Picture of sunset in Panama with words "scuba diving in Panama"

The Ultimate Guide to Scuba Diving In Panama

“Panama!! Panama a a a a a!” The first thing that pops into my mind when this country is mentioned is the old Van Halen song by the same name. The next, is the great diving…a close third is the Panama Canal.

Known as the “Place of Many Fish,” this Central American country offers some of the most unique and diverse dive sites in the world. From the vibrant reefs of Bocas del Toro to the dramatic encounters with large marine species at Coiba National Park, scuba diving Panama is a diver’s paradise waiting to be explored.

An image of Panama beach.
A diving tropical paradise awaits in the Central American country of Panama.

So grab your 80s spandex and massive amount of hair spray and let’s “Jump” (see what I did there?) into the waters of Panama!

Getting There And Accommodations

Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is the main airport for international travel. Located in Panama City, Tocumen serves as a hub between North and South America and Central America. From the US, direct flights are available from multiple airports including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Ft. Lauderdale, Denver, Washington and Los Angeles. Depending on where your end destination is, you may need to take a domestic flight to one of the many local airports.

An image of the Panama Tocumen International Airport.
Tocumen is the The home base of Copa Airlines and the main airport for international travelers to get in country.

There are accommodations to fit the needs of all kinds of travelers. For us divers, you may want to look at Cala Mia Island Resort, Show Pony Beach Resort and Bay View Hotel on the Pacific side and Divers Paradise, Red Frog Beach Island Resort and Nayara Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean side of the country.

An image taken outside the Panama scuba Diving Red Frog Beach Island Resort.
One of many places to choose from, Red Frog on Bastimentos Island offers beautiful accommodations. (Photo courtesy of Red Frog Beach Island Resort)

Panama Scuba Diving

Sitting between North and South America, Panama presents a plethora of diving sites in both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. There are numerous dive operations that cater to all levels of diving proficiency, making it an ideal spot for diving devotees.

Panama Scuba Diving Operations

Panama does not have a shortage of dive operations. Travelers will find plenty of shops to choose from on either coast. Keep in mind some of the places where you can choose to stay also offer diving. Some additional dive operators to consider are Panama Dive Center, ScubaCaribe and Dive Base Coiba on the Pacific coast and Bocas Dive Center, La Buga Dive & Surf and Panama Dive Adventure on the Caribbean coast.

The Panama scuba diving Bocas Dive Center.
Operators like Bocas Dive Center will take care of all your diving needs. (Photo courtesy of Bocas Dive Center)

Diving Seasons And Conditions In Panama

Panama provides favorable scuba diving conditions all year round, typically with excellent visibility. The Caribbean coast is ideal for learning to dive, while the Pacific coast is more suited for experienced divers looking to see larger marine life. Water temperatures fluctuate across the year, with the warmest waters noted from February to July.

A map of Panama.
The Pacific side can be more challenging and suited for advanced divers, while the Caribbean side may be good for new divers.

Diving Sites Of Panama

As mentioned above, divers have a choice of getting wet in the Pacific Ocean or the Caribbean Sea. Both sides of the country offer great dive sites, like the West coast’s Coiba National Park, or the East coast’s Bocas del Toro.

An aerial view of the Panama Coiba National Park.
West coast divers will want to check out Coiba National Park.

Having a difficult time choosing, then don’t! You can dive both sides as there is only about 37 miles between each coast…in select spots. Slip on the fins and let’s check out some of the top spots!

Caribbean Coast

Looking for easier dives with beautiful reefs, then the Caribbean coast is for you. Here are some great dive sites to hit on Panama’s East coast.

Bocas del Toro

Bocas Del Toro, a Caribbean paradise located in Northwestern Panama, is known for its crystal-clear waters, colorful coral reefs, and abundant marine life. With approximately 15 dive sites to choose from, you’ll be spoiled for choice as you explore the vibrant underwater world. Below are some of the top sites to hit.

An aerial view of Bocas Del Toro.
Bocas Del Toro has some of Panama’s finest Caribbean diving.
Old Ferry

The ferry Barco Hundido “sunken ship” was purposefully sunk off the coast of Isla Colon in 1997. The wreck lies in about 50ft of water, so good for all level of divers. The wreck has become a nice artificial reef an sits between two beautiful natural reefs teeming with various marine life. Eagle-eye divers may be able to spot some seahorses that now call the wreck home.

A seahorse in the waters of Panama.
The fascinating seahorse can be found on the old ferry wreck.
Tiger Rock

Arguably the most favorite dive site of Bocas Del Toro is Tiger Rock. This almost 100ft rock breaches the surface and is home to all sorts of aquatic life including lionfish, parrotfish and sharpnose puffers. Hammerhead and bull sharks have been spotted here as well.

A sharpnose puffer in the waters of Panama.
The funny little sharpnose puffer can be found on Tiger Rock.

