I woke up on our fourth and final day in Coiba National Park feeling a mixture of sadness and excitement. These forced off-the-grid experiences are good for me, and I felt a twinge of heaviness at the thought of returning to the machines that run my life (as in, my Macbook and my iPhone). I mean, I had spent the last four days writing with — get this — a pen and paper.
Yup, life on that island was a nice escape for a while. But I didn’t have much time to reflect because as usual, we were late for a dive. This day would be structured a bit differently than the others. Our first dive would be at a site close to the ranger station so we could return back immediately after to pack up and clear off the island. Next, we’d head back to Wahoo, a dive site between Coiba and Santa Catalina most notorious for whale sharks. We unanimously voted to double dive the site, increasing our chances of spotting the giant fish. Between those two dives we’d have lunch in one of the coves, and after the third we’d head back to Santa Catalina.
So for our first dive of the day we returned to Iglesia, a nice calm dive site with plenty of fish to play with.
While the turtle, eels and lobster we saw on the first half of the dive were excellent, the second half kind of blew it away with sightings of some feisty harlequin shrimp and, though I was unable to get a photograph that did it justice, a juvenile frogfish hiding in some bright yellow coral. You could feel the energy in the water — we had high hopes that this was our lucky day.
Back on Isla de Coiba, we said a sad farewell to the island that had so generously hosted us for the past few days. She’s kind of a beauty, right? As we pulled away from the shore, we waved to another group of divers pulling in. They had just been to Wahoo. There were whale sharks.
And we were off to find them ourselves. Or so we thought.
As we approached the dive site, I heard our dive guide Sebastian mutter “Uh oh…” and I followed his eyes out onto the horizon. There I saw two boats — one, one of the largest and flashiest yachts I’ve ever laid eyes on, and two, a military boat full of unsmiling soldiers heading straight for us. We slowed as they approached. “No diving here today,” they called out in Spanish. “But why?,” asked Sebastian, though he never got an answer. The confrontation went on for a tense five minutes or so. While I was dying to take a photo, something told me to hold back. While we were asking completely logical and fair questions, I looked at the soldiers’ faces and saw that no amount of reasoning or logic would get us onto that dive site. No amount of pleading, no amount of explaining that the customers in our boat had paid almost $900 to be here and tourism is kind of an important industry in Panama, no amount of showing permits that stated we were licensed to dive this site, none of it was going to work. “Do you understand Spanish?,” one of the uniforms sneered at Sebastian. “No puede, no puede, NO PUEDE.”
When we finally admitted defeat and pulled off the site, I looked up and saw tears in the eyes of a few of my fellow divers. It was pretty awful, knowing whale sharks were lurking below us but being barred from entering the water without explanation. Sebastian tried to cheer us up as we scrambled to make a Plan B, but it was a tough crowd. We half-heartedly entered the water at Faro, a nearby dive site, and it would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic — it was the worst dive of the trip. No whale sharks to be seen — or anything else, really. I didn’t take a single photo, and later one of the women on the trip told me she was so bored she was considering signaling low on air just so it would end! And then, yet another comical-in-retrospect-but-not-at-the-time turn of events: as our boat came to pick us up, they excitedly showed us cell phone photos of the whale shark they had seen from the surface while we were underwater. Great.
We headed to a nearby cove for a surface interval and lunch and we were just about the crankiest, most deflated group you’ll ever find on a paradisaical tropical island. While we ate, the crew filled us in on the gossip they’d picked up over the radio — the mega-yacht that was on top of the dive site? It belonged to Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, and his son was using it that day to spearfish on top of a dive site within a national marine park. The military boat that had approached us was the equivalent to the secret service. My jaw dropped. I tried to imagine this scenario playing out in the US — Sasha and Malia Obama picking off wild bald eagles with shotguns from within Yosemite National Park while the secret service shooed away hikers. Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’d hear about that.
We decided to give Wahoo one more try — we couldn’t not. We held our breath as we pulled around the corner to the dive site, and let out a cheer when we saw on open buoy line. I’ve never seen a group gear up faster — we were determined to get underwater before we were chased off again.
The dive was shaping up to be another bummer one. Other than a school of mobula rays in the distance, we hadn’t seen a single thing through the murky water. After fifty minutes, Sebastian turned around and gave us a signal — time for a safety stop. And then I saw it.
Out of the blue behind him emerged a school of small white dots — what kind of fish were those? And then my heart started pounding as my brain started to comprehend what was happening. It was a whale shark, coming to save our dive at the last dramatic moment! After all the drama and tension of the day, I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so loudly into my regulator. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I told the whale shark, as he passed so close our fins could touch.
