I often equate diving to a form of aquatic yoga — relaxing, meditative, weightless. Isla de Coiba destroys that analogy. Diving there is no yoga — it’s a tough mudder. We’re talking low visibility, deep depths, thermoclines with 10°F temperature drops, and currents so intense you have no choice but to cling to a rock until your fingers start to bleed. Tempted? Actually, you should be — the payoff has the potential to be equally intense. Species as large as whale sharks and as tiny as juvenile frogfish call these waters home. As soon as Anders and I decided to go to Panama, we set our sights on Coiba and booked a multi-day dive trip into the national park.
The island’s history is actually part of what lured us there. From 1918 to 2000, Isla de Coiba was a prison colony that held up to 2,000 inmates. The outpost was infamous for both its brutality and the lack of hope the prisoners had for escaping — the island is surrounded by rough seas notoriously rich with sharks. When the prison colony was dissolved, the island was granted National Park status — this unbroken chain of protection resulted in a pristine ecosystem virtually untouched by the outside world. In 2005, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, further protecting the 38 islands and the surrounding 430,825 acres of ocean. Today, Coiba National Park is a haven for flora and fauna that are becoming rare due to the widespread rainforest destruction and development defining other areas of Panama. I had to see it for myself. Excitement levels for this trip? Off the charts.
“Think of the number of fish you have seen elsewhere and double it,” promised an article about Coiba in DIVER magazine. But it isn’t the 760 species of fish that get the most attention among visitors to Coiba, nor is it the 23 species of whales and dolphins or one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific side of the Americas. No, it’s the 33 species of sharks that roam the waters — the same creatures that once kept terrified prisoners in line now draw divers from around the world. So many sharks surround Coiba that one dive center in Santa Catalina will give you a refund if you don’t see them! As we prepared for our four-day, three-night trip into the park with Scuba Coiba I told Anders that I had crossed fingers on both hands — one was for seeing majestic whale sharks, and one was for aggressive bull sharks remaining elusive.
The morning of the first day of our trip, we gathered at the dive shop in charming Santa Catalina town. The group was an international bunch — a young Dutch couple, a Swiss brother and sister, an unrelated Swiss woman, an Italian, one Danish dude and one crazy American girl. Among that group there were three instructors, two divemasters, and four extremely experienced advanced open water divers. Did I mention Coiba is not for the faint of heart?
As we loaded up the boat, Anders and I discovered more hilarious proof of how small the dive world really is. It turns out our French dive guide, Sebastian, spent years working at the same dive school in Indonesia that Anders freelanced for and that I did my divemaster training with. In fact, he had taught my divemaster instructor his open water course! So indirectly, we joked, Sebastian had actually taught me to dive and would be held accountable for any and all mistakes on the trip.
And then we hopped on the boat for the hour-long journey to Coiba. That boat ride was the very reason we decided to go for a multi-day trip rather than return to Santa Catalina each night — that, and sleeping on an uninhabited tropical island didn’t sound awful. I felt my stomach tighten on the way out though — did we have everything we needed? Would my wetsuit be warm enough? Did I remember my camera charger? Had we packed enough snacks? These are pressing concerns when you’re headed off the grid for four days.
The trip would include three dives per day for a total of twelve dives. At our first dive site, Wahoo, I braced myself for what might be ahead. We were there in peak season for divers, when whale shark spottings are most common, and this dive site in particular is known for them. But while Pacific currents’ nutrient-rich waters attract migrating pelagics, they also bring chilly thermoclines and reduced visibility.
The rumors were true: the visibilty wasn’t great and the water was very cold. And whale sharks eluded us. But we did spot some strange rays, several morays, and about a billion white-tip reef sharks. We also found two different frogfish — this rare species is abundant around Coiba and yet I never stopped marveling at them. Despite the lack of pelagics, we surfaced smiling.
If we were feeling a bit euphoric after that dive, we almost spun of the planet with happiness when we saw where we’d be spending our surface interval. It was only the most stunning beach in the history of the world, one of hundreds of abandoned stretches of sand around Coiba. I was actually kind of sad when it was time to head off to our second dive site.
If I had known what was ahead, I wouldn’t have been so reluctant to leave the beach. Our second dive site, Don Juan, turned out to be one of my top three of the trip. The visibility was amazing, and I doubled up on wetsuits which made the 75-80°F temperatures much more pleasant.
But even good visibility is fairly worthless if there’s nothing to see. There I was, innocently photographing a seahorse and thinking it was a pretty pleasant dive, when I turned around and swam straight into one of the largest schools of fish I’ve encountered anywhere on the planet. I absolutely lost myself in the moment, watching mesmerized as this heaving group of thousands of jacks moved as one entity. It was a magical dive.
