Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Friends, Diving, and Whale Sharks

Whether you come to Panama for a month or 3 years, chances are that you’ll have a Panama to-do list.  Seeing ships pass through the famous Panama Canal, swimming in the tropical waters of Bocas del Toro, and sampling the world renowned coffee in Boquete are all popular activities, but with 2 years to spend, my to-do’s have been getting more and more specific.

As someone with a little more time and flexibility, I’ve been able to plan my trips around not only specific destinations, but also around the best times of the year to visit.  From once a year ferias to months long animal migration patterns, I’m happy to use my flexibility to my advantage and see a whole new side of Panama.  If you think you can see all of our little country in a week or two, you’re definitely doing it wrong!

Since neither Knoxville nor Pittsburgh is close to many diving spots, I’ve been dying to go ever since I got to Panama. After nearly 2 years of scoping out locations, prices, and marine migration timing, I finally got my chance.   For the past few months, 12 of my friends and I have been planning a SCUBA trip to dive with whale sharks and tons of other interesting marine life around Isla Coiba off the Pacific coast of Veraguas. 

Fun fact- “Ver aguas” means “To see waters” and Veraguas is the only Panamanian province that touches both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Accessible via the popular surfing destination of Santa Catalina, Isla Coiba is a national park with some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in my entire life.  To prove it, I haven’t edited any of the pictures in this post- it really is that beautiful!  Though at one point the island was home to a penal colony, the only current development on the island is a small ranger’s station and several cabins available for rent by ANAM, the environmental ministry of Panama. 

While Santa Catalina alone is worthy of a visit, we were there strictly for the SCUBA diving.  After a long day of travel, we enjoyed each other’s company and prepared for an early day of diving. 

Since most of our group was comprised of newly certified or beginner SCUBA divers, we were all a little anxious for the dives we’d be doing the next day- especially considering the dive shop’s slogan, “Sharks guaranteed!” Even though we were excited to dive with the giant but harmless whale sharks, the idea of diving with varieties that had pointier teeth was a little discomforting.

Since diving is always better in pairs or smaller groups, we separated into two boats and headed out to Isla Coiba, about an hour’s boat ride away from Santa Catalina, early the next morning.  Though I haven’t actually been diving in the ocean before (I was certified in the quarries of East Tennessee), even I feel pretty confident in saying that the diving in Coiba was incredible.  We swam through schools of hundreds of beautiful tropical fish, watched sting rays jump into the air, came within a few feet of peaceful sleeping sharks (small enough to be okay with me), and even found a seahorse bouncing around some coral! 

Even though my group didn’t actually get to see the whale sharks, we all had a great time and I would still highly recommend the area to both snorkelers and SCUBA divers, regardless of whether you can plan your trip around whale shark season J

Transportation to Santa Catalina 

Ideally, you’ll want to get a bus to Sona, Veraguas.  If you’re coming from Bocas though, you’ll need to take a bus to Santiago and then catch a Sona bus from there.  They leave about once an hour.  After arriving in Sona, walk to the Santa Catalina bus terminal (about 5 minutes down the road) and take the 4x daily two-hour bus to Santa Catalina.  The last bus leaves before 5, so make sure not to miss it!  Over all, the trip costs less than $5 each way. 

Diving around Isla Coiba

The good diving is all situated around Isla Coiba, about an hour’s boat ride away, so if you’re interested in going, you’ll definitely need to go through a diving company.  We went with Coiba Dive Center and were very happy with our trip.  Count on paying ~$150 for a 3 tank dive, all rentals and transportation from Santa Catalina included. 

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