Under The Sea

You can tell by the plethora of dive shops in Santa Catalina that making bubbles under the sea is the done thing here, or more specifically an hour boat ride away at Coiba National Park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I’d been told the diving was worth the eye-watering price tag but to be fair diving is something I’ll happily hurl obnoxious quantities of money at. It was great and it was worth it but unfortunately I went and buggered my ear up so it was a bittersweet experience.

Coiba National Park expectation. And reality too so yay.

I had to squeeze my blubber into a long wetsuit for this on account of the tiny jellyfish they have so that was fun. There’s no dignified way to get into a wetsuit. There were only six divers and three staff on the boat which is the maximum they can cram on and it was one of those trips where they assemble your equipment for you and help you into your BCD whilst you will your inner ear to ignore the bobbing of the boat. To be fair it wasn’t that bad. The drive out wasn’t too choppy at all, just a few of those spine shockers as the boat bounced over waves, and we were joined by a pod of dolphins for a short while.

What a cracking way to start the day! One of the guys spotted them so the captain slowed right down and steered us in for a closer look. I’ve no idea what kind of dolphins they were but we enjoyed watching them for a while as they swam around the boat. Absolutely beautiful creatures, I’ll never tire of dolphins. We pressed on towards the first dive site, the sea did get marginally rougher but even Queen Seasick here could handle it. The crew kitted us up, we backrolled into the water and waited for everyone to assemble at the front of the boat then down we went.

This is your general view for Coiba diving. A plethora of fish and the other divers in your group.

This site was called Faro, or Lighthouse in English, and we were looking for bull sharks! Fuck I love sharks. The current was pretty brutal but Luis, our divemaster, did say it would be and we were just going to go with it. I’m not a huge fan of drift dives, they feel chaotic to me. I pointed my face at as many fish as I could as we were swept along and then Luis got us all to kneel on the seabed. Well, not kneel, you can’t kneel for shit when the current is hell bent on relocating you to the Mariana Trench. We all hung onto whatever we could and waited.

The viz was pants. Mere metres. It was like being shrouded in fog, everything just grey and eerie. Then out of the gloom that distinct shape appeared. Bull sharks! They didn’t come close, perhaps if the current was easier to handle and we weren’t all struggling to be still maybe they would have. They meandered in and left pretty much as soon as they saw us so it was just a fleeting glimpse but a definite glimpse nonetheless. I definitely saw three, perhaps even four. They’re short, stocky little fuckers, I’ve never seen one in real life and given their penchant for nibbling on a limb or two in shallow waters that’s probably a good thing.

This looks like one of those Big Foot photos of dubious provenance but I promise you, I saw this bull shark with my own eyeholes but the viz really was that bad. I screencapped a video I took, put it through a dive photo colour corrector, then used Lightroom to dehaze it a bit.

We continued the dive, just being swept along, but one of the guys was really low on air. He got a bit overexcited and swam off in pursuit of a shark which really upset Luis, and fair enough. I’m surprised the diver found us again in the murky water but swimming off like that meant he smashed through his air and we all had to surface. Aaaand that’s when my ear started playing up. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. I had a shit tonne of air left, I could easily have signalled my discomfort to Luis then taken my sweet arse time trying to clear this reverse squeeze, but I guess I must have panicked a bit at the thought of not being able to surface so I forced it through with an almighty squeaking noise, but I guess all noises are almighty when they’re literally in your earhole. Yeah, that wasn’t pleasant.

We had our surface interval on a little beach and by the time it was time for the second dive my ear felt absolutely fine. Yeah, fuck it, I’d do it and just abort the dive if I started having issues. The dive site was called The Church, or iglesia in Spanish. I didn’t have any issues at all. The descent was fine. We meandered around bothering white tipped reef sharks, angelfish, sergeant majors, and all manner of pufferfish. It was a very pleasant dive albeit still a bit too currenty for my liking. I don’t know how the others casually swim against it like that, I felt like I was kicking like a maniac, gulping air down.

Lobster thingy.

Once we were all back on the boat (and I’d had no issues on the ascent either) we were taken to Isla Coibita which is one of those postcard beaches. Golden sand, turquoise ocean, palm trees for days. Fucking gorgeous, but clearly you’re not going to be alone. Lots of tour operators bring their groups here which is fair enough. Sandwiches were handed out. I took one bite and realised that actually, no, I didn’t want it. Fuck. No, I wasn’t feeling good at all and my ear was starting to hurt. Ah bollocks, what have I done to it?

