The country of Panama was named after an indigenous word meaning, “abundance of fish.” If that isn’t enough to add it to your bucket list, Panama is one of the few places in the world you can dive two oceans in one day. With the warm, tropical waters of the Caribbean on its east and the cooler, shark-filled waters of the Pacific on the west, it’s just a two-hour car ride between them in some places. Panama boasts 1,207km of Caribbean coast and 1,700km of Pacific coast.
On the Caribbean side, divers come for the abundance of colorful reef fish and corals. When rating the best diving in Central American, Bocas del Toro always comes up with its white sand beaches and many calm, protected areas. It’s a great place to learn how to dive and the marine life make it a great place to keep diving. Another popular spot on the Caribbean coast is Colon, only two hours from Panama City. Just offshore, the Portobelo National Marine Park has beautiful corals and the area is filled with a history of pirate battles and sunken ships.
On the Pacific side, cooler waters and currents make encounters with pelagic common. Lucky divers can see several species of shark, whale sharks, humpback whales, dolphins, and more. Coiba National Marine Park is often referred to as the Galapagos of Central America and has the second largest coral reef in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. One liveaboard, Coiba Dive Expeditions, operates in Panama, exploring Coiba NP. Their weeklong trips give the best opportunities to see the most of what Coiba has to offer.
Just nine degrees north of the equator, Panama is hot and humid year round. The rainy season is May- November and the dry season is December-April (with less humidity and almost no rain.) Panama is not in the hurricane belt, but it can get strong winds from nearby storms. Air temperatures throughout the year range form 20-32C, being a bit cooler in the winter/dry season. Water temperatures vary between coasts. The Caribbean side the water can be as cool as 25C in the winter and as warm as 28C in the summer. Coiba can get as cold as 20C during winter and reaches a high of around 24C in the summer.
Panama is easily accessed by Tocumen International Airport (PTY), which received international flights from all over the world daily. Getting around Panama is easiest with many domestic flights out of Albrook International Airport (PAC), going throughout the country including Bocas del Toro and Colon. Road systems are fine so getting around by rental car or bus is an option. Ferryboats take people to Bocas del Toro.
Panama uses the US Dollar - although it’s often referred to as the Balboa- and Spanish is the official language. English is widely spoken in tourist areas and on the Caribbean coast, Guari Guari, a Caribbean variety of English is spoken.
Great diving can be found along both the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Panama, but the two most popular diving areas are Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side and Coiba National Marine Park on the Pacific.
Coiba National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes 38 islands. Lonely Planet says it’s “The best diving to be found along the Pacific Coast from Columbia to Mexico.” Coiba gets the big stuff. Sharks can be seen on almost every dive including white-tip reef sharks, black-tip reef sharks, and occasional hammerheads, bull, and tiger sharks. Whale sharks are common visitors from December to April. Humpback whales are seen July through October and orcas and pilot whales frequent the area. Large schools of mantas and mobula rays sometimes swim by, and most dives have turtles, schools of large fish, angelfish, butterflyfish, and dolphins.
On the Caribbean side of Panama, close to the Costa Rica boarder, is Bocas del Toro. This archipelago of nine large islands includes the protected area of Isla Bastimentos National Marine. Bocas is known for its well-preserved hard and soft corals. Being outside of the official hurricane zone, away from large cities and river mouths, the coral is very healthy. It is estimated that 95% of the coral species found in the Caribbean Sea can be found within the archipelago.
Tiger Rock is rated one of the best dive sites around Bocas del Toro, and is three rock pinnacles that rise up from the sea floor at 40m. It’s an advanced dive and can have strong currents, but is a good place to see sharks, rays, large fish schools, whale sharks and dolphins. Its location requires perfect sea conditions for boats to be able to get there. Dolphin Rock is another offshore rock formation where sharks can be seen and has lots of colorful fish life. The diving is also very good around Zapatillas Cays, another more distant boat ride.
Closer to town, Bouy Line is a poplar shallow site (near a deep water channel buoy) that has sea horses, lionfish, crabs, and lots of morays. Hospital Point is near the north end of Isla Solarte and has healthy cauliflower and brain corals on a sloping wall. The dive usually has a slow current and is 15m deep max. Sashek is another drift dive between Bastimentos and Carenero that has rare long lure frogfish. Airport is a protected site good for training dives, and has lots of coral.
Also on the Caribbean side, but further southeast is Portobelo National Park. This is also a popular diving area with great marine life. Being closer to Panama City, people come directly from the city to dive this area that has great reef dives and several wrecks.
Water temperatures on the Caribbean side are warm year round (23-27C) and a 3mm is usually plenty. On the Pacific side, colder currents bring waters (15-23C), so a 5mm will be comfortable. For those doing deep dives in the winter, thermoclines can be present, so a 7mm might be useful.
With so much coastline and diving opportunities, Panama has numerous dive shops offering different diving experiences. Several shops located in Panama City offer training and diving to both coasts (and some trips offer both coasts in one day.) Dive Adventure is one of these shops and has two locations in Panama City. They offer PADI dive courses and a wide range of gear for sale, as well as dive travel throughout Panama and international trips. Scuba Panama also offers PADI courses and daily “Dive Two Oceans” trips.
On the Pacific side, several dive shops and one liveaboard dive Coiba National Marine Park. Located in Santa Catalina, Scuba Coiba and Coiba Dive Center both offer PADI training and multiday trips. To really get the best from Coiba, Coiba Dive Expeditions has the 35m M/V Yemaya liveaboard doing 7-14 day chargers around the islands, offering multiple dives a day, food and accommodation onboard. They also go to other island groups of Central and South America, including Costa Rica’s Cocos Islands and Columbia’s Malpelo Islands.
On the Caribbean side, Bocas del Toro has many dive shops to choose from. Some of the more popular shops include La Buga Dive and Surf, a PADI 5 Star Center offering training, dive trips, and other ocean activities like surfing. Starfleet Eco Adventures also offers PADI training and daily boat dives to many of the popular dive sites around Bocas. Bocas Watersports does daily boat trips, PADI instruction, kayaking, wakeboarding, and snorkeling.
Near Colon, one of the top rated dive shops, is 2 Oceans Divers inside the Coco Plum Eco Lodge. This PADI dive resort offers training and technical dive training. They have daily boat dives in the Portobelo National Marine Park and specialize in walls, reefs, and wreck diving. Scuba Panama Diver Inc. also teaches PADI courses, dives in the Portobelo National Marine Park and has a hotel on the same property. These shops also put together days of diving that include diving on both the Caribbean side and on the Pacific.
Panama is easy to get to with many flights into Tocumen International Airport (PTY). Roads are okay in Panama, and it is possible to rent cars or travel by bus to the coast, although road travel can take a long time due to the mountains. Tocumen has a few domestic flights to Bocas del Toro (BOC) or Colon (ONX), but the majority go out of Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport (PAC) about an hour taxi ride from Tocumen.
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