Diving in Iceland, surfing in Oahu, paddleboarding in the Amazon jungle — I like to think I’ve got exotic aquatic adventuring pretty well covered. So you can imagine my intrigue when I heard about a new water sport called deep boarding, or coral surfing, available only one place in the world — Bocas del Toro, Panama. I had to try it. We were so enthusiastic we ended up signing up for two different tours, each with vastly different results.
Our first attempt was with Under Sea, the largest and most well-known company offering deep board tours. After some debate we decided to splurge on a trip to Cayos Zapatillas over a shorter and cheaper option. While similar tours including lunch, snorkeling, and beach time at Zapatillas are advertised all over the island for $35, Under Sea charges $50. But unlike the cheaper versions, this one offered the chance to try deep boarding. We signed up.
The woman who signed us up won my heart immediately by promising to put Diet Coke on the boat, and we practically skipped to the tour office the next day. The trip started off really well, with dolphins leaping around the boat in aptly named Dolphin Bay and sloths mugging for us at Solarte Cay. They were nice stops to break up the somewhat long journey out to Zapatilla.
As the boat pulled up towards Zapatilla you could hear the shuffle as every single person on the boat reached for their camera. Yes, that was paradise. The kind of palm-lined island that postcards are made of. I turned to Anders, who was in the Caribbean for the first time, and assured him that it was as good as it gets.
I ignored the cattle-like feeling as we were herded off the boats and into an area to await instructions. Because we were such a large group, it was explained, some would deep board while others snorkeled and others ate lunch. Anders and I practically tripped over ourselves volunteering to go first.
In the simplest terms, deep boarding involves clinging to a custom molded piece of plastic while being dragged by a boat. The setup allowed for three at a time. “So, should you go in the middle with the camera?” I asked our guide. The poster advertising the trip had boasted free underwater photos as a major feature, and I had made a point to ask the saleswoman about it upon sign up — she assured me they’d be uploaded to a special online album where we could download as we pleased. “Oh, we can’t do those today. There are too many people,” the guide shrugged. I tried not to show my annoyance while I explained that we had been promised photos when booking, and that it was a huge selling point of the tour to us, which was met by yet another shrug. Granted, as a blogger photos are more important to me than they may be to the average tourist but I don’t know why the number of guests should mean that an advertised and confirmed feature of the tour should be omitted. Luckily, Anders had his GoPro so he was able to snap a few shots. But we were pretty bummed.
We absolutely adored the deep boarding. While there was nothing much to see, it was really fun and exhilarating! When we wanted to go deeper, we tilted the board down and sailed to the sea floor. I was amazed by how long I lasted underwater without craving air, I suppose because I wasn’t using any energy to get there. When it was finally necessary. I simply nudged the board towards the surface and soon broke above the gentle waves.
We were just getting the hang of it when our twelve minutes or so were up. We had a lovely lunch and lazed on the beach for a bit, but we were itching to deep board a bit more. We casually asked one of the employees if it was possible to go for a second round and they replied that usually it was no problem — but today there were too many people.
Well, hey — at least our backup plan was hanging out on the most beautiful beach of all times.
I admit that having worked in the tourism industry, Anders and I both have very high standards especially when it comes to customer service. And that is why I unfortunately cannot recommend using this company based on the customer service and the short amount of time actually spent on the boards. There were so many positives — a fantastic lunch, a lovely sales lady in the town office, a beautiful island, and a unique activity. However, as budget travelers this wasn’t cheap for us and we were disappointed by the false advertising and more importantly, by the lackluster response we received when we noted the discrepancies in what was promised and received. We tried talking to the manager upon return and he offered no compensation or even apology. I was so annoyed I actually left a Tripadvisor review — something I haven’t done in years!
We did have a pretty good laugh over what grinches we had become, sitting around and bitching in paradise.