While right around the rock is about 110ft deep, there are walls and drop-offs in the area that can get deeper. This may be more a dive for advanced divers with good buoyance control. Also, this dive is usually done as a day trip as the site is almost 25 miles off of Isla Colon.

Machette caves

This favorite dive site can only be done in the calmest of conditions. However, if you hit the right day, you are in for a treat of a very exciting and unique day of diving.

A person scuba diving in the Machette Caves.
Amazing caverns and swim-throughs await at Machette Caves. (Photo courtesy of Bocas Dive Center)

Divers will find many swim-throughs, caverns and crevices to explore throughout this site. While the depth is only about 40ft, the swim-throughs and caverns call for some good buoyancy and are more for advanced divers.

Mystic Wind

The main feature here is the trimaran sailboat sunk on purpose in 2015. The wreck lies at 60ft and is now home to an abundance of vibrant marine life that includes trumpetfish, seahorses, octopus, nurse sharks, barracuda, eagle rays and mobula rays.

The amazing coral formations below include barrel and tube sponges and brain coral. Bring the camera to get some great phots here!

An image of a brain coral underwater in Panama.
The aptly named brain coral can be found at Mystic Wind.
sachen

Sachen is another seasonal spot that is dependent on conditions. This maximum 40ft dive site is good for all level of divers and will offer sights of various coral species. The main attraction is a sandy bottom between two walls with spots of coral formations. Frequently spotted here among the colorful coral are nurse sharks and sea goddess nudibranch.

An image of a sea goddess nudibranch.
The funky sea goddess nudibranch can be found at Sachen.
Portobelo National Marine Park

Want to go where famous pirates and buccaneers like Sir, Francis Drake and Capt. Henry Morgan plundered, then Portobelo National Park is what you’re looking for. An amazingly beautiful natural port, Portobelo is a World Heritage Site with over 43 miles of coastline.

The Panama portobelo fort with cannons.
Step back in time to a world of Spanish treasure and pirates.

Used by the Spanish as a port for their treasure fleets to pick up silver and gold brought overland from the Pacific, Portobelo now is a diver’s playground. The following are some good sites to hit.

Drake Island

Sir Francis Drake died on a return raid to Panama in 1596. His body was placed in a lead coffin and he was buried at sea. Explorers and treasure hunters have not yet found his remains, so he may still be out there off of Drake Island waiting to be found.

An image of a scuba diver looking for Sir Francis Drake's coffin.
Many have searched, but none have yet to find the lead coffin Drake was buried in. (Photo courtesy of Dailymail.com)

Other than searching for the infamous buccaneer, although that may be enough for us fans of the Uncharted video game, beginner and experienced divers and snorkelers will enjoy the colorful coral reefs with abundant sponges and reef fish.

Buenaventura Island

A favorite spot with several sites to dive is Buenaventura Island. Another great spot with good reefs and even a sunken Beechcraft C45 to see at about 75ft.

A C45 plane in Panama.
Divers can see an old C45 like above at Buenaventura Island.
One Rock

If you want a chance to see some sharks, head over to One Rock. This is a popular site known for its channels and wandering sand tiger sharks.

A sand tiger shark in the waters of Panama.
You can usually spot a menacing looking sand tiger shark over at One Rock.
Tres Hermanas and Salmedina

Advanced divers looking for a little more depth and challenge may want to give Tres Hermanas or Salmedina a try. Both sites can have a strong current. at these sites divers can see such marine life as lionfish and nurse sharks among the coral outcroppings.

A lionfish underwater in Panama.
The invasive and tasty lionfish can be seen at the “Three Sisters.”

Pacific Coast

If you are looking for more challenging diving with the opportunity to see some large marine life, then head over to Panama’s West coast and the Pacific Ocean.

Coiba National Park

Coiba National Park is a protected area that consists of Coiba and 38 other smaller islands off the Southwest coast of Panama. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a spectacular underwater adventure, with more than 30 dive sites to explore.

The park is home to the largest reef system in the East Pacific that attracts a diverse range of marine life that includes schools of barracudas, jacks and snappers, whitetip reef sharks, giant stingrays and the elusive frogfish. Depending on the season, lucky divers may also be able to see whale sharks.

A frogfish underwater in Panama.
Making frogs look cute, the frogfish can be found in the waters of Coiba National Park.
Frijoles ridge

Located on the North side of Coiba Island, Frijoles Ridge is an underwater rock formation that starts at about 20ft and quickly drops to 150ft. With lots of rocky overhangs, ledges and crevasses, there are plenty of spots for marine life, like frogfish and seahorses, to hide among the hard and soft coral formations and sponges. When the current is going, this makes for a great drift dive as well.

octopus rock

Almost right next to Frijoles Ridge is Octopus Rock, making both of these sites great for a two tank dive. with a cluster of rocks that break the surface during low tide, divers will descend down a gradual rocky slope where they will find sandy channels. Hiding among the hard and soft coral formations you can find eels and, you guessed it, octopuses. Depths range between 15ft and 130ft. This is a great spot for a night dive.