We could not have asked for a better conclusion to our amazing four days in Coiba.
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Media coverage and travel information about Coiba is still scarce — you’ll receive a lot of curious looks even from other hardcore divers when you mention its name. Yet this very unexplored area is part of the same Pacific chain that links diving bucket list destinations like the Galapagos and the Cocos Islands! Now, since there is so little practical information out there about diving in Coiba National Park, I want to provide some insight for those hoping to join a multi-day expedition themselves. All trips into the park depart from Santa Catalina, where dive operations are based.
The cost of a four-day diving trip with Scuba Coiba is $860 7% tax and includes twelve dives, three nights of accommodation, and all very delicious meals (minus breakfast on the first day and dinner on the last) including wine at dinner. There is a national park fee of $20, and rental gear is an additional $15 per day. You can add on a day of non-diving guided tours (kayaking, hiking, etc.) for $195 per person, or additional days of diving for $210 per person. One, two, and three day trips are also available.
Note that there will be a significant surcharge for credit cards — it is best to arrive in Santa Catalina with enough cash to pay off your balance, as there are no ATMs in town. Also bring enough for a decent tip. In our group there were two chefs, a dive guide and two boat boys. We tipped $80 each in total — I actually wish I had tipped a bit more once I realized how large the crew was, but I was almost out of cash.
• Bring dive gloves. My hands were sliced open by rocks we were told to cling to in the currents on a few different divers, and the cuts were very painful.
• I would prefer a briefing and instructions to be done the night before the trip rather than the morning of departure. Be sure to ask the dive ship for details on what and how to pack ahead of time so you’re prepared for the first day’s early call time.
• This is my own fault for not researching better, but I didn’t realize that we wouldn’t see Isla de Coiba’s penal colony on the trip. It is possible to do, but you need to request it ahead of time and pay a separate fee. There is also an option to hike or kayak for a full or half day, which I think would be a nice way to break up all the diving. If you’re interested in any of those options, be sure to discuss it with your dive shop when booking.
• Prepare to be exhausted! Three challenging dives per day are exhausting and our land time consisted almost exclusively of sleeping, napping, and dozing on the sand. I wish I had pushed myself a bit more to take more photos of the island, and of our group (I so regret not having a single one of our crew!)
• Prepare to be guided. I was kind of surprised at first by how strict our dive guide was considering how experienced our group was (among eight customers there were two instructors and two divemasters!) but once I experienced how rough the conditions could be I understood. Experienced divers, you may not be used to having a dive guide chastise you for straying from your buddy — but in this case there is a good reason.
• Come ready. Obviously, being an uninhabited island, there are not going to be any gift shops on Isla de Coiba. My underwater camera was on its last legs on this trip (in fact, it died about two weeks later) and I was so nervous about having no backup if it gave out mid trip! Stock up on batteries, snacks, and whatever else you might need while going off the grid.
What’s the Accommodation Like?
You’ll sleep at the ANAM station on Isla de Coiba. There are eight beds to a room with a single shared bathroom and a cold water shower. Rooms are basic but you won’t be spending any time in them. Electricity is turned on only at night Surpringly, air conditioning is available though our group elected to turn it off as it was truly freezing.
About Scuba Coiba
When the founder of Scuba Coiba, Herbie Sunk, first arrived in Santa Catalina in 2003, there were no paved roads and boats needed almost three hours to get to Coiba. They were the very first dive shop to open — in fact, the other dive shops now in operation in Santa Catalina are run by former employees or customers of Scuba Coiba.
Why dive with them? They focus on multi-lingual and international instructors to match their diverse clientele — our group of eight was from five different countries! And they have a long time, loyal local staff — their main captain has been there since 2005.
Though we were unable to experience it ourselves as it was out of the water for repairs, Scuba Coiba’s Orca is the only boat in Santa Catalina with a cabin in front. Having done the trip in a small open boat (the type the other dive shops use) I can attest to how nice it would have been to have a center rack for tanks and a place to shelter ourselves from the sun!
We had a great experience with Scuba Coiba (did I mention the food was really good?) and I highly recommend them.
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And to sign off on this journey, I’m sharing another one of Ander’s fantastic videos. These were super tough conditions for a GoPro so kudos to him for making it work. Whale shark footage within!
Thanks for coming to Coiba with me, guys! Do you think you’d ever go yourselves?
Many thanks to Scuba Coiba for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.
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Curious about my underwater photography setup? Check out my Obsessions page for information on my camera gear, editing programs and more.