A few days later, we still had the itch to try the deep boarding again, but we were not in the mood to hand over more cash to Under Sea. So were thrilled when we found Coral Surfing, a small business offering a similar experience with a slightly modified board. This time, wallets still stinging, we went for the $30 “half day” option, though we suspiciously asked many questions about how many other customers there would be and how much time we would get in the water. “As much as you want!,” the saleswoman assured us. “You’ll be the only customers.”
And she wasn’t kidding. A lovely French woman picked us up and brought us out to a remote bay somewhere around Isla Colon. There, she dropped us into the water and explained how to signal to her that we wanted to go faster or slower. These boards were somewhat more advanced — instead of just going up and down, we could also go left and right, or do complete twirls underwater! It was amazing how entertaining it was.
Though the water was deeper in this area than it had been in Zapatilla, there was much more to see. Patches of hard coral were interspersed with row after row after row of starfish — I stopped counting around fifty. And there was no false sales pitch here. We really did stay in the water for as long as we wanted. For me, it was about an hour, though Anders stayed in for an extra thirty minutes or so. When I was in the boat, I couldn’t get over how slow it was moving — it had seemed like we were torpedoing forward when I was being dragged behind it! You can see footage from our tour in this video.
If you’re coming to Bocas del Toro to try this unique new watersport, I’d recommend checking out Coral Surfing — they also do trips to Zapatilla, so you can get the best of both worlds. But regardless of who you book with, I strongly suggest you wear a one piece bathing suit. I spent a decent amount of time on both tours worried I was about to moon all of Bocas del Toro. At least that would be one benefit of the no camera situation.
Have you ever heard of deep boarding/coral surfing? Would you try it?
Wow- I had never heard of this before but it sounds like so much fun!! I desperately want to try it now! Really glad the second trip was much better- so awesome to be the only ones on the tour!
Yup! Sometimes it’s nice to meet other people on tours… and sometimes it’s nice to have it all to yourself 🙂
I would love to try this, and I don’t think you sounded like Grinch’s – just disgruntled customers who had been sold something that you didn’t receive. Quite right to not recommend the company and what a shame about their attitude. Good customer service is very important – no matter how much you pay and what end of the market you are at. I think its all about attitude!
Second time around sounds amazing though. 🙂
Thanks for the backup, Janice, I do agree 🙂 I know for some people $50 is a deal, but for us it was a lot!
This is so amazing! You made Panama look so inviting 🙂
Thanks Laurene. It’s not hard — it’s a very photogenic country!
wow, how cool. and those islands look amazing. i need to get down there stat.
Agreed 🙂 Only a five hour flight from NYC!
I’ve never worked in tourism, and would have been just as disappointed as you. Maybe even more so of the employees reaction. But – that island looks amazing! And your second experience with only the two of you – what a deal! I’ve never heard about coral surfing until just now, but I must do it! Sounds like a blast!
Thanks Katie! Yeah, it is all about attitude and I was shocked that when we complained there was no compensation offered to make up for what was missing from our tour. Argh!
Looks like fun, but after spending my youth as a champion smoker my breath holding skills might limit my Coral Surfing experience.
What will they think of next!
You still might want to give it a try… you can come up for air as often as you need! I’m awful at breath holding despite never having smoked a day in my life, and was amazed how long I could stay under. I think it’s the lack of energy you need to expend!
that sounds like so much fun. It’s a shame there aren’t beachy activities here in Goa, only only company even does SUP and it’s 40 min away… hmm maybe I should start a business lol . Was it scary at all to do? I’m imagining aiming to far down and hitting the bottom or getting dragged across coral. How would she know if you want/need to come up?
No lie, I have a ten page business plan about starting a SUP business on a certain island paradise 🙂 You are the only one who controls coming up or down, but if you want the boat slowed down you just switch to holding the board with one hand and signal a thumbs down (or thumbs up to go faster.) I was mostly concerned about the impact of stupid tourists (myself included) damaging the coral but we had a lot of control over the boards!
