Start Here: Part I, Part II and Part III of my dive trip to Isla de Coiba.
I woke up on our fourth and final day in Coiba National Park feeling a mixture of sadness and excitement. These forced off-the-grid experiences are good for me, and I felt a twinge of heaviness at the thought of returning to the machines that run my life (as in, my Macbook and my iPhone). I mean, I had spent the last four days writing with — get this — a pen and paper.
Yup, life on that island was a nice escape for a while. But I didn’t have much time to reflect because as usual, we were late for a dive. This day would be structured a bit differently than the others. Our first dive would be at a site close to the ranger station so we could return back immediately after to pack up and clear off the island. Next, we’d head back to Wahoo, a dive site between Coiba and Santa Catalina most notorious for whale sharks. We unanimously voted to double dive the site, increasing our chances of spotting the giant fish. Between those two dives we’d have lunch in one of the coves, and after the third we’d head back to Santa Catalina.
So for our first dive of the day we returned to Iglesia, a nice calm dive site with plenty of fish to play with.
While the turtle, eels and lobster we saw on the first half of the dive were excellent, the second half kind of blew it away with sightings of some feisty harlequin shrimp and, though I was unable to get a photograph that did it justice, a juvenile frogfish hiding in some bright yellow coral. You could feel the energy in the water — we had high hopes that this was our lucky day.
Back on Isla de Coiba, we said a sad farewell to the island that had so generously hosted us for the past few days. She’s kind of a beauty, right? As we pulled away from the shore, we waved to another group of divers pulling in. They had just been to Wahoo. There were whale sharks.
And we were off to find them ourselves. Or so we thought.
As we approached the dive site, I heard our dive guide Sebastian mutter “Uh oh…” and I followed his eyes out onto the horizon. There I saw two boats — one, one of the largest and flashiest yachts I’ve ever laid eyes on, and two, a military boat full of unsmiling soldiers heading straight for us. We slowed as they approached. “No diving here today,” they called out in Spanish. “But why?,” asked Sebastian, though he never got an answer. The confrontation went on for a tense five minutes or so. While I was dying to take a photo, something told me to hold back. While we were asking completely logical and fair questions, I looked at the soldiers’ faces and saw that no amount of reasoning or logic would get us onto that dive site. No amount of pleading, no amount of explaining that the customers in our boat had paid almost $900 to be here and tourism is kind of an important industry in Panama, no amount of showing permits that stated we were licensed to dive this site, none of it was going to work. “Do you understand Spanish?,” one of the uniforms sneered at Sebastian. “No puede, no puede, NO PUEDE.”
When we finally admitted defeat and pulled off the site, I looked up and saw tears in the eyes of a few of my fellow divers. It was pretty awful, knowing whale sharks were lurking below us but being barred from entering the water without explanation. Sebastian tried to cheer us up as we scrambled to make a Plan B, but it was a tough crowd. We half-heartedly entered the water at Faro, a nearby dive site, and it would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic — it was the worst dive of the trip. No whale sharks to be seen — or anything else, really. I didn’t take a single photo, and later one of the women on the trip told me she was so bored she was considering signaling low on air just so it would end! And then, yet another comical-in-retrospect-but-not-at-the-time turn of events: as our boat came to pick us up, they excitedly showed us cell phone photos of the whale shark they had seen from the surface while we were underwater. Great.
We headed to a nearby cove for a surface interval and lunch and we were just about the crankiest, most deflated group you’ll ever find on a paradisaical tropical island. While we ate, the crew filled us in on the gossip they’d picked up over the radio — the mega-yacht that was on top of the dive site? It belonged to Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, and his son was using it that day to spearfish on top of a dive site within a national marine park. The military boat that had approached us was the equivalent to the secret service. My jaw dropped. I tried to imagine this scenario playing out in the US — Sasha and Malia Obama picking off wild bald eagles with shotguns from within Yosemite National Park while the secret service shooed away hikers. Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’d hear about that.
