Snorkelling In Coiba Marine Reserve On Panama’s Pacific Coast

On a backpacker trail that’s becoming reasonably well-trodden, Santa Catalina still felt relatively offbeat.

Many people I met dashed directly south to the San Blas Islands, leaving this small fishing town on Panama’s west coast unscathed. WiFi was only available if you bought a card, so I didn’t. My hostel had no closing door, but that was surprisingly alright. A single road led to an expansive beach where the local restaurant served the best whole fried fish I’d ever eaten.

In fact, Santa Catalina was so pleasant that I felt guilty for using it as a base for only one thing: snorkelling around Coiba Island.

Coiba had been on my travel radar for months. The island and its waters are a protected national park and marine reserve respectively. Since its days as a remote penal colony ended, all life except the human variety has thrived in Coiba. This is probably what made it the perfect opening shot for the film Jurassic Park. Yes, that’s Coiba.

Of course, this wonderful remoteness means that planning is needed to get there. With no direct local buses from David in the north and a twenty minute walk down the highway to change at Santiago, I wimped out and got a shuttle van direct from Boquete in four hours. Once in Santa Catalina, I was sorely tempted to abandon my plan entirely.

The laidback atmosphere of the place (and too much delicious fish and cold beer) had cast its spell. Maybe I could just spend a few days floating, star-fish-shaped in the calmest seas I’d experienced since landing in Costa Rica? Against all the odds I resisted temptation, and the next morning squeezed onto a boat of ten snorkellers bound for Coiba.

We followed the coast for just under an hour, reaching a tiny islet that was home to countless squawking seabirds, however we were looking below the water. I strained my eyes to catch even the slightest movement of whale sharks – earth’s biggest fish. Our guide sympathetically explained that they were somewhere close, but had probably dived deep in between feeds.

Suddenly, as if sensing our disappointment, a pod of pacific spotted dolphins began to play around the currents of our boat. Joining the show, a group of small rays leapt one by one from the ocean with palpable energy. Spirits lifted, we turned sharply into the open sea.

The national park encompasses thirty eight small islands and we snorkelled at three different spots, including the tiny islet of Granito De Oro. This mound of white sand is only held together by the outcrop of volcanic rock on its side. Each stunning area offered different life, from lurking white tip reef sharks to turtles and tiny colourful reef fish. The spots of the day were a goliath grouper getting a clean and an eagle ray that glided past so gracefully I didn’t notice him until he had almost disappeared.

Travelling between Coiba’s many islets is an adventure in itself. 
Shallow reef means brighter colours and fish that catch your eye. 
I decided to buy a budget mask and snorkel set for the trip instead of hiring them every time – it does the job perfectly!
Going down: A birdseye view of life below the water.
Abundant life at one meter deep – this is why Coiba’s a protected marine reserve.
The reef drops slowly into deeper water – a haven for large shoals of fish.
A completely harmless white tip reef shark.
A Goliath Grouper getting cleaned by smaller reef fish.
A view from Isla Rancheria – the perfect deserted lunch spot. (All photos in this post are courtesy of Hugh O’Connell)

Luckily, tourist numbers are still being limited in Coiba. As we pulled into our lunch spot – a few plastic tables under the shade of palms near the ranger’s station on the otherwise deserted Isla Rancheria – only two other small boats arrived. Wildlife still dominated, and common vultures and a CaraCara (part of the falcon family) watched us warily from above.

As we bounced back towards the mainland, the exhiliration caught up with me and I nearly nodded off. The wind had dropped and the water looked almost glassy in the late afternoon light. Pastels of sea, sky and reflections meshed together as I drowsed, stirred only occasionally by a sighting of our dolphin friends.

Despite my tiredness, the sleepy town of Santa Catalina had an extra buzz about it that night. Restaurant lights glowed a little brighter, conversation flowed and just maybe, my cold beer tasted even better than before.

5 thoughts on “Snorkelling In Coiba Marine Reserve On Panama’s Pacific Coast

  1. So magical! I really REALLY want to visit Panama – have been saying it each year for like the last 3 years but each time, something about the timing or the cost etc etc has gotten in the way and my husband and I absolutely love snorkelling so can only imagine how magical it must have been for you, esp seeing the reef shark!


    1. Thanks for stopping by! I would definitely recommend Panama to anyone who wants a few weeks of very varied adventures. The snorkelling was a definite highlight, but actually I was surprised just how much there was to explore – for a provisional itinerary, I’d do a loop from and back to Panama City via Santa Catalina, Boquete and Bocas del Toro (check the weather!) Loads to see and do all over this wonderful country 🙂


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