Ah that looks like SO much fun! Looks like you still got a bunch of great photos even though you didn’t get ones promised. Great review!
Luckily Anders is good with the GoPro and I’m good with editing software 🙂 Thanks Emily!
Oh my goodness, this is amazing!! I’ve never heard of it… maybe something I should start here 😉 It sounds so fun! Glad you guys got a good second trip. And how gorgeous is the scenery – wow!
Seriously, start a business! You’d need some capital though because from talking to people at both business those boards are STUPID expensive.
Oh I so want to try this! We call it Manta Boarding in Australia.
Nice! Good to know it DOES exist somewhere else in the world so I can try it again 🙂 I also heard there is a company doing it in Brazil but I can’t find any evidence of that online.
I have never heard of deep boarding/coral surfing, but it sounds like tons of fun! Pity that the expensive tour was a bit of a bust – but that beach looks amazing!!
Yeah, I am pretty skeptical of tours and this is a good example of why. I really need to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth 🙂
I am not convinced it can be considered as a sport but it surely is a funny leisure activity…Like shallow cousin of the underwater scooter freediving races 🙂
Yeah, I call scuba a sport too and it’s not really 🙂 At least not most of the time!
We once had a plastic board similar to the second tour except it was just one piece that canted up and down. Bought it to tow behind our dinghy to look for lobster or conch, and were so excited when we “discovered” we could go under the surface and sort of steer! It was just a cheapo plastic toy basically, bought at West Marine I think, about 10 years ago. Only lasted a few months though before the plastic cracked. Must try that again!!
Wow, awesome! From the discussions I had with the staff at both companies these boards are VERY pricey, so it’s nice that you found a cheap alternative 🙂
Hi Alex, wow this is amazing! Thanks for letting us know about coral surfing. I can’t believe its only offered in just one place in the world! I’d love to try this out one day…if i ever get to that part of the globe 🙂
Well another commenter just let me know it’s in Australia and I’ve heard some rumors about Brazil… so maybe it is gaining popularity 🙂 Good luck finding it!
This sounds incredible! I cannot wait to try it myself – Going to have to get onto that soon!
Well done for keeping at it though – the second trip sounds wonderful! x
It was! I can’t recommend it more.
I first heard about this maybe 6 months ago thanks to Barry & Laura of Worldly Nomads (check out their blog sometime)
Have had this penciled in on the To Do List when we hit Panama since then! 🙂
Ah, yes, I remember seeing their post when we were researching if we wanted to fork over for that tour or not 🙂 Very cool!
Wow, looks like a fantastic place! Have never heard of coral surfing, sounds like great fun, but a bit scary having to hold your breath that long :). Did you do any diving in that area as well?
We did! Post to come 🙂 As for the coral surfing, you control how long you stay under, so you don’t have to hold your breath very long if you don’t want to!
This looks like so much fun! What a bummer about the false advertising though. The manager should have done something about it. I hope he reads this and your trip advisor review.
They responded pretty defensively to my Tripadvisor review and basically said it was invalid since they brought Diet Coke on the boat just for me 🙂 Which was kind of funny since I had listed that as one of the positives of the tour right off the bat. But apparently doing on thing right means you can’t do anything else wrong!
OK, can I ask the obvious: How do you breathe if the snorkel isn’t above water???
You just come up whenever you need air! It’s the WEIRDEST thing though, you need to breathe maybe half as often as you think you would. I guess because you aren’t exerting any energy your body doesn’t need to use it?
Hey, currently in Bocas Del Toro and coral surfing (the company) no longer exist…just for information. Other companies still offer it as part of a day tour and one company, gambit tours, offer 30minutes for $25.
Hey David thanks for the update! Glad to hear it is still available on the island.
This looks like so much fun! I’m heading to Panama in June and will be sure to check this out!
It was A BLAST! I recently learned there’s a company here in Koh Tao that has started doing it and I’m dying to give it a try again 🙂