s colonial and more modern past. He began a project to literally replant these one tree at a time. He would load up his kayak, and a second one that he towed, with seedlings and then paddle along the coast to a new bay to replant them. It took a lot of trial and error, hours of sweat, and relentless dedication, but he has succeeded. The mangrove that we would paddle through today was nursed along by him and is now a thriving part of the island’s environment, again.
The kayaks, next to a section of the mangrove forest we would tour
I reached Ryan by phone and he said that he was available this week to lead a tour. I selected the tour that began at Santa Cruz’s mangrove because it also included a visit to the Blue Room - a sea cave I’d read and seen videos about and was very interested in visiting. Ryan showed up in his doughty van painted with his company’s advertisement, along with his sister and niece, who were visiting from Aruba and wanted to go along. After a quick stop at the marine institute, which he helped fund, to pick up another kayak, we were zipping along toward Curaçao’s western coast. Along the way, he told me the story of his amazing life -which, honestly, was worth the price of the tour itself. One of the most astounding aspects of it is his adopted sport of long-range kayaking. He has solo kayaked across the Caribbean Sea from St. Maarten to Curaçao - a 22-day journey that stopped at 17 islands along the way (many tiny, uninhabited one-night camping stops). I didn’t even know long-range kayaking was a sport, but at one time, Ryan said he was ranked number two in the world. He also circled the coastline of Curaçao as a fund-raising stunt for the marine institute, taking 36 consecutive hours to complete it. His next adventure is to row across the Atlantic Ocean in a specially-constructed craft, which he estimates will take him two months.
Looking towards the sea from where we launched the kayaks
When we arrived at Santa Cruz, we offloaded the kayaks into a small creek that led to the ocean. However, we would be going the other way, through what looked like an impenetrable wall of mangrove trees. There was a “tunnel,”of sorts, though, and Ryan taught me that you don’t paddle through, but instead pull yourself through by grabbing onto branches and roots. My first thought was that my friend Keith Finn, an avid kayaker, would love this excursion. A couple minutes of pulling ourselves through the mangrove tunnel and we were in an open patch of water, completely surrounded by vibrant green mangrove trees. We paddled a ways, then pulled ourselves through another, longer passageway. We emerged in a pristine waterway, like a small pond. Here, he stopped us and told us the story of how he replanted Curaçao’s mangroves. We saw a sea hawk and other bird life, but otherwise, it was a quiet waterway, nature’s filtering system at work.
The beach at Santa Cruz bay
Next, we took up our paddles again and return to our starting spot, where we lifted the kayaks across a tiny embankment so we could reach the sea. Our two kayaks began the slow paddle out to sea, and then across Santa Cruz bay. The waves were not that bad, and I never felt that I was about to be swamped or overturned. We used the wind at our backs to cross the bay and paddle along the rocky coastline towards the natural cave called the Blue Room. We could see a small yacht anchored ahead, and I guessed that was where the cave would be. Kayaking is hard work - for me, the toughest part is finding a comfortable position. I had to keep shifting myself during the paddle. With no back support in the multi-person kayaks, I never really found a spot for my legs and butt that was truly comfortable. It took awhile for me and my fellow novice to find a good rhythm and to avoid paddling in a zig-zag path. The experience paddling with the wind would come in handy on a return journey against it.
The kayaks, pulled up onto the beach, after our journey to the Blue Room and back
After maybe 15-20minutes of paddling, we arrived at the Blue Room, and Ryan anchored our canoes. He explained how to enter the cave safely without scraping your head against the jagged rocks. Then, it was overboard into the warm Curaçao surf and its clear blue water. We followed Ryan to the entrance, watched him enter, and then ducked under the water to make our way into the cave. The interior was batched in a vibrant blue color. As the tiny opening was covered up by the ocean swells, the water and light would become an even deeper blue. Most of the floor is sandy, which reflects and intensifies the color. I wished I had brought snorkeling gear or even goggles so that I could open my eyes underwater for the full effect. If any readers happen upon this entry prior to going, definitely take some sort of gear. With my contact lenses in, I couldn’t risk opening my eyes and losing them. Still, it was an eerie, otherworldly experience in that small, fluorescent Blue Room.
For a video of what it looks like in here, check out this YouTube link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?vl=en&v=zReLUHyuo4E
It was somewhat entertaining watching me try to clamber back into my kayak - even with Ryan steadying it. Thank goodness for the floating, waterproof bag, otherwise my camera would have gone to the bottom! Yes, I tipped the kayak and plunged back into the water, spilling hat, water bottles, and the bag into the water. We retrieved it all and started over, this time successfully. The 20-minute paddle back to the beach wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. We stayed close to the rocky shoreline - Ryan pointing out nesting iguanas - where we were sheltered from the wind. When we finally had to cut across the open expanse of the bay, our novice paddling team kept up with Ryan and his sister. My dignity was spared the ignominy of being towed back by Ryan - which he offered several times if we felt we were tiring. Honestly, kayaking would be easier (I feel), if the seat had a back rest and was elevated slightly so my legs could be lower than the level of my butt. I will have to ask Keith about that, but I understood this was a beginner’s multiperson kayak, not one tailored to an individual’s body.
It was a great day listening to Ryan’s stories and his efforts to help Curaçao’s environment. He is a fascinating person and is truly living the life he chooses. I learned a lot this day on the water, and was so glad I’d read the blog entry about his expeditions and was able to join one!