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 abundant reefs in the afternoon. Liveaboards access the abyssal drop-offs and volcanic formations on the Pacific side, and day trips take you to the calm, coral reefs of the Caribbean. 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, white-tip and tiger sharks. Five sea turtle species call Panama home.
- Coiba National Park, Pacific side – A national park since 1992, this protected area hosts abundant marine life. The largest island in the park, Coiba, is encircled by coral reefs and 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.
- La Viuda, Pacific side – This massive pinnacle attracts large fish schools. It rises from the depths to within 10 metres/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 dive worthwhile.
- Pearl Islands (Las Perlas), Pacific side – The Pearl Islands lie in the Gulf of Panama and Contadora Island is the primary access point for many dives sites. 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.
- Bocas del Toro, Caribbean side – The Bocas del Toro archipelago is dotted with reef after coral reef and bathed in calm, warm waters. Colorful soft coral and sponges house a variety of macro life such as cowries, arrow crabs, nudibranchs and more. 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.
- Portobelo National Park, Caribbean side – This park includes stunning beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and mangrove swamps along with many excellent dive sites. It’s a staggeringly diverse ecosystem with several types of sea turtle, including the endangered hawksbill, and more than 50 coral species. Caribbean reef fish species delight divers and moray eels poke their heads out of the reef.
- Gatun Lake, Panama Canal – This lake makes for a unique diving experience. Formed by the installation of the Panama Canal, you can see remnants of a railroad, abandoned dredges and the remains of flooded villages. Peacock bass thrive in the warm waters as well as tarpon and snook. You’ll also hear ocean-going vessels rumbling in the nearby Panama Canal.
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Visibility – Varies from 15-30 metres/50-100 feet, depending on the site and prevailing conditions. Pacific coast visibility is a bit less, depending on the season.
Water Temperature – The water averages 26°C/78°F in winter and 28°C/83°F in summer, however the Pacific coast water temperatures can drop lower at depth.
Weather – Dive conditions are excellent all year in Panama. The tropical climate has little seasonal variation. Early morning air temperature may be 24°C/75°F and the afternoon reaches 29°C/84°F, seldom exceeding 32°C/90°F. Temperatures on the Pacific side are somewhat lower and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country.
Featured Creatures – Humpback whales are most frequently spotted in July through September. In the Pacific, upwelling brings in large numbers of pelagics, such as manta rays, stingrays, tuna, amberjacks and whale sharks. Look for sea turtles and the full compliment of Caribbean reef denizens.
Recommended Training – Take the PADI Drift Diver course to prepare for drifting along the many walls and drop offs on the Pacific side. The PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy course will help you stay off the coral on the Caribbean side. The PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course will allow you to get great shots of all the marine life that you see on both sides.
Note - Travel to any destination may be adversely affected by conditions including (but not limited) to security, entry and exit requirements, health conditions, local laws and culture, natural disasters and climate. Regardless of your destination, check your local travel advisory board or department for travel advice about that location when planning your trip and again shortly before you leave.
Language – Spanish, with English also widely spoken, especially in resort areas.
Currency – The Panamanian Balboa and the United States dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Major Airports – Many international flights arrive at Tocumen International in Panama City daily. There are many domestic airports around the country.
Electricity – Electricity is 110 volts, 60 Hz. Internet is available in most resort areas.
Topside Attractions – Visit the many parks, reserves and refuges to see more than 10,000 plant species and over 900 kinds of birds. In the remote rainforest at La Amistad International Park, pumas, ocelots, margays, jaguars, and jaguarondis roam. Ziplining and white water rafting are possible, and of course, visit the Panama Canal.