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Panama, in the indigenous dialect means an abundance of fish and early settlers were not wrong, because hundreds of marine species can be found there, including bottlenose dolphins, orcas and whale sharks. Five sea turtle species call Panama home.The country is a diving paradise, with the Caribbean islands and extensive coastline to the north and several archipelagos on the Pacific side. Best of all, you can even dive on both sides the same day, due to the narrowness of the Isthmus.
The country’s biodiversity is incredible. It hosts one of the most complex ecosystems on earth: primal rainforests, pristine beaches and high cloud-shrouded mountains. These are the best places to dive according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) website.
- Coiba National Park, Pacific side – A national park since 1992, this protected area hosts abundant marine life. The largest island in the park, Coiba, is encircled by coral reefs and supports diverse tropical underwater life. More than 700 fish species have been recorded here, including snappers, barracuda, amberjack, and marlin.
- La Viuda, Pacific side – This massive pinnacle attracts large fish schools. It rises from the depths to within 10 metres/33 feet of the surface. It’s an exposed dive site and currents can be strong, but big snappers, jacks, tuna, sharks and sometimes whale sharks and manta rays make the dive worthwhile.
- Pearl Islands (Las Perlas), Pacific side – The Pearl Islands lie in the Gulf of Panama and Contadora Island is the primary access point for many dives sites. Various rock formations and coral outcrops characterize the diving where butterfly, angel and parrotfish dodge reef sharks. Needless to say, pearl oysters are not uncommon.
- Bocas del Toro, Caribbean side – The Bocas del Toro archipelago is dotted with reef after coral reef and bathed in calm, warm waters. Colorful soft coral and sponges house a variety of macro life such as cowries, arrow crabs, nudibranchs and more. Keep an eye out for nurse and reef sharks, spotted eagle and manta rays and large schools of jacks and snappers patrolling the reef edges.
- Portobelo National Park, Caribbean side – This park includes stunning beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and mangrove swamps along with many excellent dive sites. It’s a staggeringly diverse ecosystem with several types of sea turtle, including the endangered hawksbill, and more than 50 coral species. Caribbean reef fish species delight divers and moray eels poke their heads out of the reef.
- Gatun Lake, Panama Canal – This lake makes for a unique diving experience. Formed by the installation of the Panama Canal, you can see remnants of a railroad, abandoned dredges and the remains of flooded villages. Peacock bass thrive in the warm waters as well as tarpon and snook. You’ll also hear ocean-going vessels rumbling in the nearby Panama Canal.
Visit www.padi.com for further information.
Visibility – Varies from 15-30 metres/50-100 feet, depending on the site and prevailing conditions. Pacific coast visibility is a bit less, depending on the season.
Water Temperature – The water averages 26°C/78°F in winter and 28°C/83°F in summer, however the Pacific coast water temperatures can drop lower at depth.
Weather – Dive conditions are excellent all year in Panama. The tropical climate has little seasonal variation. Early morning air temperature may be 24°C/75°F and the afternoon reaches 29°C/84°F, seldom exceeding 32°C/90°F. Temperatures on the Pacific side are somewhat lower and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country.
Featured Creatures – Humpback whales are most frequently spotted in July through September. In the Pacific, upwelling brings in large numbers of pelagics, such as manta rays, stingrays, tuna, amberjacks and whale sharks. Look for sea turtles and the full compliment of Caribbean reef denizens.
Recommended Training – Take the PADI Drift Diver course to prepare for drifting along the many walls and drop offs on the Pacific side. The PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy course will help you stay off the coral on the Caribbean side. The PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course will allow you to get great shots of all the marine life that you see on both sides.
There are several companies that offer diving packages in the Atlantic and the Pacific sides of the country.