With deserted Caribbean islands to the north and the wild Pacific to the south, Panama may, from a diver’s point of view, have it all. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to dive with whale sharks in the morning and cruise Caribbean reefs in the afternoon.
The numbers speak volumes: there are more than 1120 kilometers/700 miles of Pacific coastline and more than 640 kilometers/400 miles front the Caribbean. There are more than 10,000 plant species and over 900 kinds of birds found within its 75,991 square kilometers/29,340 square miles. Nearly 30 percent of this area — about two million hectares/five million acres — is protected by parks, reserves and refuges. Some of these parks are easily reached; there are five within two hours of Panama City. And some, such as the rainforest of La Amistad International Park, where pumas, ocelots, margays, jaguars, and jaguarondis roam, are almost inaccessible.
Panama’s biodiversity is staggering. It hosts one of the most complex ecosystems on earth: primal rainforests, untouched beaches and high cloud-shrouded mountains. That's all in addition to the Pacific and Caribbean marine environments, which are, naturally, the highlight for visiting divers. Panama’s waters support myriad tropical fish, humpback whales, whale sharks, black-tip and white-tip and tiger sharks. Five sea turtle species call Panama home.
Coiba National Park
This region was declared a national park in 1992 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005. The National Authority for the Environment (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, ANAM) manages the park, which is accessible only by permit. The protection afforded to these untrammeled waters pays off in abundant marine life. One of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific coast of the Americas encircles the island and the warm Indo-Pacific supports diverse tropical underwater life. Mega fauna sightings can include humpback whales, sharks, whale sharks, orcas and more. More than 700 fish species have been recorded here, including snappers, barracuda, amberjack, and marlin.
Late August and early September is prime time for humpback whale encounters. They arrive around June, give birth to their claves in the warm protected waters, and stay until November before heading south to their cold water feeding grounds once again.
La Viuda is a massive pinnacle that attracts large fish schools. It rises from the depths to within 10 meters/33 feet of the surface. It’s an exposed dive site and currents can be strong, but big snappers, jacks, tuna, sharks and sometimes whale sharks and manta rays make the effort worthwhile for appropriately experienced divers.
Santa Cruz is a hard coral garden (atypical for Coiba) with abundant reef life such as blennies, scorpion fish, moray eels and nudibranchs. Schools of barracuda, jacks and white tip reef sharks prowl the site’s deeper regions.
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The Pearl Islands (more than 100 of them) lie about 50 kilometers/30 miles off the Pacific coast in the Gulf of Panama and are perhaps best know as the filming location for the Survivor television series. Contadora Island is the primary access point, with many dives sites in close proximity. Various rock formations and coral outcrops characterize the diving where butterfly, angel and parrotfish dodge reef sharks. Needless to say, pearl oysters are not uncommon.
The Channel has dramatic rock topography with ledges and overhangs in depths from 6 – 18 meters/18 – 60 feet. Drift diving among the abundant marine life is an option depending on the tide.
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Bocas del Toro
The Bocas del Toro archipelago is dotted with reef after coral reef and bathed in calm, warm waters. The dive season runs all year but the best visibility coincides with the driest seasons: February to April and September to October. Many dive sites are easily accessible but, as is generally the case, the more remote sites take a little more effort. Colorful soft coral and sponges house a variety of macro life such as cowries, arrow crabs, nudibranchs and more. When you can tear your eyes away from the small stuff, keep an eye out for nurse and reef sharks, spotted eagle and manta rays and large schools of jacks and snappers patrolling the reef edges.
Many of these healthy reefs drop gently to 18 meters/60 feet and have abundant hard and soft corals and sponges. On the exposed side of the archipelago, the reefs are subject to the prevailing northerly winds and, when conditions allow, divers can enjoy more vertical wall dives.
Divers can also explore mangrove habitat where the roots harbor sponges, fire corals, starfish and crabs. Many open water fish use the mangrove roots as a nursery.
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Portobelo National Park
About and hour and a half drive from Panama City you’ll find 70 kilometres/42 miles of stunning beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and mangrove swamps bathed constantly in warm Caribbean waters. It’s a staggeringly diverse ecosystem, popular not only with local and visiting divers but also with several types of sea turtle, including the endangered hawksbill, and more than 50 coral species.
The usual gang of Caribbean reef species delights divers: damselfish, butterfly fish, spotted drum and moray eels among them. Local dive operators can show you the best diving at Drake’s Island, Salmedina reef, Playa Blanca and other sites, including some wrecks.
You’ll want lots of time here, as there’s a great deal to see and do, above and below water. Between dives make sure to keep your eyes open on the beach; it’s not unusual to find pirate relics, remnants of the age when Portobelo, now a World Heritage Site, was a bustling port sending gold-laden ships towards Spain.
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Depths: From shallow sites suitable for beginners to depths of more than 40 meters/130 feet depending on location.
Visibility: Varies from 15 to 30 meters/50 to 100 feet, depending on the site and prevailing conditions. Pacific coast visibility is a bit less, depending on the season.
Currents: Can be locally significant with some drift diving. Rely on advice from local PADI Professionals.
Water Temperature: High 20s C/low to mid 80s F off the Atlantic coast. Pacific coast surface water temperatures are generally in the high 20s C/low 80s F, but drop to the low to mid 20s C/mid 70s F at depth.
Dive Season: Dive conditions are excellent all year. Generally calmer conditions during February, March, May, September and October allow access to more remote dive sites.
Weather: Panama has a tropical climate. Temperatures and relative humidity are uniformly high and there is little seasonal variation. On a typical dry-season day in the capital city, the early morning minimum may be 24° C/75° F and the afternoon maximum 29° C/84° F. The temperature seldom exceeds 32° C/90° F for more than a short time. Temperatures on the Pacific side are somewhat lower and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country.
Access: Around major population centers, access is easy. Heading to the more remote regions tends towards an expedition.
Skill Level: Non diver to advanced. Panama is well served by PADI Dive Centers and Resorts offering everything from entry-level training to live-aboard dive excursions.
Scuba Gear: Typical tropical equipment — 3mm suits during the warmer months and 5mm suits during the cool and on the Pacific coast. While equipment is available for hire, it’s advisable to bring as much of your personal gear as possible.
Recommended Length of Stay: With a great deal to see and do both above and below the water, you'll want to stay one to two weeks.
Featured Creatures: Humpback whales, whale sharks (in season on the Pacific coast), sea turtles, the full compliment of Caribbean reef denizens, howler monkeys and quetzal.
Language: Spanish, with English also widely spoken (especially in resort areas).
Currency: The Panamanian balboa (PAB), equivalent to the United States dollar, which is widely accepted.
Tipping: Tipping is frequently expected. The standard practice is 10 percent of the total bill but this is optional if it already includes a 10 percent service charge. Credit cards are not widely accepted so you might want to carry small bills and change.
Transportation: You can use buses and taxis in major population centers but rental cars are also a popular way to get around.
Major Airports: Tocumen International, Panama City (PTY), Albrook International, Panama City (PAC), Bocas del Toro International (BOC).
Religion: Predominantly Roman Catholic.
Electricity: 110v, 60hz with type A and B sockets.
Airport Entry/Exit fees: These are usually included in the airfare, check with your provider.