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Though whale sharks and manta rays had eluded us, I would rate our first day in Coiba National Park with  as a pretty solid awesome — we’d swum with a school of thousands of jacks, spotted four frogfish, frolicked on idyllic abandoned beaches, watched dozens of white tip reef sharks slink by, met a majestic turtle and a few shy seahorses, and then slept on an uninhabited tropical island shared by cheeky monkeys and one famous crocodile. Could day two possibly top it?

Diving Coiba is more like a dare than a vacation. It’s demanding diving, and you just can never know while suiting up if there’s going to be a payoff for the challenge ahead. On this day, I would experience both outcomes — my favorite dive of the trip and one that left me in tears.

Our first dive site of the day was Dos Detas. This is one of the most popular dive sites in Coiba and for good reason — the coralscapes were the lushest we’d see anywhere. One thing to note is that we only knew it was popular because our dive guide told us so. We didn’t see other divers outside of our group underwater for the entire four days. Crowded dive sites? Not on the Pacific side of Panama.

Though visibility and temperatures were low I really enjoyed this dive. The currents we manageable and we were surrounded by life including schooling barracuda, lovely lobsters, colorful sea stars, and juvenile angelfish.

And then onto what was becoming one of my favorite bits of the day — drying out between dives in an idyllic little inlet somewhere. Napping was only interrupted for scarfing down snacks while assuring each other of how many calories we had burned on such a strenuous dive.

I really loved my fellow divers in this group and one of my great regrets of the trip is I never got a group picture of all of us. It was a great group, from the Dutch couple who live on a houseboat in Amsterdam to the Swiss woman who’s family had sent her on a revival of the kind of solo backpacking trip she loved in her younger years, in celebration of her 50th birthday.

Our next dive site was Santa Cruz. This was my favorite dive of the trip sheerly for the happiness I felt while I was on it. The conditions were above average — as in, no deadly thermoclines that had me dreaming of the idea of feeling warmth again — and there was again a nice showing of healthy corals.

We came upon a lull in the dive and I started glancing at my dive computer with increasing frequency. And that’s when I saw him. The diver-sized goliath grouper floated ever closer, an anxious band of small yellow minnows dancing around him. I was so transfixed I could barely get my camera out, and those minnows didn’t make setting up a money shot any easier. It was one of the rare moments I wished I was shooting video instead of photo — the motion was simply impossible to capture in a single frame. Every diver has some fish that they are just inexplicably into. These lumbering giants are one of mine.

Just as I turned to watch the goliath grouper fade into the distance, I was startled by a busy sea turtle breezing by on the way to what I’m sure was a very important meeting. Yup — this was why I came to Coiba.

Back at the ranger station, we enjoyed another tasty meal — so good, in fact, that the island’s resident cheeky monkey population popped by to see if there were leftovers. After lunch I was heading directly for the hammock — I swear, when I wasn’t eating or underwater on this trip I was sleeping — when Anders intercepted and insisted we hike to the island’s viewpoint. I was feeling a little guilty about how little dry land exploring we had done, so I reluctantly agreed.

After a short but strenuous 30 minutes, we were staring back down at our beautiful beach. And then it was time to sprint back down, lest we miss the third dive.

In retrospect, it probably would have been best if I had missed it. Our final dive of the day, Frijoles Island, did not go well for me. Thus far, the currents had been strong but generally manageable. I knew this dive would be different before we even descended. As we geared up and entered the water one by one the currents were too strong to even swim ourselves to the buoy line — instead, one of the crew had to throw up a rope and drag us to it. I was one of the first in the water and it took all my arm strength and plenty of wincing to keep hold of the barnacled buoy line until the rest of the group was ready to go. By the time we started to descend I was already exhausted and on edge.

