Panama Dive Center offers full day trips to Coiba National Park with 2-3 dives, lunch, beach stops & snorkeling options included – find out what to expect with the only 5* PADI dive shop in Santa Catalina, Panama!
Panama Dive Center Location
Panama Dive Center is located on the main intersection in Santa Catalina, which has the nearest infrastructure for visiting Coiba National Park.
Coming from Rancho Estero, Panama Dive Center will be straight ahead at the end of the road.
Panama Dive Center Dive Sites
Each day, Panama Dive Center makes the journey to Coiba National Park for either 2 or 3 dives depending on the weather & preferences. The boat departs roughly 8:30 am & returns around 4:30 pm, since Coiba National Park is so remote. Individual dive sites can’t be requested since the conditions change daily.
We here at DIY Travel HQ originally tried to go to our divemaster’s favorite spot, but the conditions were subpar when we arrived. Whereas the three sites we did dive at had visible bottoms from the boat, the original site was murky.
This was partially due to timing as Santa Catalina was experiencing larger than normal waves for surfing during our visit. That being said, each dive site still had good visibility above the thermocline.
Getting Ready to Dive
One of the big differences we found with Panama Dive Center was their perfect balance of structure & relaxedness. Few dive shops are able to find the correct balance, but staff here embrace the fact that diving at Coiba National Park will take the entire day, so there’s no need to rush.
We originally notified Panama Dive Center that we wanted to go diving the day before, filled out the paperwork, verified our PADI certification online, & tried on all gear (except the wet suit).
This made it very easy when we arrived back at Panama Dive Center the next morning at 7:30 am. We double checked everything, handed over anything we wanted to 100% remain dry, & then waited for our briefing at 8 am.
Please keep in mind that you will also need:
- A copy of your passport
- Extra $20 for Coiba National Park registration
Even though they didn’t know the dive sites yet, our divemaster Sophie made sure we were prepared for the worst. She let us know how to handle the different currents we could experience, naturally buddied up with our significant others, & what to expect on the trip out to Coiba National Park.
One part we appreciated was going over the available species in the area with hand symbols before going in the water. It is difficult enough to communicate under the water, but especially when you don’t speak the same language or know what you are looking at.
After the briefing we gathered all our personal dive equipment, and started walking to the speed boat. Besides the normal gear, Panama Dive Center also included the rental of a dive computer so each diver had a little more flexibility for their dive.
You no longer had to stay at the same level as the divemaster the entire time as your Nitrogen was individually accounted for.
Boat Ride to Coiba National Park
The boat ride from Santa Catalina to Coiba National Park took between 60-90 minutes. This was in a speed boat so you understand how far away the dive sites are located, & why the dives are more expensive than other areas in Panama. Along the way we spotted several dolphins playing in the water, & lots of smaller islands just offshore.
As I mentioned before, our first intended dive site had poor visibility so we went instead to Faro on Isla Canales. The boat crew set up all our gear and we entered the water one by one doing a back roll. Once everyone was safely in the water & did a buoyancy check, we descended.
Dive site #1: Faro in Coiba National Park
Our first dive with Panama Dive Center was at Faro around Isla Canales, & was the better of the two that we visited based on the variety & abundance of sea life.
Each dive has a prescheduled dive time of 45 minutes regardless of remaining air. This helps maintain a schedule & reduces the 2nd surface interval if anyone is taking advantage of the 3rd dive for only $20 more.
During the dive the most impressive sighting was a school of a dozen Whitetip Reef Sharks. There were also several more sightings later in the dive, but not in this quantity.
We also saw several Moray Eels, Garden Eels, Diamond Stingrays, Eagle Ray, Puffer Fish, NeedleFish, Starfish, Snapper, Big-Eyed Jacks & other common fish.
Surface Interval #1
Our first surface interval was spent on an secluded beach, which was great compared to a rocking boat for an hour. Panama Dive Center provided water & pineapple to make sure we stayed hydrated for our 2nd dive.
Depending on your interest, you can go for a swim, tan on the beach, or race hermit crabs like we did! Simply draw a circle in the sand, have everyone participating pick their speedster, place them in the middle, & watch them go…or not…
Although you may think that larger hermit crabs have an advantage, sometimes they don’t even get started before the race is over, so if you’re feeling competitive, we recommend choosing a smaller crab 🙂
Dive Site #2: Bajo Pinon Dive Site in Coiba National Park
On our 2nd dive, we visited the Bajo Pinon dive site in Coiba National Park with Panama Dive Center. We started off seeing Whitetip Reef Sharks & a large Stingray. This was followed up by a Needlefish, Moray Eel, & schools of reef fish.
One of the amazing aspects to diving in Coiba National Park was the dramatic thermocline. You could literally see the difference in water temperature as it mixed and created hallucinogenic waves. The difference was as much as 7° C.
Surface Interval #2
For our 2nd surface interval we went to Coiba National Park headquarters for lunch. Panama Dive Center offers all divers a sandwich: choose from curry chicken, ham & cheese or vegetarian.
You also have time to visit the on-site museum, look for the pink Crocodile (sadly due to a disease), or take a walk to the lookout. It’s just the right amount of time to enjoy the immediate area.
Snorkeling Isla Frijoles at Coiba National Park
Depending on conditions & how you are feeling, you can add a 3rd dive for $20 more. Panama Dive Centre brings an extra tank if you are unsure, & can pay when you return.
Although a great deal, we still prefer 2 dives when given the option. If no one wants to dive then you return to Santa Catalina. Otherwise, those not diving can snorkel during the 45 minute dive interval.
During our snorkel we saw a fellow diver completing his 100th dive, but still with clothes on?! He didn’t realize you are supposed to dive naked to mark the centennial or maybe he was just shy…
The sea life we saw were Whitetip Reef Sharks, Juvenile Damsel Fish, Parrot Fish, Moorish Idol, & a Green Turtle that almost swam right into me. I must have been so stealthy snorkeling that he didn’t realize I was there.
It was a breathtaking moment.
Return to Santa Catalina & Wrap-Up
After a full day diving & snorkeling, the boat ride back to Santa Catalina was very quiet as everyone was tuckered out. The waves were still mild despite heavy surf in town. Regardless, if you get sea sick consider taking a pill in advance to prevent any issues.
Once we returned to Santa Catalina we grabbed our key dive gear & headed back to Panama Dive Center. After verifying everything was returned, it was time to fill out the log books. Since we had an idea what to expect before diving, it made identifying the fish & sea life that much easier using the identification sheets.
We all sat around with beers, getting to know each other a little more & chatting about the events of the day – it was the perfect way to end an awesome day of diving in Coiba National Park!
Know Before You Go
Location: Main Street, Santa Catalina (T-Intersection in the middle of town)
Prices: 2 Dives at Coiba National Park cost $140.00 & an extra $20.00 for a 3rd dive (optional). There is an additional $20.00 required in Coiba National Park fees (along with a photocopy of your passport, can be done at Panama Dive Center)
Amenities: The dive package includes diving with a certified divemaster, equipment with dive computer, transportation, water, fruit, & sandwich. Consider bringing sunscreen & snacks to keep your energy levels up during a whole day out
Read Panama Dive Center’s Tripadvisor reviews here
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***The Final Word: Coiba National Park is acclaimed for excellent diving on the Pacific Coast of Panama. For best conditions, try to go during bad Santa Catalina surfing conditions***
Do you prefer to see large or small creatures when diving?
* We received a complimentary Dive Tour with Panama Dive Center, thank you to Sabina for hosting us. We only recommend fun, value for money activities & experiences that we believe our readers would enjoy. As always, all opinions are our own.
Visited in February 2017