The isthmus of Panama, running on an east-west axis, finds the Atlantic Ocean on its northern shores. Starting from the west, the first is diving Bocas del Toro. The scuba diving in and around Bocas can be enjoyed throughout the year, with most of the dive spots no more than one hour boat ride from Bocas town. The water temperatures is very tropical and constant, so full or even short wet suits are not required. Water visibility varies from one dive spot to another, and is always dependent on weather conditions. The months of September and October are traditionally the better months, due primarily to more suitable climatic conditions. During this period there is less rain and wind, allowing for clearer water conditions.
From Bocas, moving due East, the next dive-accessible area is Portobelo, the point from where all gold from South America left for Spain. Along the main road, just before entering town, you'll find several dive operators that service the local waters. Common dive sites include "Buena Ventura Island" for shallow and deep diving, with an intriguing drop-off. Or, if your interest is in looking for pirates history, then "Drake's Island" is your site. Said to be where Sir Francis Drake was set to rest, divers still look for Drake's coffin among the encrusted coral. A short boat ride can take you to "Salmedina Reef", a semi-submerged reef that has taken its share of wooden vessels. Not far lies "Three Sisters" islands, with varied underwater terrain, sea flora and fauna. Moving further East, we find "Isla Grande" a small, typical Antillean community popular with surfers, snorkelers, divers and sunbathers alike. Several guest houses and hotels line the shoreline can attend to your rooming needs. On its western end, a unique labyrinth of canyons offer a beautiful dive.
Continuing East, we come to the famous area for diving San Blas Islands, also known as Comarca Kuna Yala - "365 of them, one for each day of the year" say the Kuna Indians that inhabit these white sanded specs on the northeastern shores of Panama. While it's entirely possible to reach areas of San Blas by land, most who visit San Blas travel by plane, departing from Panama City. With daily, early morning departures, virtually the entire Comarca is accessible, as there are a countless number of airstrips that dot the coastline that stretches hundreds of miles to the Colombian border. Porvenir, the most frequently visited community, serves as the gateway to San Blas. There, and elsewhere though out the Comarca, small thatch roof, Kuna Style bungalows can be found at reasonable prices. In addition, a limited number of more upscale resorts offering more modern amenities can be found on the outerlying islands. Friendly, hospitable, unspoiled and clean define San Blas, which are ideal for snorkelers thanks to the vast area that these 365 islands encompass. SCUBA-diving is not permitted on these islands, only snorkeling. Don't miss it.
Now, moving to the southern shores of Panama, we find the Pacific Ocean, with deep water, big fish and rocky formations - a real difference from the shallow depths, small colorful fish and myriad of prolific coral of the Atlantic. There are four primary areas divers find of interest; Darien coast, diving Pearl Islands (Las Perlas), diving Azuero peninsula, and diving Coiba island.
The Coast of Darien, realm of the Black Marlin, huge Amberjacks and "Dog-Toothed" Snapper, is a spear fishermans paradise. You can reach the area by either flying into the town of Jaque, or by private boat. It has been known of economy conscious divers loading a zodiac with a small engine onto one of the cargo boats and go there for four or five days. Although no formal dive operation exists, some outfitters will gladly customize a tour for your group and guide you through the area. Be prepared to see blue and deep waters, with large inquisitive fish coming at you as if you were just driftwood.
Diving Pearl Islands (Las Perlas) has it all. From shallows to deep water, from coral heads to rocky drop-offs, from the tiny sea wrasses to the four-hundred pounders Jew Fish (large sea bass). Underwater photography and spear fishing is a must in the waters surrounding the island of "Contadora", which happens to be the island selected by the late Shah of Iran for his retirement. The island boasts several upscale hotels, as well as numerous less expensive "cabana" style hotels. Marine sports are available for the non-diver, i.e. kayak and jet ski rentals.