We decided to give Wahoo one more try — we couldn’t not. We held our breath as we pulled around the corner to the dive site, and let out a cheer when we saw on open buoy line. I’ve never seen a group gear up faster — we were determined to get underwater before we were chased off again.
The dive was shaping up to be another bummer one. Other than a school of mobula rays in the distance, we hadn’t seen a single thing through the murky water. After fifty minutes, Sebastian turned around and gave us a signal — time for a safety stop. And then I saw it.
Out of the blue behind him emerged a school of small white dots — what kind of fish were those? And then my heart started pounding as my brain started to comprehend what was happening. It was a whale shark, coming to save our dive at the last dramatic moment! After all the drama and tension of the day, I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so loudly into my regulator. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I told the whale shark, as he passed so close our fins could touch.
We could not have asked for a better conclusion to our amazing four days in Coiba.
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Media coverage and travel information about Coiba is still scarce — you’ll receive a lot of curious looks even from other hardcore divers when you mention its name. Yet this very unexplored area is part of the same Pacific chain that links diving bucket list destinations like the Galapagos and the Cocos Islands! Now, since there is so little practical information out there about diving in Coiba National Park, I want to provide some insight for those hoping to join a multi-day expedition themselves. All trips into the park depart from Santa Catalina, where dive operations are based.
The cost of a four-day diving trip with Scuba Coiba is $860 plus 7% tax and includes twelve dives, three nights of accommodation, and all very delicious meals (minus breakfast on the first day and dinner on the last) including wine at dinner. There is a national park fee of $20, and rental gear is an additional $15 per day. You can add on a day of non-diving guided tours (kayaking, hiking, etc.) for $195 per person, or additional days of diving for $210 per person. One, two, and three day trips are also available.
Note that there will be a significant surcharge for credit cards — it is best to arrive in Santa Catalina with enough cash to pay off your balance, as there are no ATMs in town. Also bring enough for a decent tip. In our group there were two chefs, a dive guide and two boat boys. We tipped $80 each in total — I actually wish I had tipped a bit more once I realized how large the crew was, but I was almost out of cash.
• Bring dive gloves. My hands were sliced open by rocks we were told to cling to in the currents on a few different divers, and the cuts were very painful.
• I would prefer a briefing and instructions to be done the night before the trip rather than the morning of departure. Be sure to ask the dive ship for details on what and how to pack ahead of time so you’re prepared for the first day’s early call time.
• This is my own fault for not researching better, but I didn’t realize that we wouldn’t see Isla de Coiba’s penal colony on the trip. It is possible to do, but you need to request it ahead of time and pay a separate fee. There is also an option to hike or kayak for a full or half day, which I think would be a nice way to break up all the diving. If you’re interested in any of those options, be sure to discuss it with your dive shop when booking.
• Prepare to be exhausted! Three challenging dives per day are exhausting and our land time consisted almost exclusively of sleeping, napping, and dozing on the sand. I wish I had pushed myself a bit more to take more photos of the island, and of our group (I so regret not having a single one of our crew!)
• Prepare to be guided. I was kind of surprised at first by how strict our dive guide was considering how experienced our group was (among eight customers there were two instructors and two divemasters!) but once I experienced how rough the conditions could be I understood. Experienced divers, you may not be used to having a dive guide chastise you for straying from your buddy — but in this case there is a good reason.
• Come ready. Obviously, being an uninhabited island, there are not going to be any gift shops on Isla de Coiba. My underwater camera was on its last legs on this trip (in fact, it died about two weeks later) and I was so nervous about having no backup if it gave out mid trip! Stock up on batteries, snacks, and whatever else you might need while going off the grid.
What’s the Accommodation Like?
You’ll sleep at the ANAM station on Isla de Coiba. There are eight beds to a room with a single shared bathroom and a cold water shower. Rooms are basic but you won’t be spending any time in them. Electricity is turned on only at night Surpringly, air conditioning is available though our group elected to turn it off as it was truly freezing.