The descent was a brutal fight against the line, and once we reached the bottom we had to swim directly into the current in the worst visibility we’d faced so far. We were headed for the rounded corner of the pinnacle, at which point, we’d been promised, things would ease off. The force of the current was so strong that not even our experienced dive guide could swim into it — instead, our entire group was reduced to slow-motion underwater rock climbing. We’d grab a rock, use all our strength to pull our bodies forward against the raging water, rest for a moment, grab another rock while our hands were rubbed raw, and do it again. It was a perfect storm of disasters — my fingers were being sliced open by the jagged rocks I was clinging to, my mask started to fog uncontrollably while I had no hands to clear it, and I lost sight of Anders in the chaos.

My heart rate was rising, my breath shallow and rapid-fire, and tears were welling — I was having a panic attack 150 feet underwater. Thankfully I have enough experience with both anxiety and diving to know how to self-soothe even under unthinkable conditions. I made peace with the face that my vision was limited and my hands were bleeding in shark-infested waters and focused every ounce of energy I had on returning my breathing rate to normal until we got around that corner. Finally we did. Somehow I made visual with Anders, who immediately sensed something was wrong and returned to my side. I squeezed his hand with an unspoken signal — don’t let go. He didn’t, and for the remainder of the dive I stared into the blue and barely even kicked, just letting Anders guide me along while I mentally decompressed from the state I had just been in.

I came up from that dive emotionally and physically exhausted, relieved it was over, and humbled by the reminder that diving can be a dangerous and extremely difficult sport. And rather than beat myself up over being overwhelmed by incredibly challenging conditions, I’ve tried to be proud that I didn’t let my panic get the best of me, and learn from the situation.

I have just one photo from this dive, one I honestly can’t even remember snapping. It’s quite fitting though, as this bewildered little blowfish looks exactly how I felt in my catatonic state.

Diving Coiba is a dare. While I lost the challenge on that final dive of our second day, nothing could keep me out of the water for long. Stay tuned for the coverage of our final two days of the trip.

Have you ever panicked underwater? What was your most challenging dive?

Many thanks to Scuba Coiba for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

. . . . . . . .

Curious about my underwater photography setup? Check out my Obsessions page for information on my camera gear, editing programs and more.

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60 Comments...
  • Shaun
    April 3 2014

    Amazing self control. The focus you showed in spite of difficult conditions and stress shows your strength! Great job!

    All the other dives look stunning! That grouper is a bad ass. You can tell, swimming around like the king. Never seen a sea star (is it not a starfish?) like that either.
    Shaun recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Okay, so I’m not 100% up to date on my fish identification skills (I send a lot of photos to my friend Wes saying, “What the heck is this again?”) but I think seastar and starfish are interchangeable 🙂

  • The Guy
    April 3 2014

    I always enjoy your dive related articles Meihoukai and this is no exception. Your photos remain superb even with the poor visibility on the first dive.

    Looking forward to reading more of your dive adventures.
    The Guy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Thank you! They do get a lot of time in the editing room 🙂 More to come!

  • Rick
    April 3 2014

    I love your grouper photos. It’s one of my favorite sights when diving – those large goofy fish with their big lips and attitude. Kinda like a visit from a Disney character.
    Thanks for the posts on Coiba. I had never put the area on my must do list but you have changed that.
    Question: does visibility and water temp improve at other times of the year?

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Hey Rick, you can find a lot of detailed info on water temp and visibility on Scuba Coiba’s website — I’m afraid my memory might not be so accurate! January, when I was there, is actually considered the best time to go as the Pacific currents bring nutrient rich waters that attract pelagics… and, unfortunately, stir up the visibility.

  • Jamie
    April 3 2014

    I love your dive pictures so much, the Grouper looks HUGE. Good for your for descending on that last dive in the first place. I guess it was mother natures little reminder that regardless of skill and experience she’s still in charge. and at least now you know what to expect when you head into conditions like that. I probably would have panicked and waited for someone to find me…or drown…and somewhere in there pee myself.
    Jamie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Ha, well I think that’s why it is important for divers to be realistic about their skill level. I hear often of brand new divers going to the Galapagos, which has similar conditions, and having an awful time because it is all really above their heads. Which is sad, because if they had more dives under their belt beforehand they probably would have LOVED it!