The Azuero peninsula, situated on Panama's pacific coast, has various luring dive areas including Isla Iguana, Punta Mala, Cambutal, Santa Catalina, Los Frailes and Isla Cebaco. The underwater terrain and sea life is somewhat similar to the other areas in the Pacific, with current diving, wreck dives and underwater seamounts nearby. The best time of diving is between April and December, however, diving can be enjoyed year round; water conditions between January and March are less predictable and are more day to day as a result of upwelling currents coming from the south. Whale watching (Humpbacks) is best done between July and September as the whales migrate from South America to the warmer waters of the Caribbean. Whale sharks and pods of Orcas, while not common occurrences, can be seen at certain times of the year further out. As well, sea turtles are present year round and are very common between the months of September and October when they arrive in larger numbers to lay their eggs. Dive shops in the area can take you any of the dive spots.
Diving Coiba island, resting just off the Azuero Peninsula, is Panama's largest island, and perhaps, best dive spot. Being a one time penal colony, its shores and waters remained virgin to fishermen, boaters and divers alike. Only recently has Coiba Island received the recognition it deserves as a world class dive location. Diving Coiba Island can be enjoyed either from a liveaboard or land based operation, the latter usually offering group trips on specified dates. Travel to and from the island, as well as basic accommodation and meals are coordinated and provided for by the dive operator. Above the water Coiba Island's unspoiled, lush, verdant rainforest is home to a wide variety of animal and plant species. As well, the island boasts several beautiful white sand beaches, ideal for snorkeling. Below, one can expect strong currents, moray eels, large pelagic and dramatic rock formations.
Panama is a maritime country per excellence. Its history and its economy are linked to the sea. It has coasts on the Caribbean (1.207 km) and the Pacific Oceans (1700,6 km). Thiese privileged geographic condition has generated important marine and coastal zones full of aquatic and land ecosystems like marshes, beaches and coral reefs that form incredible landscapes of submarine flora and fauna on both coasts.
In the Panama Caribbean specialists are astonished with the extraordinary submarine beauty of the North and South Zapatilla Keys in the province of Bocas del Toro within the Maritine National Park of Bastimento Island, as well as around the waters of Punta Vieja (Old Point), Punta Hospital (Hospital Point), Donato, Crawl Cay, Stern Island, Tiger Cay, Wild Cane Cay and Agua Oeste Cay. On Colon Island tour operators provide equipment and guides for safe scuba diving any time of year.
The San Blas Archipelago is famous all over the world for its wonderful islands of coralline origin and its crystalline waters where scuba diving and snorkelling are some of the main activities. The best months for diving are April, May, November and December.
There are meeting sites for scuba diving and snorkelling like Portobelo Bay, Isla Mamey and Isla Grande. It could turn out to be a great adventure to dive in these waters full of the history of pirates and privateers from the XVII century, where stormy battles took place and where the mortal remains of the famous pirate Sir Francis Drake, were laid to rest at sea in a leaden casket. The best diving months are April, May, November and December.
In the Pacific Ocean there are ample zones of subaqueous beauties like Coiba Island, in the Coiba National Park, that has the most extensive coralline reefs of the Central American Pacific becoming a great natural aquarium. Another possibility is to visit the Chiriquí Marine Gulf National Park where there are species of great size like whales and dolphins among others, or enjoy scuba diving or "snorkelling " to feel the emotions of being in a multicolored aquarium. In these two areas the best months for diving are December to March. The Islands of Contadora and Taboga in the Archipelago of las Perlas (the Pearl Archipelago), are the diving sites nearest to Panama City. These Islands have facilities for the full-featured sport of scuba diving with or without a tank.
In the Wild Life Refuge of Iguana Island there are very well preserved coral reefs that can easily be observed at shallow depths, an excellent and calm site to dive.
The waters next to the Panama Canal, specifically Gatún and Alajuela lakes are also a unique diving destination. Perhaps this is a different diving experience, because the attraction consists in seeing at the depths the remains of the first trans-isthmian railroad and the old dredges that excavated the Canal pathway.