About Scuba Coiba
When the founder of Scuba Coiba, Herbie Sunk, first arrived in Santa Catalina in 2003, there were no paved roads and boats needed almost three hours to get to Coiba. They were the very first dive shop to open — in fact, the other dive shops now in operation in Santa Catalina are run by former employees or customers of Scuba Coiba.
Why dive with them? They focus on multi-lingual and international instructors to match their diverse clientele — our group of eight was from five different countries! And they have a long time, loyal local staff — their main captain has been there since 2005.
Though we were unable to experience it ourselves as it was out of the water for repairs, Scuba Coiba’s Orca is the only boat in Santa Catalina with a cabin in front. Having done the trip in a small open boat (the type the other dive shops use) I can attest to how nice it would have been to have a center rack for tanks and a place to shelter ourselves from the sun!
We had a great experience with Scuba Coiba (did I mention the food was really good?) and I highly recommend them.
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And to sign off on this journey, I’m sharing another one of Ander’s fantastic videos. These were super tough conditions for a GoPro so kudos to him for making it work. Whale shark footage within!
Thanks for coming to Coiba with me, guys! Do you think you’d ever go yourselves?
Many thanks to Scuba Coiba for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.
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Curious about my underwater photography setup? Check out my Obsessions page for information on my camera gear, editing programs and more.
How amazing to see the whale shark – and it didn’t mind the bubbles!!!
Actually, quite often they like to play in divers’ bubbles, especially the baby ones 🙂
That is effing insane about the presidents son!! wtf! and nice job Anders with the video, looked awesome, if he doesn’t already he should make videos for dolla bills- people would totally pay for that lol Your dive stories make me feel like sucha bum. There’s great places nearby in the andaman islands.. but a friend of ben’s was there with his gf, and I kid you not, a saltwater crocodile killed her. It was horrible and makes me really scared to go. Do you worry about them? I do moreso than sharks. The islands don’t tell travelers that there are any nearby, and there were just out snorkeling from a kayak at a 5 star resort when it happened!
Wow, that is a terrifying story. I would rather see any kind of shark underwater than a croc, for sure. I haven’t really dove anywhere where they are considered a problem but if/when I do I will certainly be concerned. And how amazing that people aren’t being warned to be careful in areas where they are an issue — that’s shameful.
Honestly Alex, I don’t think I’ve been through such a range of emotions by reading one of your posts like this in awhile! You should have seen my face…my coworker was watching me and was like, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU READING!?” Soooooooo angry at the president’s son part, soooooooooo excited at the whale shark part 😉
Ha, I laughed reading this comment 🙂 We went through a similar range of emotions, from tears to giddy laughter! It was definitely a drama-filled day….
Wanted to say again that I totally loved this series of posts on your diving experience in Isla De Coiba. Probably the best series I ever read on your blog. Felt so happy for you when I read that you saw the Whale Shark so closely 🙂
Aw, thank you Rekha! It was definitely one of the highlights of Latin America for me, and I’m glad that translated into my blog! Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂
Sounds like a lovely trip, and even a Whale Shark! As divers we are always looking for that elusive critter, but we should enjoy the dive we are doing rather than wish for more. Easier said than done.
The military escort is unfortunate, but we have the same things going on in the US. Try and get a game of golf in when Obama is in town… won’t happen. Our politicians clog thing up so badly with any visit.
So sorry about your friend passing, wishing you the best.
Thanks, Ron. This was the first time any of my travel plans were foiled by politicians being in town, but perhaps it is more common than I think 🙂
Wow fantastic post.
You covered it all, the good the bad and the better.
Thanks Rick. It was a wild ride!
Wow a dramatic final day! Isn’t it funny when the perfect moments we’ve been waiting for happen right at the end of an experience? It’s like the whale shark was trying to give you a good story! Really enjoyed reading about Coiba, thanks for sharing.
Ha, well if so, he did succeed 🙂 I was thinking he must have sensed our desperation and swam by to lift our spirits before sending us on our way!