Post-dive, still giddy with excitement at all we had already seen, we made our way to our new home for the next four days. Coiba National Park has a small ranger station set up on Isla de Coiba — it’s the only human settlement within the park limits. Fascinatingly, at least one of the park rangers is an ex-inmate who didn’t want to leave when the colony was dissolved. The lodging on offer is simple, just a few cement blocks of eight beds to a room and shared cold-water facilities. But personally I wouldn’t want it any other way — the basic digs naturally keep the crowds thin, and meant we had our backyard beach pretty much to ourselves.
Though I was disappointed to later learn that small cruise ships occasionally dock up at the island and dominate the small stretch of sand, it is still refreshingly undeveloped. Tourist infrastructure is completely undeveloped meaning almost anyone who sets foot on the island is on a tour of some kind, whether a diving trip, a fishing charter, or a snorkeling expedition.
As we unpacked and enjoyed lunch, we got acquainted with some of the island’s wildlife, namely the prehistoric-looking vultures that were perpetually lurking nearby. Sadly the island’s resident 10-foot crocodile, Tito, would elude us throughout the trip.
Despite the relaxing settling, this is actually a fairly fast-paced trip. It felt that as soon as we docked we were turning around again to head out on the third dive of the day.
Our third dive site was Iglesia, which I was thankful to hear is known for its lack of currents. We descended down to 120 feet but there was a freezing thermocline and awful visibility, so we headed for the shallows. There, we were rewarded with sightings of more frogfish, another seahorse, a shy octopus, and our first turtle of the trip.
On the short ride back to Isla de Coiba, dolphins leapt and played in our wake. Dinner was waiting for us back at the station, and I once again marveled at how delicious and beautifully presented the food was — I had kind of been expecting ramen noodles heated over a small fire, and here I was getting gourmet! It turns out our cook was none other than the wife of Scuba Coiba’s owner and founder. I told her if she cooked like that for me, I’d probably marry her too.
It’s not really hyperbole to say that on that night, I collapsed with exhaustion. Three challenging dives combined with an early wake-up call and hours of sun exposure equaled one sleepy girl. But as I slept I dreamed of the adventures ahead — our time on this little island gem in the Pacific had only just begun.
Had you ever heard of Isla de Coiba before this post? Stay tuned for Part II!
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.
These pictures look absolutely amazing – and make me want to learn to dive! What an incredible diving experience. How did you get started? Did you ever/do you ever feel claustrophobic when diving?
You’ll feel a lot of things, but claustrophobia isn’t one of them. There really isn’t a sense of being ‘inside’ anything. The feeling is the opposite – that you’re unrestricted and free to move in all directions. Except backwards. I’ve tried.
I’m not an instructor, but have seen a lot of students in their first moments. People like you who have the criteria of a) fascination, b) interest and c) a bit of trepidation usually take about 10-15 seconds tops to get over it. You’ll start rib-deep in a pool. Within a 30 seconds you’ll want to be in the deep end, and within a minute you’ll want to be on a boat, and within 30 minutes, on a plane to Coiba.
Wes said it better than I could. People bring up claustrophobia all the time as a reason they haven’t tried diving but I’ve never once heard a person who’s actually given it a go mention it!
Thank you! Wes and Alex, any tips on best (but budget-friendly) places to learn to dive? Heading to SEAsia and Central/South America over the next year. Not planning much, but thinking this might be a necessity.
Utila in Honduras and Koh Tao in Thailand are two of the cheapest and most popular places in the world to learn to dive. You can find plenty of posts on both in my archives 🙂
It sounds and looks absolutely amazing!
Didn’t even know I missed diving that much until I saw your fantastic pictures, but now I’m ready to book a flight ticket right away so I can go diving somewhere again..
Can’t wait for the next part!!
I have so many photos for this one I think it’s going to be a three-parter! Amazing because at the end of the trip I told Anders all my photos were awful and I couldn’t use a single one. Ha.
Great story, great pics. Looking forward to Part Dos.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.
I think you’ve got me convinced to head to Panama on our next trip (we were between Panama and Ecuador)… loved the frog fish! I also had a similar experience with a school of small barracuda when getting my OW in Koh Tao. It truly was magical!! One of those rare times when you just forget about everything else completely. Unfortunately, no pics for me since we were still in training and I couldn’t really focus on anything besides buoyancy!
Ah, I’m glad you’ve made your decision! 🙂 You’re going to love Panama! And now you’ll get a chance to grab some underwater photos!
