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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