I ended up just lying on my sarong in the shade. I felt like my ear was full of water but nothing was going to shift it. By the the time we were due to get back on the boat I told Luis I couldn’t do the third dive and that I thought I might have done some damage. So fucking gutted. We pulled up at the third dive site and one of the guys asked if we could see more bull sharks here. Apparently not, so Luis gave everyone a choice; stay here and dive at this different site, or go back and do the first one again. A vote was taken, they wanted to go back, and as we pulled in a guy on another boat excitedly told us a whale shark was in the area!

White tipped reef shark from the second dive.

Noooooo! No fucking way! A chance to dive with a whale shark and I can’t do it. I was absolutely devastated but what could I do? I waved the others off and lay down to nap to try and counteract the bobbing of the boat. Seasickness would be a proper insult to injury situation. The boat was eventually moved to about where they’d surface and I nodded off in the sun until one of the guys woke me up, they were both brandishing their phones, pointing the cameras at the water. Whale shark! It swam right by the boat, I think the guys were just as giddy as I was. One of them handed me a mask and said I should get in so I did but it had already faded into the gloom.

Isla Coibita. At least I got to feel very sorry for myself in paradise.

But it was when the others surfaced, that’s when shit got real. They’d had the most amazing experience diving with two whale sharks. Luis beckoned me over and shared his air with me on the surface as he looked for them. Then suddenly there it was! Far too fucking close but that was on the whale shark, we were just floating around. It emerged from the dark, even on the surface we couldn’t see more than a few metres, it was flapping its chops as it fed on the plankton that was thick in the water. Absolutely incredible. Like, can’t put into words incredible. I was happy for the others but now I was happy for me too.

Absolutely beautiful! The scars on its back are apparently from boat rotor blades.

Then the mobular rays started jumping in the distance, I’m not even shitting you, it was like the emotional finale of a rom com as the cheesy music plays to a crescendo and you can’t wipe the ridiculous grin off your stupid face. I wasn’t quick enough to catch it on camera but it was awesome. We were all buzzing on the ride back. I wish I’d not fucked my ear up and the viz was really awful but generally I do think Coiba is worth the price tag. There’s so much marine life. If colourful coral is your thing then it’s not for you but if you want to put a lot of fish in your eyeholes it’s perfect.

A screencap of a video I took of this incredible creature feeding. They’re overwhelmingly incredible animals.

Obviously I had to spend a whole day sulking (but sulking on the beach so there’s that) because of my ear but the day after that it was back to Coiba, this time with Tarrant, for a spot of snorkelling. I was worried I’d perforated my eardrum and before I had a chance to see a doctor to confirm or deny this, I figured it’d be prudent to treat it as such. I’d bought some wax earplugs so I could snorkel and not inadvertently soak my inner ear in quantities of the Pacific Ocean.

Time to harass more of these little guys.

Definitely take a rash vest for this, the jellyfish are tiny little fuckers, you can’t actually see them, but they’ll give you a proper little shock if they get you. Off we fucked then, bouncing along towards our first snorkelling site at Coco Grande, a small island that we’d be swimming around with the current. Tarrant couldn’t get over the sheer quantity of fish that gave exactly zero fucks about the human presence. You’d swim into them and they weren’t even bothered. Some of them headed straight towards your face, no shits given. It was great! We also harassed a small turtle, and I saw what I think is a tiger snake eel. I did see a tiny reef shark but it buggered off quite rapidly.

Tiger snake eel.
We saw a few of these pufferfish. I believe it’s a guineafowl pufferfish?

Once we’d circumnavigated the island we hopped back on the boat and headed to Coco Pequeño for more fish and rock gazing. There’s coral too but it’s not the explosion of colour we got in Egypt. We didn’t see any of the sharks we were looking for but once we were back on the beach we did see something feeding. Our guide said it was sharks and we did see the occasional flash of fin but not much else. The star of the show was the fuck off great big pelican diving bombing for fish. Such a dude, he was great to watch.

We hung out there for a short while just enjoying the show before heading to Coiba Island for a little walk up a hill. I made the mistake of doing it in wet flip flops, slid off the fuckers about halfway up and tore the toe post. Well, shit. That’s a ball ache. It wasn’t a long walk though but fuck my life, that’s a bit of a hill isn’t it? We were heading up Cerro Gambute for a bit of a view over the beach we’d landed on. Definitely worth the walk even though I’m now in the market for new footwear you hold in place with your toes.

Cracking views from Cerro Gambute.

There’s a little information centre on the island too giving you the history of the national park. Coiba Island actually used to be a penal colony from 1919 and that closed in 2004. The area was declared a national park and became a UNESCO site not long afterwards. It protects species that you only find here that evolved after so many years of isolation. The information centre also has some random jars of pickled creatures. I have no idea why.

Back to Isla Coibita for lunch. What a stunner.

