Cover Story

‘Sharks guaranteed’ policy

Dive Coiba – where the wild fish are!

By Ursula Kiener Ford —
Photos courtesy Coiba Dive Center

A whale shark
A whale shark
A whale shark
A whale shark swims past.
Coiba Dive Center
A Coiba Dive Center skiff escorts divers.
A seahorse
A seahorse blends in with
its natural environment.

Coiba national park is considered one of the ten top diving spots in the world and home to the second largest coral reef in the Pacific. The best diving “to be found along the Pacific Coast from Columbia to Mexico” according to Lonely Planet.

The evolution of Coiba, a large island off Panama’s Pacific coast, from penal colony to national park and then to World Heritage Site has left most of the island and its surrounding waters virtually untouched. As a premier adventure dive site, it is just being discovered.

“You can see everything from tiny sea horses to the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark,” says Glenn Massingham, the owner of Coiba Dive Center. His operation is based at the mainland surf destination of Santa Catalina, a boat ride away from Coiba’s best dive sites.

A big sea turtle
A big sea turtle captivates divers.

Sharks and other wild fish guaranteed

“We have a ‘Sharks Guaranteed’ policy for divers doing three dives in one day,” says Glenn “sometimes there are so many fish that it is like diving in a can of sardines. At times the fish population here is so abundant you actually have to take care that you don’t bump into them!”

Depending on the season, sightings of pilot whales, orcas, dolphins, humpback whales, whale sharks and Mobula Rays are all possible. Large schools of tuna, wahoo, and other game fish can be seen all year around as well as eagle rays, barracudas, turtles and a variety of sharks like white tip, hammer head, tiger and bull.

White-tipped shark
White-tipped sharks are not dangerous, but thrilling to swim with.

Where to stay in the town of Santa Catalina

Hotel Santa Catalina
Formally known as Kenny’s Surf Camp (for those who don’t know, Kenny is a surfing legend in the town) this hotel was recently remodeled, offering very comfortable rooms in rustic luxury. The hotel offers private rooms, as well as dorm rooms. Bring a book to read since the hotel has plenty of hammocks. No Internet.

La Buena Vida
A small hotel with only three rooms, run by its owners Michelle and Mike, an American couple who moved to Panama in 2005. The owners have a passion for art which you will see everywhere in this hotel, including their lovely mosaic work. Yoga classes and massages are offered on a private deck above the hotel. Internet available.

Sol y Mar
Located at the entrance to the town, this hotel has cabins set on terraces on the slope of a hill overlooking the ocean and surrounded by tropical vegetation. The hotel has six rooms, which sleep up to four people comfortably. Internet available.

On Cebaco Island
Departing from Puerto Mutis in Veraguas, you can cross over to Cebaco Island. Special ‘all inclusive’ package trips are offered for diving, snorkeling or fishing. Host Ivan Alvarez receives guests in his cabins on this remote island.

Protected in the Pacific

Located about 30 miles off the western side of the Azuero Peninsula, an area known for being the epicenter of Panama’s folkloric traditions, Coiba National Park is made up of Coiba, 37 other islands and the waters surrounding them. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both land and sea within its bounds are protected.

The park is managed by the National Authority for the Environment (ANAM) and is accessible only by permit, which most operators will obtain for you.

Coiba travel tips:

Take cash
There are no ATMs in Santa Catalina, the nearest one is in the city of Santiago (45 min by car). Most establish- ments do not take credit cards.

Bring a cooler
Bring food and drink. Most tours to Coiba or Cebaco Island do not include lunch.

Make reservations in advance
This undiscovered spot is populated with mostly small hotels.

Leave work behind
Internet connection is slow here, so leave your work behind or go to the Internet Café located at the entrance of the town. Cell phones have service.

Diving in Coiba
Perhaps there is just a drop left.
A school of fish
A school of fish becomes a mosaic.

Even for beginners

The world-class diving at Coiba is not just for advanced divers. Beginners are welcome too. And for those not certified in diving, there are many opportunities for snorkeling.

And fishing, too

Coiba Island is also one of the best fishing spots in Panama. However one must get a permit, which is available through tour operators in the area.