An octopus underwater in Panama.
Octopus Rock is truly and octopus’s garden, where I’d like to be!
Jacobs ladder

On the East side of Coiba Island is Jacobs ladder, situated close to the deepest part of the Island’s drop-off. An underwater pinnacle awaits at about 45ft and bottoms out at about 150ft. Diving along the pinnacle you will see a multitude of sea fans. The marine life here includes snappers, barracuda and tuna. Galapagos sharks are frequently seen here and on occasion sailfish and marlin.

A sailfish underwater swimming in Panama.
Sailfish can be found among the incredible marine life at Jacobs Ladder.
Isla Iglesias

Off of the Southeast side of Coibita Island is a great site that all divers can enjoy. Isla Iglesias is a good spot for training and checkout dives, as well as night dives as it is generally protected from currents and there is plenty to do in the shallows here of about 30ft.

This site is made up of large sandy patches with pinnacles jutting up among the various soft coral and sponges. The numerous types of aquatic life that can been found here include Pacific spadefish, frogfish, sea turtles and seahorses. Depths can drop-off to over recreational limits, so watch buoyancy!

A sea turtle swimming in Panama.
Sea turtles, like above, can be seen at Isla Iglesias.
Other Hidden gems

There are of course numerous other dive sites on Panama’s Pacific side worth exploring. Isla Ladrones, Isla Contreras and Isla Del Canal each have multiple dive sites where you can witness incredible topography and vibrant marine life among the coral reefs. These venues are less traveled, but perfect for advanced divers seeking a more unconventional adventure. Why not step outside the common dive sites and unearth the hidden jewels of Panama?

An aerial view of Isla Ladrones in Panama.
Dive sites, like those off of Isla Ladrones above, are hidden jewels of Panama diving. (Photo courtesy of comefishpanama.com)

Other Activities

Scuba Diving, while that’s what we’re here for, is not the sole thing to do in Panama. The non-divers of your group have plenty to keep them occupied too. Below are a few ideas for sightseeing. For more things to check out in Panama look here.

The Panama Canal

I mean how can you go to Panama and not check out the canal?! This amazing feat of human achievement is a must see. Most divers I know love all things ships and boats and the canal has it in spades.

An aerial view of the Panama canal.
The Panama Canal is one of the most impressive feats in history.

Connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal is approximately 51 miles long, with 12 locks and was built by the US between 1904 and 1914 (The French worked on it first between 1881 and 1899, but the project went bankrupt and an approximate 22,000 men lost their lives, mostly from yellow fever and malaria). Visitors have many options for a tour of this historic site, including a boat ride through some of the locks!

Panama City

Panama City is unique as it is actually three cities in one. The modern city is the country’s capital and home to beautiful skyscrapers, some of the tallest in Latin America. The other two cities, Panama Viejo andCasco Antiguo, are UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites. Bring that camera along as you stroll through a gateway to another world.

An aerial view of the city of Panama.
You’ll be amazed at the contrast between old and new worlds in Panama City.

Panama Viejo

Dating back to 1519, Panama Viejo was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Ocean…until it was laid to waste by that nasty old pirate Henry Morgan.

An image at the Panama Viejo.
The old Panama Cathedral is still there to be seen in Panama Viejo.

History buffs will especially be in awe of the old ruins, including the old bell tower, as they explore the ruins and wonder what life would have been like there hundreds of years ago.

Casco Antiguo

More than one day can be spent touring the streets of the colorful and historic city of Casco Antiguo. This “old quarter” of Panama City was established in 1673 following the destruction of Panama Viejo.

An image at the Bolivar Palace in Panama.
History comes alive in Casco Antiguo, like at Bolivar Palace.

In addition to the old architecture, including the Church of San Jose, travelers can take in several museums, the Panama National Theater and the Las Bovedas, a monument used to ward off pirates, as they take in some of the finest cuisine in the country.

Volcan Baru

Panama has something for hikers, and that is the opportunity to explore the dormant volcano Baru. On a clear day, there is the rare opportunity to catch a view of both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts at the same time!

An aerial view of the Volcan Baru in Panama.
View both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts from Volcan Baru.

Volcano Baru is located in the Northern part of Panama and is close to the town of Boquete. At over 11,000ft, the summit of Baru can be challenging, more so in bad weather, but there are many other trails to hike here. Among the trails there are 10 rivers, seven craters, various waterfalls and many different types of birds. Hike on my friends!

Wrapping Things Up

Panama is a scuba diving paradise, offering a wealth of unique and diverse dive sites, as well as unforgettable marine life encounters. Whether you’re exploring the vibrant reefs of Bocas del Toro, or uncovering hidden gems along the Pacific coast, Panama provides a truly unforgettable diving experience. So pack your dive gear and Panama Jack hat and embark on the adventure of a lifetime to the underwater world of Panama.

An image of Panama Jack logo.
Come join Scuba Jay and Panama Jack for an adventure of a lifetime.

“How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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