Scuba divers visiting Santa Catalina have two major options; Local diving within 15 minutes of Playa Santa Catalina or trips to the Coiba National Park. Both are spectacular diving, offering excellent examples of Panama's Pacific Ocean riches.
Santa Catalina Local Scuba Dives
Local trips can offer as great a variety and quantity of fish as virtually any dive site in the world. During the rainy season, visibility can be affected by run off from area rivers. Of course it is this nutrient rich run off which holds millions of fish in the near shore reefs around Santa Catalina. When this happens, it is a simple matter to switch the dive plan to include dives in the Isla Coiba National Park.
It is common for Santa Catalina scuba divers on local dives to see large schools containing hundreds of different tropical fish, crevalle jacks, barracuda, and various types of snappers. Scattered through out the reefs, are good quantities of eels, grouper, lobsters, crabs and other common reef dwellers. Visits from turtles, white tip reef sharks and nurse sharks are frequent. Depending on the dive site, the bottoms ranges from craggy volcanic rock full of rock dwellers to beautiful assortments of corals.
Experiencing a local scuba dive in Santa Catalina is highly recommended as it offers a very affordable dive that is very convenient, often returning by noon to enjoy the gentle waves of Playa El Estero or Playa Santa Catalina in the afternoon.
Isla Coiba Scuba Dives
Santa Catalina is currently the best mainland base from which to launch day scuba dive trips to Isla Coiba. With an hour to an hour and a half boat trip to Isla Coiba from the beach at Santa Catalina, time to access to the national park is cut by at least half compared to most other launching points along the Panamanian Pacific coast.
Because of the cost of park admission and extra gas and time for the boat and crew, day trips to Isla Coiba run roughly 60% to 70% more than local Santa Catalina dives. For the extra money, you are offered world class diving that has been favorably compared as a combination of the Galapagos and Cocos Islands.
In addition to the great variety and quantity of fish and coral offered in the local dives, Isla Coiba offers opportunities for viewing large quantities of pelagic, such tuna, various rays, sailfish, marlin, whales, dolphin and sharks. Surface intervals are opportunities to explore the unique wildlife and unspoiled beaches of Coiba and surrounding islands.
Another option offered from Santa Catalina is two to three day combination scuba dive and eco-tour trips to Isla Coiba. Overnights will be at the ANAM ranger station. Access to this area is very limited and arranged by reservation by your dive guide. This option provides multiple world class dives with eco-tours through one of the world’s finest virgin rainforest and all the unique plants and animals it has to offer. Still relatively unexplored and unknown even to the scientific community, Isla Coiba offers an unspoiled and uncrowded adventure available from few other places in the world.
There are two land based scuba centers in Santa Catalina:
- Scuba Coiba has the longest history in Santa Catalina and is owned and operated by Austrian native Herbie Sunk.
- The similarly named Coiba Dive Center is owned by Canadian Glenn Massingham. Glenn has extensive experience diving the areas around Coiba and Santa Catalina.
Scuba Coiba offers dives from their 25 ft dive boat “Robin.” Robin can comfortably dive up to six people. The Coiba Dive Center uses similar locally owned boats called pangas. Because these are the only dive operations based out of Santa Catalina, dives are not crowded and the dive sites are virtually unexplored, often offering the opportunity to be some of the first divers to ever see a site!
Both dive operations are very professional and safety conscience. The equipment is in good shape and they take care to make your dive enjoyable. They are located almost across the street from each other at the end of the paved road just before the beach at Santa Catalina.