Taken from the indigenous word that means “abundance of fish”, there’s little doubt as to why Panama is a top-notch scuba diving destination. Added to this promise of many fish, Panama is unique in the fact that it presents the opportunity to dive in 2 different oceans in just 1 day as both Caribbean and Pacific waters surround Panama. To the east, divers can experience 1207 kilometres of Caribbean coastline where they’ll have the chance to dive in stunning tropical waters. On the west coast of Panama stretching roughly 1700 kilometres are the much cooler waters of the Pacific Ocean bringing along the exciting opportunity to see a number of shark species. This unique chance to dive in 2 oceans in 1 day is entirely possible as some areas are only a 2-hour car journey away from each other.
Divers can hope to discover a vibrant and exciting underwater world in the tropical, fish-filled waters of the Caribbean. Bocas del Toro in particular is the most popular area boasting plenty of protected bays where the conditions are calm and ideal for those looking for an easy, carefree dive. The white sandy beaches and tropical feel of this side of the country is highly popular with all sorts of tourists, not just scuba divers, so expect busier dive sites and bustling touristy spots. Colon is another very well-known and busy area and is just 2 hours away from Panama City. Offshore from Colon is the highly rated Portobelo National Marine Park which has a number of sunken ships and a wealth of interesting history.
Pelagic life is synonymous with this side of Panama. A number of shark species, whales, dolphins and even whale sharks can be seen in the cooler waters of the Pacific Ocean. Commonly referred to as Central America’s Galapagos, the Coiba National Marine Park boasts the second biggest coral reef system in the East Pacific.
Best Diving Destinations in Panama
With two fantastic coastlines each offering nearly entirely different diving opportunities, Panama is all about experiencing as much as possible in the time you have. Separating the most popular dive sites on each end of the country, here’s a list of the top destinations to consider for great scuba diving opportunities in Panama.
Caribbean Coast Dive Sites
The place on every diver’s mind when visiting the Caribbean side of Panama is most certainly Bocas del Toro, an island group of 9 islands fairly close to Panama’s border with Costa Rica. The archipelago includes the Isla Bastientos National Marine, a protected area that is truly magnificent. Best known for soft and hard coral species in pristine condition and prime health, Bocas del Toro is home to around 95% of all the coral species in the Caribbean.
Another national park worth mentioning on this side of Panama is the Portobelo National Park. Usually quite a busy destination thanks to its close proximity to Panama City, the park has fantastic marine life and a number of wreck sites to explore.
Also relatively close to Panama City, a dive site known as Buoy Line is well-known for its many moray eels and smaller marine life such as lionfish, sea horses and crabs. Drift diving is possible between Carenero and Bastimentos where divers can hope to spot a rare and intriguing long lure frogfish. Airport and Hospital Point are another two dive sites that have a great amount of coral species to see and are well-suited for beginners thanks to their relatively calm currents and shallow depths.
One of the top-rated dive spots in Bocas del Toro is that of Tiger Rock, especially if divers are interested in seeing sharks, dolphins and whale sharks in the stronger currents. Tiger Rock is only suitable for advanced divers with a great deal of experience and diving is only possible here when sea conditions are absolutely suitable. The 3 pinnacles are an impressive sight, rising up from depths of 40 metres or more. The nearby Dolphin Rock is a similar dive to Tiger Rock with regular sightings of sharks, rays and – you guessed it – dolphins. If you’re looking to travel even further than Tiger Rock and Dolphin Rock, ask your dive operator about Zapatillas Cays which is another worthwhile dive spot.
Pacific Coast Dive Sites
For shark enthusiasts, Coiba National Park should be your first stop when diving on Panama’s Pacific coast. Listed as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, this group of 38 individual islands offers diving of an unbelievably high standard. Coiba almost guarantees shark sightings and even boasts a wide variety of these magnificent predators, making every dive well worth it. Divers can hope to see black-tips, bull sharks, white-tips, tiger sharks and even the elusive hammerhead shark. Some of the smaller marine species that can be seen include colourful angel fish, sleepy-looking sea turtles and butterfly fish. Dolphins, mobula rays and massive schools of majestic mantas continue to add to the abundance of marine life available in Coiba, but back to the big stuff: Whale shark season is between December and April and humpback whales are common from July to October, making any of these months the perfect time to visit. It seems that marine life in Coiba all have a whale of a time, with pilot whales and orcas even coming to join the party on occasion. Liveaboard trips are without a doubt the best way to explore Coiba.
Getting to Panama
Thankfully, the paradise of Panama is not too difficult to get to. The International Airport known as Tocumen International Airport is where many of the daily international flights will land, and from there a short domestic flight to Colon or Bocas del Toro is all that’s standing in the way of you and the stunning waters of this unique location. Although some domestic flights will leave from Tocumen International, the vast majority of domestic flights to the diving hot spots such as Bocas del Toro are best reached from another airport, the Albrook International Airport which is an hour’s taxi ride away from Tocumen International.
Travelling towards the coast via road transportation is also an option either by renting a car or jumping aboard a bus, but journey times are often much longer than expected thanks to long and winding mountain roads. Catching a ferry is another reasonable option to reach Bocas del Toro.
Panama’s currency is the US Dollar, however the locals call it Balboa. Expect to hear a number of different languages as you travel the coasts of Panama including English, Spanish (the official language of Panama) and Guari Guari which is a Caribbean version of English.
Where to Stay in Panama
It’s unsurprising that dive operators are in abundance all along both coasts of Panama. There are some dive shops in Panama City that will offer scuba courses, and daily dive trips to either (or both) of the coasts, with some of them presenting the opportunity to do the 2 oceans in 1 day experience. If you’ve left any of your scuba equipment behind, a helpful local dive operator is sure to have the item you require available to purchase or rent. Some of the dive shops on the Caribbean side of Panama have branched out to offer more than just daily diving trips – try your hand at surfing, kayaking or even wakeboarding all with the help of these operators.
Accommodation options are widespread and varied – everything from budget style cabanas to premium dive lodges, hotels and resorts are available.
Although liveaboards are not as common in Panama as in other areas of the world, there are a few options and these will give divers the chance to really get the most out of all the fantastic dive spots available. These trips are usually between 7 and 14 days and will visit some of the surrounding island groups too such as the world-famous Cocos Islands and the Malpelo Islands in Columbia.
When to Visit Panama
Thanks to its close proximity to the Equator, Panama boasts a hot and very humid climate all throughout the year. Panama experiences a rainy season from May until November with temperatures as high as 32°C and high humidity levels adding to the very warm temperatures. Their dry season is from December through to April and during this time Panama experiences cooler weather, usually not dropping lower than around 20°C.
The average water temperature varies significantly between the two coasts. On the Caribbean coast of Panama, the water tends to be between 23-28°C whilst on the Pacific coast the temperature can drop as low as 15°C and only reach highs of about 24°C in the height of summer. Be sure to pack a 5mm wetsuit or even opt for a 7mm if you’re diving the deeper sites where thermoclines are common. A 3mm wetsuit or even a shorty should be plenty to keep you comfortable when diving in the Caribbean Sea.
Panama is located just outside of the hurricane belt, meaning that it escapes the majority of the heavy hurricane weather but can experience stronger-than-normal winds when a storm is brewing nearby.