Yay for seeing whale sharks. I can’t believe that tax payer’s money is wasted on a massive crew of secret service staff protecting the president’s son going fishing and then they don’t even let tourists who have paid a lot of money to go diving enter the waters. Surely you guys could have gone diving 50m next to that guy. Very odd!
Yeah, that was the plan we proposed, ha! Drop us off at the next dive site and we’ll swim over…. But realistically, it isn’t very safe to go diving in an area where someone is spearfishing, as it can rile up the big predators in the area.
I want to cry out and say this is NOT FAIR because you have now seen whale sharks several times and even though they are at the top of my wishlist, I have yet to see one, even from a boat! BUT, given how stressful the day was, and how hard some of the dives were leading up to your final one, I’d say you earned that spotting. 😀
Coiba sounds like an awesome (if challenging) place to dive. I hope one day I get to experience it (sans political spearfishers!) for myself!
Ha, thanks for the pass 🙂 Whale sharks are like most good things… even after you see one, you won’t really be satisfied, you’ll just want more more more!
This would have to be one of my favourite (of your dive tales) to date.
What a finale! 😀
It is certainly the juiciest! I’ll have quite a bit of work to go before I can top that one 🙂
Writing with a paper and pen…? I think I might have used those once…! Ha. Wow- what a crazy day you had. But I’m glad you got to see the whale sharks. I kind of hope I don’t see any kind of shark for a while after I start diving, I’m not ready for something that big eek. A little turtle will do 🙂
I used to cross my fingers not to see sharks, now I do the opposite! It all comes in good time 🙂
Great video Alex, it makes me want to go diving again.
Also great pictures as always.
It is great that this story had a happy ending and I can only imagine the elation you all felt.
It can be really annoying when have authoritive organisations overrule and deny your free movements without any explanation. Also when it is for political pleasure it is a real infringement on our liberties (as a western perspective).
Yes, we were all quite indignant about it but the Panamanian staff kind of shrugged and seemed resigned. Perhaps they are more used to corruption — or at least seeing it so clearly 🙂
Wow, really enjoyed your article and great photos. I’ve never done a multi-day trip on Coiba but have dived there before and agree that it’s the best in Panama. That’s disgusting news about Martinelli’s son, but not surprising in Panama unfortunately.
We were recently on our honeymoon in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica where we saw a big yacht similar to the one you showed partially in your photo. I’d love to send you our photo to have you compare it to the boat you saw so we’d know if it was the same boat. Just ping me at my email and I’ll attach it to my reply, if you would.
I think the photo you are referring to is a different boat — that was a Windstar cruise docking at the beach for the day. While I was dying to take a picture of the yacht and the military boat in question, I was far too terrified to do so after I saw how stern they were being! Yikes!
I’m a U.S. Citizen, permanent resident (jubilado) in Panama. As a long time diver, I have enjoyed diving in numerous places in Panama but never at Coiba. My interest is now high and I will look forward to a Coiba trip as a result of your article.
That’s great to hear, Daniel! I can’t recommend Scuba Coiba more highly. It will be a great trip I’m sure!
I love happy endings! So happy you got to see a whale shark before leaving the island.
I wonder what the military was up to…?
I believe they were the secret service, protecting the president’s son who was spearfishing in the area. Sorry if that bit was unclear!
Wow, that whale shark – what a rush that must have been! I’m so glad you got to see one after that disappointment. I love the turtle pic as well, he looks like he’s standing on his hind legs, so cute!
That turtle was a weirdo! He kept peeking over the ledge at us like that. I’ve never seen that behavior before!
I’m feeling a bit WTH about that presidential son. Asshat.
Just wondered, what were the water temps like for diving? I’m guessing prob not as warm as Thailand is?
Definitely not! In Koh Tao I often dive in just a rash guard, while here I was doubling up on 5mm wetsuits! I’m not sure of the exact temperatures at different times of the year though Scuba Coiba’s website will have plenty of info to that effect.