Oh my gosh when I got to the end of the post I was like “Nooooooo it can’t be the end. I need to read more!” Looking forward to the next installment.
Ha, that’s a good note to end on! The good news is there is plenty more coming 🙂
OH MY GOD! I’m so envious my stomach actually knotted by about the time we got to that crystal clear water. Contemplating an unsubscribe x
Don’t you dare 🙂 I know the feeling though. I really can’t read blog posts about Southeast Asia and definitely not ones about Koh Tao… they make me want to throw up.
I was secretly hoping it was terrible because I didn’t get to go with you guys here. DAMMIT!!! I want to see a frogfish SO bad… still on the ol’ diving bucket list. This was a great look at the area – my friends who went took a couple GoPro videos and said it was “awesome”, so I really appreciate the detailed lowdown!
Ha… were those friends male? That’s the kind of intel I usually get out of that gender. Well it wasn’t terrible (duh I mean look at those photos!) but there were challenges, and you’ll hear all about them coming up!
Yay a dive post! My fave of yours!!! I can’t get over the seashores, looooove them! Lucas just bought a GoPro and we’re both hooked!
Awesome! Can’t wait to see what you can do with it! These were actually all taken with my Canon point and shoot but I’ll share Anders’ GoPro video from the trip later on!
We have never heard of Isla de Coiba before. Beautiful photos, and the beach looks incredible! We are still baby divers, but hoping to become pros one day. Love the vulture, and glad you didn’t have a run in with Tito 😉
We were actually obsessed with spotting Tito! We’d seen photos of him and he’s a beast! Whenever I couldn’t find Anders I would always eventually see that he was back over at the bay, looking out forlornly for Tito, ha.
33 species of sharks? OMG, you are one brave woman. I could have never even tipped my toes in these waters knowing that. 🙂 The beaches look stunning though. I would have felt very much at home there.
I have gotten much more comfortable with sharks over the years but there are three I do not want to see without a cage between us — great whites, bulls, and tigers. Eeek!
I’m so scared of sharks but I love your diving posts!
Thanks Diana! I’ve spent a lifetime being terrified of sharks — I still am, in a lot of cases! But I’m also addicted to the ocean, so it’s an interesting mix 🙂
Oh girl, this looks amazing! The photos are just gorgeous and I’m really lapping up all your diving posts at the minute- ready for the summer. If I had packed enough snacks or not would seriously be one of my concerns too. You should see the amount of stuff I bring for something like a 1 day hike 🙂
Ha, luckily they fed us extremely well but I always have hunger panic, you know… the panic of being hungry. It’s led to some interesting decisions over the years, like making Anders carry a full tray of banana bread up Mount Rinjani.
I’ve heard of the Coiba but never knew what the hype was about. Now I do! Your pictures are amazing and I can’t wait to see the ones from your next dives.
Thanks Taylor! I had never heard of Coiba before deciding to head to Panama so I was really wowed!
Oh my goodness — how incredibly beautiful. i know I have said a bajillion times I would never scuba dive, but this trip to Coiba … if I could just get over my fear, there is an entire underwater universe that I know I would fall in love with. What an amazing experience. And that school of fish — WOW!
You’d go mad D, there are so many fishy friends down there waiting to meet you 🙂
You make me want to go to Panama with all these posts and pictures!! I love the diving ones especially!
Well, I keep waiting for my royalty check from the Panamanian tourism board… 😉 Just kidding. I loved it there and want everyone else to love it too!
reading this post, I started thinking about my English view of South America and how your blog is challenging that. Isla de Coiba looks fascinating. I think the main thing we see about it, here in the UK has to do with drug smuggling, gun running, villans and murder!
I would be interested in if you have had, experienced the negative side as projected by the media and the movies. Oh and can’t wait to hear more about the fabulous diving – sharks- Yeh!!
That’s interesting to hear, Janice. I would say certain countries definitely get bad PR like that in the US — Mexico, Venezuela, etc. have a lot of people afraid to go lately. But in Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica I didn’t experience anything negative that would make me warn someone off going, other than perhaps long bus rides in Peru and high prices in Costa Rica 🙂 I did feel uneasy in certain parts of Ecuador as I’ve written about but that aside I felt completely safe and comfortable traveling throughout the region.
One thing that I think is quite universal in Latin America is a sense of machismo. When I was alone I got some unwanted attention that mysteriously disappeared when Anders was by my side, but I never felt threatened by it — just annoyed.
Thanks for taking the time to reply Alex. I wonder if you would be interested in writing a blended post with me about this. From my English perspective and your American experience. What do you think? We could publish jointly
Hey Janice, feel free to shoot me an email!