  • That sounds so scary! Knowing how experienced you are at diving & then hearing that makes me a little nervous I have to admit- but I”m glad you kept cool under pressure!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Well like I said it was the perfect storm of disasters, and this is some of the most challenging diving I’ve ever done. Bad conditions can happen to anyone — you’ll just got to remember not to panic when you’re in the deep!

  • Katie
    April 3 2014

    I had a mini-panic attack once under water, and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. I thought to myself – if this really happens down here, I could die. Not being able to communicate with sound doesn’t make it any easier. I almost quit diving after that, but I’m glad I stuck it out. I’m still a newbie diver, but I think having that experience and overcoming it made me much more confident. Great shots of the grouper, I think the yellow minnows add an extra pop of color!
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      I’m so glad to hear that didn’t scare you off, Katie, and that you grew from the experience. It is amazing to learn what we are capable of! You know what they say about what doesn’t kill you….

  • MCVK
    April 3 2014

    I am enjoying every word you write about your dives and the photos are spectacular. Love that grouper – almost as big as a manatee. I hope you’re gaining a lot of fans interested in Panama – it is a paradise on Earth.

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      From the comments it seems like lots of people are learning what a special place it is — watch out for an influx of Meihoukai in Wanderland readers 🙂

  • Ron
    April 3 2014

    Sorry your last dive was difficult. Current and Depth make things hard. When diving we are all a few mistakes away from a deadly situation. You kept your head so that is awesome.

    I LOVE Jewfish {Goliath)! I see them often in Florida. They are funny and will follow you around. I enjoy the porcupine fish and all the characters. Very cool photos!

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      I have heard they are quite common in the Keys — yet another reason I want to get down there!

  • Tracy
    April 3 2014

    I had a similar dive experience when I was in Bali last year & I nearly lost my shit. 20 minutes into said dive a few of us in the dive group were holding onto a piece of rock the size of a large coffee mug trying to catch our breath & not get swept away with the current. My mask was fogged up and one of the guys in our group was holding on to my fin to keep with the group. I pulled the plug on the dive and the Dive Master was so pissed off. He said that even though I was a Rescue Diver I wouldn’t be able to rescue anyone. I wanted to punch him in the face. What I am trying to say is that I know how you feel. 🙂
    Tracy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Wow, that is so unprofessional of your divemaster to make you feel guilty for that! I’m horrified. I understand if your fellow divers do it, but not the guy who’s being paid to make you comfortable! Jeez. Glad you stood your ground.

  • tammyonthemove
    April 3 2014

    My goodness, that sounds terrifying. You are lucky to have had Anders by your side. When I went snorkelling in shark bay in the Galapagos Islands I was so on edge because I am terrified of sharks that I had to have Chris right next to me all the time too. Luckily I was only greeted by a sea lion and not a shark, even though I thought at first that it was a shark and I was peeing myself. 🙂
    tammyonthemove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      That’s why you always dive with a buddy 🙂 Sounds like you’ve instituted the same rule for snorkeling adventures! And wow, so jealous of your sea lion encounter!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    April 3 2014

    Whoa! Fantastic photos. So many fish! I, too, am a HUGE fan of the groupers–Angie and I were just talking about how hard it is for us to order grouper at a restaurant when it’s our favorite fish to see in the sea. (Though that didn’t stop me from having it one night in St. Kitts.)

    My toughest dive was when I got caught up in a bubble and shot to the service in Honolulu. Or when it was so cloudy (less than 5-foot vis) in Cabo and I was engulfed in a school of 300+ snappers that I got vertigo, lost my group and surfaced on my own. Eek! Was scary, though luckily not a deep dive.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      I remember you writing about those experiences! I would NOT enjoy surfacing alone… that would make me antsy. I am sometimes afraid to write about my negative diving experience because I don’t want to scare off new divers but I think it’s important to be honest about what goes down down under the sea!

