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It's almost too easy: One of the most exciting snorkeling sites in the Caribbean lies barely 100 yards off the west coast of Aruba. The water there is calm, visibility is excellent, and the site features the World War II-era German ship Antilla – at 397 feet, the third-longest wreck in the Caribbean.
That such a splendid shipwreck is so accessible to snorkelers is unusual. That a vessel the Wehrmacht christened Antilla is spending eternity in the Antilles is poetic justice. Ditto for the fact that this Nazi ship now supports life: vibrant coral and millions of fish.
I sailed off to see it on a Red Sails Sports catamaran filled with tourists, snorkeling gear, soft drinks, several bottles of rum, and a beneficent bartender. We would stop three times for snorkeling, and at the third site we'd also have lunch, but it was that second stop, the Antilla, that made my day.
Another boatload of snorkelers was already there when we arrived, but the site has two or three moorings, so we tied to one that was 20 yards from the shipwreck. Then our skipper told us a little about what we'd be seeing. The Antilla was built in 1939 to supply Nazi U-boats, and in 1940 it moored just off the coast of Aruba. Why, was Hitler yearning for nice beaches? Not exactly.
Germany had just invaded the Netherlands, but Ferdinand Schmidt, the ship's captain, probably didn't know that, and he just wanted to refuel in what he thought was neutral territory. Instead, Allied ships surrounded his ship and ordered Schmidt to surrender. Rather than give up the ship, the German captain ordered his men ashore and blew up the vessel. He did this without explosives, simply by overheating the boilers. Some people are just good at blowing things up.
Unlike the German sailors, I slipped into the water with no interest in swimming ashore. I had brought my own mask and snorkel – not because I'm obsessed with hygiene, but because I want gear that fits the contours of my face perfectly – and I had put sunblock on every inch of exposed skin. You don't mess with the Aruba sun.
Below me cruised thousands of two-tone damselfish, round butterflyfish, multi-hued parrotfish, and blue-winged angelfish. Feisty little sergeant majors, Blue-striped grunts, yellowtail snappers, and big brown groupers came within inches of my hands. They were all swimming around, out of, or into the Antilla.
The wreck rested in sand about 55 feet down, facing the beach. It leaned over on its port side, so the tower on its bridge pointed at a diagonal to the north, rising almost to the surface. I saw where the vessel had broken amidships when Schmidt had blown it up, and tiny bubbles emerged from the hull. Yard-long cylinders of yellow tube sponges grew on the gunwales, and reef fish pecked at them for lunch. One member of our group made some free dives to the deck, but our skipper had warned that the corroded deck could cut us, and the free diver was smart enough to listen.
At our third stop, where we ate lunch and dented the bar's supply of rum, I asked the skipper what happened to the German sailors who had escaped to shore. Turns out they didn't escape for long, because Allied forces captured and imprisoned them for the duration of the war. That these German sailors spent the rest of the war in the Caribbean, thousands of miles from the carnage and misery that was World War II, probably qualifies them as the luckiest military prisoners of all.
How to Visit the Antilla
This snorkeling trip was with Red Sail Sports, which offers numerous excursions and rents water sports equipment. Red Sail supplies all gear (including flotation vests if you want one), drinks, and lunch for this four-hour snorkeling-and-lunch trip. It costs $70.06 if you book online; I booked through the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, which can also arrange for activities like Aqua Power water aerobics classes and paddle board yoga (this is pretty cool; click here for a photo).
Ed Wetschler is the executive editor of Tripatini, whose parent company, EnLinea Media, is dedicated to multilingual online content, marketing, and social-media management. Ed is also the Caribbean editor of Recommend magazine.