Costa Rica sits snuggly between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean having over 800 miles of coastline between the two. That means you could be diving in the warm, Caribbean waters among parrotfish, angelfish, moray eels and eagle rays one day and the next day (after a short 200 miles journey west) be diving in the nutrient rich, cooler waters of the Pacific among hammerheads, huge schools of fish, and whalesharks. For the more adventurous, Cocos Islands, 300 miles west of the Pacific Coast, is a diveable UNESCO World Heritage Site known for shark encounters.
The Pacific coast of Costa Rica gets all the glory when it comes to which side has the best diving. Southern currents bring the ‘big guys’ in abundance throughout the year. Sharks of all species, including huge schools of hammerheads, mantas, other ray species, and large bait balls are common. Waters can be rough and the diving is advanced with most dive sites being deep and with current. But it’s worth it for the adventurous, thrill-seekers who are trying to get up close and personal with the ocean’s largest predators.
On the flip side the Caribbean has warm waters and easy, relaxed dives with lots of fish. Some areas (especially in the north) have been decimated by run-off from large banana plantations, but in the south the reefs are colorful and full of fish like much of the rest of the Caribbean.
Getting to Costa Rica is very easy with many international flights arriving at San Jose’s Santamaria International Airport. Liberia’s Daniel Oduber International Airport is also popular and close for divers diving the Nicoya Peninsula. Getting around Costa Rica is very easy by the extensive bus system or by renting a car and traveling along their decent roads.
There is plenty to explore above water too and surface intervals may be shared with a sloth or a monkey playing overhead. Costa Rica is a fantastic country to explore for many reasons including it is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world with over 500,000 species. It also has a variety of ecosystems from the rainforest, mangroves, cloud forests, Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, and deciduous forests. Costa Rica has also do a fantastic job protecting its unique habitats with almost 30% of it protected in 26 national parks and protected zones.
Diving occurs year round with seasonal temperature differences between the wet and dry season. The wet season is May through November and the dry season December through April. Average air temperatures range from 17-27C year-round, although there can be much variation between areas of elevation in the mountains.
On the Pacific side the dry season has calmer and warmer waters 25-29C. In the wet season water temps can be as low as 17-23C and it is the best time to see schools of mantas, sting rays, and sharks. On the Caribbean side the dry season waters see temperatures around 28C and during the wet season 25C.
Costa Rica offers divers an abundance of marine life. With the ability to dive the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, as well as the amazing Cocos Islands, a diver will never get bored. On the Caribbean side there are over 120 species of fish and beautiful coral while the diving on the Pacific side is adventurous where diving with big animals is common. Caribbean diving tends to be laid back with warm waters and on the Pacific the waters are cooler and currents, deep dives, and rough waters can be common.
Caribbean Dive Sites
The southern part of the Caribbean coast has the best diving as run-off has decreased reefs in the north. Just offshore the popular town of Limon is Isla Uvita which is known for its abundance of fish, beautiful reefs and the wreck of the Phoenix. Diving off Manzanillo Beach and Cahuita National Park are also popular and there are many new and old wrecks in the area.
A shorty or 3mm wetsuit will make diving comfortable on the Caribbean side and possibly a 5mm in the colder months.
Pacific Dive Sites
Off the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica are Isla Catalinas (The Cats) and Isla Murcierlagos (Bat Islands) which are very popular islands to dive. On the boat rides to these islands there are frequent sightings of dolphins, turtles, and humpback whales from June to October. Dive sites at Isla Catalinas include The Wall, The Point, and Widow Rock. These dive sites are for advanced divers due to their being deep and having current. Divers can see plenty of white-tip reef sharks, cow-nosed rays, devil rays, eagle rays, barracuda and more. Isla Murcielagos diving is very similar and from May to October bull sharks can be seen. Dive sites include the Big Scare, which is the favorite site to see bull sharks, Los Arcos, and Black Rock.
Sometimes visibility isn’t perfect on the Pacific side but this is due to an abundance of plankton in the water. It’s this plankton that brings in the big animals, so it’s a good thing. Waters can be a bit chilly on the Pacific side and at least a 5mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves are recommended even during the warmer months especially due to thermoclines which can be several degrees colder.
Cocos Islands Dive Sites
Cocos Islands are located 550km/300 miles west of Costa Rica. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a large volcanic uprising and due to its remote location and nutrient-rich currents has some of the world’s best diving. Mostly dive sites are steep vertical walls and deep pinnacles with strong currents possible. Huge schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks are one of the main reasons for going to Isla del Cocos, but there are also many other species of sharks including whitetips, galapagos, silky, silvertips, blacktips and more. There are huge schools of rays, large bait balls of fish, and plenty of life. The rainy season brings more plankton and with that more sharks, mantas, and whale sharks.
Popular Cocos dive sites include Bajo Alcayone and Dirty Rock for hammerheads. Dos Amigos Grande is great for swim-throughs and Manuelita Gardens is great for fish life. For those willing to spend a little extra money and have the journey of a lifetime, the Undersea Hunter offers trips in their DeepSea submersible to 450 meters (1,500ft) to the dive sites Everest and The Wall.
A 5mm wetsuit with hood and gloves is recommended for diving Cocos Island and some divers even choose to wear a 7mm or dry suit to stay warm.
Coast Rica has plenty of dive shops to choose from on both coasts and at least three liveaboard options for diving Cocos Islands. The best diving on the Caribbean side is found in the southern part of the country and dive shops are more numerous there. On the Pacific side there are dive shops along the entire coast.
Reef Runner Divers in Puerto Viejo is a popular dive shop that offers PADI scuba courses, daily boat trips, and sets up dive tours for cruise ship passengers when they are in port in Limon. Punta Uva Dive Center is located in the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and does PADI training and daily shore and boat dives right off the refuge. Surface intervals are known to be shared with monkeys or a sloth in a tree overhead.
Highly recommended is Sirenas Diving Coast Rica which offers PADI courses including nitrox and daily boat trips in the Gulf of Papagaya. They also do several day trips to the Catalina Islands and Isla Murcielagos. PADI Gold Palm Resort, Deep Blue Diving Adventures, also offers PADI training and they have four boats for training dives and fun dives to Catalina and Murcielagos. They can set up vacation packages including land tours if requested. Mad About Diving is a PADI 5* Development Center that offers training, boat dives, snorkeling, fishing, surfing, kayaking, and whale and dolphin tours.
Getting to Cocos Islands requires a 550km (300 mile) boat ride that takes around 36 hours. With no airplane flights to Cocos, this journey is best done on a luxury liveaboard. Three popular liveaboards that do 7-14 day trip include Aggressor and Dancer Fleet’s Cocos Okeanos Aggressor and Cocos Wind Dancer, and the Under Sea Hunter. Coiba Dive Expeditions visits Cocos a few times a year.
San Jose’s Santamaria International Airport is a common entry point into Costa Rica. It receives many flights each day from the USA, Europe, Central and South America. Some divers going to the Pacific coast fly into Liberia (Daniel Oduber International Airport.) Many dive shops on the Pacific coast, including the liveaboard operations arrange for transport from San Jose. Renting dive gear is available at most shops and nitrox is common, especially at dive shops on the Pacific coast.
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My father and I recently went to Costa Rica for vacation together. I thought it would be fun to scuba dive together, which required my dad to get certified. Unfortunately, my father was not able to go, because of a medical condition. That is just where the problem begin. After going to the doctor, we where told we would be refunded the money for his training and dive. That deal lasted as long as it took for us to leave the office. Oceans Unlimited has since not to refund our money. Since Oceans...