      • Camels & Chocolate
        April 4 2014

        Please continue writing about the negative, too! As someone like me who is a semi-experienced diver but doesn’t get to do it nearly as frequently as you do, it’s comforting to hear that even professionals like yourself have scary dives =) I think it makes all of us feel better knowing that this stuff happens to everyone!
        Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

  • Jade
    April 3 2014

    Yep, it definitely sounds like diving for the more experienced! I worry I would have shot back above water in that situation!
    Seriously well done for fighting through it, you should be proud 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Well once you’re ready, Coiba will be waiting 🙂

  • Diana
    April 3 2014

    I love your diving posts and this is no exception! I had troubling OW check out dives and have found it hard to get back into finishing my certification. You’re so eloquent even when describing difficult emotional events. “Seeing” your perseverance makes you all the more relatable and gives me renewed hope for my diving future. Thank you for sharing!

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      That is so wonderful to hear Diana, you’ve made me feel a lot better about writing this post 🙂 I never want to scare new divers away from the sport but I also want them to know that it is sometimes a struggle for me too! Good luck getting back in the water.

  • Wow Meihoukai- that grouper is huge. I had no idea what a grouper was until now ha! I love the photos with the yellow fish swimming around him. I’m really impressed with how calm you remained on that final dive. When you said you ended up in tears I was a bit worried it would make me nervous about diving, but hearing how you handled the situation and came through actually made me feel better! Cheers! 🙂
    Joella J (J in Beijing) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Yay! You all have made me feel better about posting the story of the last dive. Staying mentally strong and calm is the most important skill in diving!

  • Mel
    April 4 2014

    I’m not sure what is more captivating, your photos (HOLY COW, that grouper!!!!) or the picture you so honestly painted of being at the mercy of nature at the bottom of the ocean. Thanks for sharing, happy you pulled through like a champ!

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Thanks Mel! I love writing about diving. Often in hopes of recruiting more readers into the scuba fold, but sometimes just to share a good story 🙂

  • Anne
    April 4 2014

    I want to go! Love your posts.
    I am moving to Roatán, Honduras to volunteer as a nurse and hope to get my dive cert then. I also want to blog about my experiences and would love some pointers on it all!

    Thanks for the great posts!

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Hey Anne, go for it! You should check out the blog Cubicle Throwdown by a dive instructor in Roatan — she could give you more up to date tips than I could as I haven’t been there in years! I am sure you’re going to love it though, good luck!

  • Janice Stringer
    April 4 2014

    Hi Meihoukai,
    I learnt to dive in Thailand and due to personal reasons I hadn’t even processed or realised were impacting on my life,the fear of descending is a Huge thing for me. I have persisted because I can see and feel the wonder of connecting with majesty and beauty in our underwater world but on our last dive in Tenerife, when the surface conditions had been quite challenging I inflated my BCD a little too much as we ascended and found myself being face planted into tumbling waves. There was a momentary sense of panic,which if I had let it overwhelm me, could possibly have meant I would drown – there are those moments, aren’t there – when a part of you takes over, enabling you to endure what is happening and get you back in a safe position. Thanks for the wonderful post!
    Janice Stringer recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      I think a lot of divers have to overcome some kind or fear or phobia they didn’t even realize they had when they learn to dive. That’s one of the beautiful things about it! I’m glad you pushed through yours and came out with a love of the ocean.

  • Chris
    April 4 2014

    Your underwater tales are regularly some of my favourites, possibly due to the incredible pictures.

    I must be honest however, I often find myself wishing that the black and white shots had been posted in colour! 😉
    Chris recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 4 2014

      Well, the thing is that the deeper you descend the more color you lose. So most of the time, if you see a black and white photo here it’s because the color version was basically the same thing with a green tint, which just makes me sad. If I had a flash it would be different but currently I’m shooting natural light only! I promise, you’re seeing the best version 🙂

  • MCVK
    April 4 2014

    I grew up in Panama; water safety was taught to us most emphatically starting in grade school. Yet, every year someone would overestimate their abilities or cut their timing too close, so a drowning was reported on a regular basis. We received Red Cross training every year in phys ed and even if you did not plan to get your lifeguard badge, you were taught how to rescue people. Thank you for educating everyone about the dangers that can lurk under the surface.