Such a fun post to read! It makes me want to take “get my dive masters” off my bucket list and move it to the smaller “reminders” list on my iPhone. I don’t know why I keep putting it off. I finally made a goPro video on my post about Holi . 90% of the footage was unusable but it was still fun and i’m excited to start using it more. You and anders seem to have it down!
Have you posted that yet? Going to Holi is on MY bucket list! 🙂 Actually though all these photos were shot with my Canon. Anders just did video with the GoPro, which I’ll be sure to share later!
Yeah, I posted it! Just search “holi” on my site or scroll down a bit! or on youtube you can type “crazy holi goa” and it’ll come up in the top 3 🙂
Alex, Whenever you do a diving post I question my steadfastness never to do it…claustrophobia! So, I’ll stick with the snorkel and the steak!
Hey Corinne, check out Wes’s reply about claustrophobia elsewhere in the comments… he sums it up better than I could!
Jeez. That’s some fish right there.
When are we diving together again?
It all looks incredible, however those pictures of the Frogfish are particular faves! 🙂
I’ve never seen quite so many! We were in frogfish heaven 🙂
Love those frogfish! Funny how the food isn’t too bad whenever you’re on a boat. Either they don’t like eating substandard food or everything just tastes better at sea
Well we were definitely starving after three dives in a day, but I do think they were also amazing chefs. I mean, did you see the presentation of the homemade passionfruit sauce?! Amazing.
+ 1, the frogfish picture is amazing. Is it easy to find deep walls there and have you seen any monofin or guy going down and up a rope without tank?
Thanks Alex! We didn’t see anyone freediving on this trip but really there was barely anyone in the park. There is a freediving school over on the other side of Panama in Bocas del Toro!
This is one of the most exciting posts of yours that I read. I was seriously hoping halfway through that it would all be in one post. Can’t wait to read the next one!
Thanks Rekha, that’s a great compliment to get! Would have been nice to have it all in one post but I just had way too many photos to share 🙂 And now we get to spread out the fun…
Frogfish and Whitetips and Seahorse OH MY!
Sounds like a great place to spend a few days. Looking forward to the rest.
Definitely should be on any diver’s bucket list! 🙂
I didn’t dive when I was in Panama but now that I do I kinda want to go back!
I’m the same way about Belize. I was only a snorkeler back then… must return!
Wow! I cannot believe those frog fish! What an incredible place, can’t wait to hear about the rest. Would you say it’s ok for a newbie, or only for the experts?
I would say this is a trip for advanced divers. Certain dives would be fine for someone newer but you just never know what the currents are going to be like on a certain day and overall it is quite exhausting. I think the most diving experience you have the more you’ll enjoy it!
spectacular post, alex!! kinda makes me wish i wasn’t such a scaredy cat who only sticks to snorkeling. esp love the giant neon yellow guy (the frog fish??) & the giant school of fish shots but if this were a “photo of the week” post, you’d end up driving everyone crazy b.c. picking a favorite is totally impossible!
Ha, thanks Becky! You can see some amazing stuff snorkeling (I still do it often!) but there is nothing like being eye to eye in my books. Maybe one of these days I will convince you to try!
Soooo pretty! It’s been over 6 months since I was last in the water diving so I am missing it viscerally. Loved vicariously diving with you, though glad I was tucked up under my comforter and not experiencing any thermoclines! 🙂
I feel you — I won’t be diving again until July most likely! It’s nice to relive these ones in the meantime 🙂
For real with all those fish? Why have Scott and I never dove Panama again? These photos are making me feel all warm inside as I sit in my frigid (OK, 60-degree though still not 80s) home office.
I had never even heard about diving on the Pacific side of Panama until we decided to go! Weirdly I had heard about diving on the Caribbean side, which I found really meh.
Gorgeous pictures! That school of jacks is unbelievable!
Thanks Ang! And hey, did you used to have a Gravatar? It isn’t showing up anymore if so!
So jealous of the frogfish. Would love to see one of those someday. Not sure I’d be able to spot it myself though!
I saw my first one diving in Maui and I was like WUT IS THAT. They are such bizarre creatures. I can’t get enough of them!
This looks like an incredible experience. The school of jacks is unbelievable! Thanks for sharing your photos.
You’re so welcome Grace! Isla de Coiba felt like such an adventure… I absolutely loved it.
Amazing pictures! What kind of camera did you use under the water?
Hey Katrina, check out my obsessions page for all the low-down on my camera gear — there’s links at the top of my site, the end of this post and in the sidebar 🙂