We sailed to Isla Coibita for lunch, the same island I’d stopped on the other day when I came diving. We were the first boat there so we got a very brief taste of what it’d be like to have an island paradise to ourselves. Yeah so when we win Euromillions I’m definitely going shopping for a private Tropical island. Probably not one with a crocodile like this one has, I don’t trust those little fuckers. I missed the crocodile last time on account of feeling very sorry for myself but he was there this time, looking like a log with eyes, occasionally rising to the surface before sinking back down again. Sharks? Love them. Crocodiles? Scary bastards.

I swear it was looking at me and licking its chops.

It was nice to just hang out for just over an hour. We swam and chilled and shovelled sandwiches and watermelon into our chops before clambering back onto the boat to head to Tortuga Island in search of turtles. We’d been entering the water from the beach so far but this time we’d be jumping in from the boat. I’d been keeping water out of my ear with a wax earplug moulded over the entrance of my ear but I’d been holding it in place. I hoped it would work if I was sliding in from a boat.

See the pufferfish poking its little head out?

It held and everything was fine. We saw several turtles too, just minding their own business and chomping on the coral. One of them was huge! I floated around just watching that guy for a while. What is it about humans and the desire to watch shit eat? Feeding times are always the highlight at the zoo. The crocodile shows in Australia focus on chucking them huge chunks of meat. No one can resist feeding the ducks at the park and horse owners literally have to beg members of the public not to offer their horses apples. But yeah, I just watched it eat. For ages. Until it was time to get back on the boat and head back to Santa Catalina.

So that’s a great day out then. At first the price is off-putting but I think it’s worth it. You get three good snorkelling spots, the chance to see reef sharks and turtles, a nice little walk up a hill for a stunner of a view, and a spot of lunch with an apex predator. I’d absolutely recommend it.

Apologies for the picture quality but it’s a screencap of a video taken through a waterproof case. We saw dolphins on the way back to Santa Catalina and this guy was putting on a show. It’d stand up like this for a second, swim a bit more then stand up again like it was trying to take the piss out of humans.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Coiba National Park, Veraguas, Panama

Stayed at: Tiki Lodge Bar & Restaurant, Santa Catalina

Tiki Lodge Bar & Restaurant. Located in I guess what passes for town here, close to the dive shops, the convenience stores, and a non-surf beach. We liked it but there aren’t many comfortable places to just chill in the shade. There’s AC in the dorm which is nice. Beds are comfortable and the they all have curtains, a shelf, a light, and a plug socket. The kitchen is fine, it does the job. There’s free coffee and pancake mix. The restaurant is very expensive but the food is actually pretty good. Showers are a cool trickle. You don’t want a hot shower here but it would be nice to have more pressure. WiFi is obviously shite. Generally a decent, affordable option.

Useful shit to know…

  • We did everything with Expedicion Coiba a couple of doors down from Tiki Lodge.
  • The diving was US$150 for two dives and US$170 for three.
  • On top of that is the US$20 per person national park entrance fee.
  • I think they take enough tanks for three dives for everyone in case someone who only paid for two changes their mind, then they pay the extra US$20 when they get back.
  • The snorkelling trip was US$65 each plus the entrance fee.
  • Santa Catalina has a pharmacy, a couple of convenience stores, an ATM (but I don’t know how reliable it is, I wouldn’t be all surprised Pikachu face if it ran out of money), and a shit tonne of accommodation.
  • There are plenty of place to eat too ranging from “I’m not fucking paying that!” to US$5 for fried chicken, rice and beans.
  • There are an abundance of dive shops and tour operators that’ll take you to Coiba. Prices seem to be more or less the same whoever you go with.

How To Get From Santa Fe To Santa Catalina By Bus

  • Minibuses to Santiago from Santa Fe leave regularly from early in the morning.
  • You can go from the terminal or basically anywhere the bus passes by, you can flag it from there.
  • Obviously you’re more likely to get a seat if you go from the terminal.
  • It cost US$2.90 each and took about an hour and 45 minutes.
  • You’ll be dropped at the front of the terminal in Santiago, then you walk through to the platforms and turn left.
  • Buses to Sona leave from stand B.
  • Toilets at the bus terminal need a 25c coin for the turnstile.
  • The bus to Sona was a big bus, took just over an hour and cost US$2.50.
  • If you ooze gringo like we do the conductor will guess you’re going to Santa Catalina and will let you off at the right place.
  • If you miss it just get to the terminal at 8.004692, -81.314982.
  • There are, I’m told, four or five buses a day to Santa Catalina. I couldn’t find a schedule pinned up anywhere. I asked at the Sona to Panama desk inside and she told me the next bus was at 11.15am.
  • It took nearly two hours and cost US$5 each. That last 15 kilometres was a bone rattler.
  • Total cost: US$10.40 each.
  • Total time: Six hours including the 40 minute wait in Sona.

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