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      Wow that is interesting — we didn’t have anything of that nature in phys ed in Upstate New York 🙂 We did have to do a short swimming section but definitely nothing on the rescue level!

  • Anne
    April 4 2014

    Yes, I have read some Cubicle Throwdown. I was more or less referring to diving, blogging, etc. I’m pretty familiar with Roatán. :o)
    Thanks!

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      I’ve only every written one post about blogging but its a fairly recent one called “Ask Me Anything: Blogging Edition.” Hope it helps!

      • Anne
        April 10 2014

        Thank you! Enjoyed reading that.
        Anne recently posted..

  • Emily
    April 4 2014

    Well done on making it through the dive. I am completely content with checking out photos from other people’s dives and sticking with snorkelling myself 😉
    Emily recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      That’s one of the reasons I love to share 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying the view from the top!

  • Sofie
    April 5 2014

    Respect for finishing that dive!
    I’ve never scuba dived before. I’d love to learn, though, but I don’t feel like doing it here in Belgium, in our cold and dark waters.
    Sofie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      Yeah, I don’t dive where I’m from either 🙂 I think New York waters are a similar situation.

  • Jo
    April 5 2014

    Oh I have had dives like that last one! The good thing about scuba is that its easy to regulate your breath as you can’t breathe too fast 🙂
    Jo recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      You can breathe quite shallow though, which is never a good idea above or below the water! Luckily like I said I’ve had plenty of practice with breathing exercises 🙂

  • Taylor
    April 5 2014

    The third picture looks like a bunch of torpedos 😛

    glad though that you got through that third dive. I’m sure it was tough for everyone. And at least you didn’t up either!
    Taylor recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      Ha, they do look like torpedoes. They are, however, just barracudas 🙂

  • I discovered in Indonesia that I definitely prefer my diving to be of the easy/meditative variety rather than the adrenaline thrill-seeking kind. Just seeing beautiful underwater life is enough to get my pulse racing. We did a few dives in Komodo that had such crazeball currents that they were actually quite stressful at times—it’s moments like that when you’re so happy to have a good diving buddy and a great dive guide.

    All this to say that Isla de Coiba looks like one of those dive dares that would be hard to pass on. The diversity looks incredible!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      I’m definitely with you. In general I’m a chilled out diver. However sometimes those adrenaline pumping experiences are too hard to turn down — this trip most definitely included!

  • John
    April 6 2014

    Looks like a blast! Thanks for the share!

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      Very welcome John, thanks for being one of my virtual dive buddies 🙂

  • Phil @ Vacaybuddy
    April 8 2014

    Haven’t panicked, yet. Only a snorkeler at this point though. My first snorkeling experience years back was pretty awful though…. Goggles fogging and leaking while my snorkel was taking in water. NOT a good combo.
    Phil @ Vacaybuddy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 9 2014

      Ugh, leaky masks are the worst! I always bring my own snorkel set when I’m heading somewhere tropical to avoid those kind of disasters!

  • Amy M
    April 19 2014

    So sorry to hear that the last dive wasn’t ideal, but very glad to hear that it won’t be your last. I’m amazed at your amount of self control to be able to soothe yourself in such tricky conditions! Great job. I also adore that photo of the blowfish! x
    Amy M recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2014

      Thanks Amy. It’s amazing I ended up with even one photo from that dive, ha.

  • Laura
    August 10 2015

    Hello, we are supposed to be going to Coiba for snorkeling and diving next week. We are kind of freaked out by weather forecast. Is this a terrible idea this time of year?

    • Meihoukai
      August 11 2015

      Hey Laura, unfortunately I can’t comment on that — I’ve only been to Coiba once, and it was in January. I’d get in touch with your dive shop and see if they can reassure you. Sorry I can’t be of more help!