With coasts on both the Caribbean (754 miles) and the Pacific Oceans (1,062 miles), Panama is a maritime country par excellence. Its history and economy are linked to the sea. This privileged geographic condition has generated important marine and coastal zones full of aquatic and land ecosystems like marshes, beaches and coral reefs that form incredible landscapes of submarine flora and fauna on both coasts.
The Azuero Peninsula has various luring dive areas: Isla Iguana, Punta Mala, Cam Butal, Santa Catalina, Los Frailes, and Isla Cebaco among others. The diving is somewhat similar to the other areas in the Pacific in the underwater terrain and sea life. There are no dive operations, but very virgin territory. The most important site is probably the Wildlife Refuge of Iguana Island where there are very well preserved coral reefs that can easily be observed at shallow depths, an excellent and calm site to dive.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is an ideal place to live an unforgettable scuba diving or snorkeling experience. Bocas offers countless unspoiled beaches and clear waters great for diving along fabulous live coral reefs. Remarkable is the extraordinary submarine beauty of the North and South Zapatilla Keys within the Maritime Bastimentos National Park, as well as around the waters of Punta Vieja (Old Point), Punta Hospital (Hospital Point), Donato, Crawl Cay, Stern Island, Tiger Cay, Wild Cane Cay, and Agua Oeste Cay. The scuba diving in and around Bocas can be enjoyed throughout the year, with most of the dive spots no more than one hour boat ride from Bocas Town. Water temperature is very tropical and constant, so full or even short wetsuits are not required. Water visibility varies from one dive spot to another and is always dependent on weather conditions. The months of September and October are traditionally the better months due primarily to more suitable climatic conditions. During this period there is less rain and wind, allowing for clearer water conditions.
Coiba, Panama’s largest island, was for a long time a penal colony. This factor along with its inaccessibility has helped keep its shores protected from fishermen, boaters and divers. In fact, there is still a large number of islands surrounding Coiba, where crystal waters and white sands make you feel like Robinson Crusoe. And if it is unspoiled on the top, just think how virgin it is on the bottom! Best time to visit is December through March. No dive operations are available in or around the island.
Although no formal dive operation exists, some outfitters will gladly customize a tour for your group and guide you through the area. Be prepared to see blue and deep waters, with large inquisitive fish coming at you as if you were just driftwood. It is strongly advised to secure the services of a reputable guide whenever wandering through the Darien.
For a new experience in diving, consider Gatun Lake, in the Panama Canal. Instead of fish and coral, one can see all kinds of French and American dredging equipment submerged here, including dumpsters, drills, boilers, and trains–eerie objects to find underwater.
For divers, the Perlas Islands have it all. From shallows to deep water, from coral heads to rocky drop-offs, from tiny sea wrasses to four-hundred pounder Jew Fish (large sea bass). Underwater photography and sport fishing is a must in the waters surrounding the island of Contadora. Marine sports are available for the non-diver. This is the closest diving spot to Panama City, a merely 15-minute flight or one hour by ferry.
Portobelo and Isla Grande
Portobelo, lust of pirates, harbors on its depths their galleons and mysteries. Local dive operators offer trips to Buena Ventura Island, a great spot for shallow and deep diving with an intriguing drop-off or Drake’s Island, right where Sir Francis Drake was set to rest. Divers still look for Drake’s coffin, which is perhaps totally encrusted with coral. A short boat ride can also take you to Salmedina Reef, a semi-submerged reef that took its share of wooden vessels. Not far lies Three Sisters Island with a conglomerate of underwater terrain, sea flora and fauna. Close to shore there are several dive sites totally accessible by car. Because of the rivers running into the sea, this area is known to be a haven for tarpon, a great rod-fighting fish, very impressive to see underwater. The best diving months are April, May, November and December
Moving further East from Portobelo, we find Isla Grande, a typical Antillean community with a beautiful small beach and several guest houses plus a main hotel to suit your diving and rooming needs. On its western end, a unique labyrinth of canyons offer a beautiful dive.
San Blas Islands
The famous San Blas Archipelago is comprised of more than 378 islands of coralline origin, most of them uninhabited. The Kuna Indians live and rule this paradise of white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, and palm-crammed islets. Although strict Kuna laws forbid scuba diving in their territory, avid snorkelers are welcome to explore one of the most pristine underwater sceneries in the world. The best months for snorkeling are April, May, November and December.