So sad to hear that the President’s son was fishing in a protected park but there’s not much you can do, at least you weren’t down there with the spears 🙂
Yeah, fishing is actually allowed in the marine park with a permit… but not on the dive sites! Insert eye roll smiley here… if I knew how to do that.
thank you for showin us the beauties of our country and the stupidity of our people
Hi Dolores! Thanks for commenting 🙂 You indeed have a beautiful country and an overall very lovely people!
I really dislike President Martinelli, that said, I am a bit bewildered by your reaction to a Presidential Guard patrol boat telling you that you are not able to be there at a specific time because the son of the president is in the área (marine park & protected waters aside). If this would have been the US, the exact same scenario would have played out. TRUST me, I lived in the US for a while and worked with one of the major US hotel companies, where I had to participate many times in events where the president (both bush and Obama) would visit our city and/or hotel. I think it is a bit sensationalistic on your part to paint this situation as inconceivable, when in fact it would be exactly the same in the U.S. (except for the part, as you so eloquently put it, of shooting down bald eagles in Yosemite). Last time I wanted to visit the Chicago Art Institute, I was not allowed in precisely because Obama was holding some kind of fund raiser. Another time in Miami, I was not able to park my car on my Street and had to prove that I lived on said Street to be allowed Access because the president was scheduled for an appearance at a nearby hotel. And trust me, these secret service people were not all smiles and niceties. I am sorry your vacation was inconvenienced by this, and I am embarrassed for my country that indeed someone would be allowed to spearfish in protected waters just because of their political status, nonetheless, I still disagree with the approach you have taken in describing your ordeal. Safe travels and thank you for visiting Panama.
Hey DM, my main problem with the situation was that Martinelli’s son was doing something illegal! From what I understand spearfishing on top of the marine park’s dive sites is breaking the law, which makes it a very different situation than being barred from visiting the Art Institute. And also explains why they didn’t want to provide any explanation.
I love Panama and have so much praise for the country (as you can see from my many many posts on it!) but I still think it is kind of ridiculous to turn away tourists paying good money to be somewhere in order to let a government figure break the law.
Wow! My jaw dropped a couple of times seeing your underwater photos! I’m so mesmerized by the completely different world in the water, but oh so nervous about being seasick on a dive. Throwing up through a regulator likely isn’t the most fun.
I’ve definitely gotten seasick on a trip or two but luckily this wasn’t one of them! Usually it’s if I have to be in an inflatable boat. Ick.
hurray for the whale shark in shining armor! i’m still regretting my decision to forgo whale sharks in the philippines for some chilled out beach time instead. i know you didn’t have the best luck there but i don’t know when i’ll have the opportunity again….?
Meh, the whale shark we saw in the Philippines was really not even worth it. I know that sounds ridiculous but if you were there spending three hours in cold grey rain for a blurry glimpse of some white dots in awful visibility, you’d probably say the same 🙂 I think beach time sounds fabulous!
I stumbled upon your blog. I love your writing, your photos and the life you have chosen. We are planning a dive trip with our adult children. They dive. Mom and dad don’t. We spent a week in Roatan diving. Time to do it again. It was between Bahamas and Cayman partly due to proximity. Which do you prefer or recommend? Now I am wondering if we should be choosing somewhere else.
Thank you so much Emilo! That’s lovely that you still travel with your kids 🙂 I love both Cayman and the Bahamas (you can find plenty of posts about both in my archives) and had very different experiences in each. The outer islands of the Bahamas are stunning and the people are some of the warmest and most welcoming on Earth. Cayman has great food and unique experiences like Stingray City. You really can’t go wrong! Take a peek through my posts about those destinations, hopefully they might help you choose!
Wow, you got some amazing pics! Must have been even better after waiting for so long.
It was the perfect reward 🙂 Thanks for reading!
I really like your article! nice to read. this is a great location to scuba dive!
Thanks Belinda, I agree! Coiba is a must do for serious divers.
Looks pretty impressive 🙂
It was indeed! Thanks for reading Stan!