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Two marine environments form the flanks of Panama and entice divers in search of both pirate treasures and those of sea life.

Diving in Panama

Quick facts

If any of your conversations with fellow divers begin with “I’ve always wanted to…,” then chances are you should visit Panama. With one of the most biodiverse ranges in the world, Panama may have every type of environment on offer to suit virtually every diver. You can dive in two different oceans in one day and see two completely different underwater marvels in the colder water of the Atlantic to the warm Caribbean tropical temperatures. Humpback whale, reef sharks and possibly orcas are frequently mentioned in the dive logs of the Coiba Marine Park and peak periods for these sightings are in the months of August and September.

In the gulf lie the Pearl Islands, in fact, there are more than 100 of them to explore. There are outcrops of coral littered around the site and the sheltered waters attract a rainbow of butterfly and angelfish and the reef sharks and rays that follow suit. Another popular archipelago is that of ‘Bocas del Toro’ or ‘Mouths of the Bull’ which are undulating reefs of coral and sponges that take island-hopping to mean something very different to the land based activity.

In the region of Portobelo National Park, you will need a few days to uncover what the pirates left behind in the sands under the surface. Relics and artifacts are scattered amongst gorgeous coral formations and damselfish. It is a common occurrence to stop and marvel at the schools of turtles that pass by in the protected reserve.

Recommended training

Take the PADI Drift Diver course to prepare for drifting along the many walls and drop offs on the Pacific side. The PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy course will help you stay off the coral on the Caribbean side. The PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course will allow you to get great shots of all the marine life that you see on both sides.

When to go

Dive conditions are excellent all year in Panama. The tropical climate has little seasonal variation. Early morning air temperature may be 24°C/75°F and the afternoon reaches 29°C/84°F, seldom exceeding 32°C/90°F. Temperatures on the Pacific side are somewhat lower and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country.

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USD 966Per trip
Coiba National Park, Pacific side – A national park since 1992, this protected area hosts abundant marine life. The largest island in the park, Coiba, is encircled by coral reefs and supports diverse tropical underwater life. Mega fauna sightings can include humpback whales, sharks, whale sharks, orcas and more. More than 700 fish species have been recorded here, including snappers, barracuda, amberjack, and marlin. La Viuda, Pacific side – This massive pinnacle attracts large fish schools. It rises from the depths to within 10 metres/33 feet of the surface. It’s an exposed dive site and currents can be strong, but big snappers, jacks, tuna, sharks and sometimes whale sharks and manta rays make the dive worthwhile. Pearl Islands (Las Perlas), Pacific side – The Pearl Islands lie in the Gulf of Panama and Contadora Island is the primary access point for many dives sites. Various rock formations and coral outcrops characterize the diving where butterfly, angel and parrotfish dodge reef sharks. Needless to say, pearl oysters are not uncommon. Bocas del Toro, Caribbean side – The Bocas del Toro archipelago is dotted with reef after coral reef and bathed in calm, warm waters. Colorful soft coral and sponges house a variety of macro life such as cowries, arrow crabs, nudibranchs and more. Keep an eye out for nurse and reef sharks, spotted eagle and manta rays and large schools of jacks and snappers patrolling the reef edges. Portobelo National Park, Caribbean side – This park includes stunning beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and mangrove swamps along with many excellent dive sites. It’s a staggeringly diverse ecosystem with several types of sea turtle, including the endangered hawksbill, and more than 50 coral species. Caribbean reef fish species delight divers and moray eels poke their heads out of the reef. Gatun Lake, Panama Canal – This lake makes for a unique diving experience. Formed by the installation of the Panama Canal, you can see remnants of a railroad, abandoned dredges and the remains of flooded villages. Peacock bass thrive in the warm waters as well as tarpon and snook. You’ll also hear ocean-going vessels rumbling in the nearby Panama Canal.

What to see

In a relatively untouched environment, the marine life of Panama exists happily without the fear of being hunted by humans. Those include on the one coast humpback whales, black and white tip reef sharks, dolphins and killer whales. Humpback whales are most frequently spotted in July through September. In the Pacific, upwelling brings in large numbers of pelagics, such as manta rays, stingrays, tuna, amberjacks and whale sharks. In the warmer Caribbean ocean, the sea turtles flood the beaches in the nesting season and in September to October is the time that sightings are guaranteed.

Said to have some of the most varieties of coral in the world, the fish life in Panama are well-catered for on the warmer side of the isthmus. The micro life is strange and fascinating for those willing to get inches away from the reef but look out for lobster tentacles in amongst the shadows when you get that close. Parrot, angel and butterfly fish of every shape and color cloud the exceptionally preserved marine environments.


For better readability of the table, pass into the landscape mode.

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As distinct as the white-brimmed hats and the engineering feat that is the Panama Canal, Panama itself is a country that encourages visitors to view the vast array of wildlife both above in the rainforests as well as below the surface. The country claims to be one of the most biodiverse on the planet and apart from the natural plethora of wildlife, there is an ethnic heritage that is well preserved.

The strategic economic value that the canal holds is the crucial link between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and the backbone of the Panamanian economy. However, the coffee trade and tourism are complementary industries that support not only the capital city, Panama City but the jungle regions too.

Commonly referred to as an ‘isthmus’, which is a thin strip of land that connects two large areas, Panama was established as a Spanish colony in 1501 and has been a hotly contested country due to its strategic value and rich landscape. Colombia, Spain and the United States have all had a stake in the Central American hub.

Other attractions

The purpose of your visit to Panama might be diving but don't miss the opportunity to visit the many parks, reserves and refuges to see more than 10,000 plant species and over 900 kinds of birds. In the remote rainforest at La Amistad International Park, pumas, ocelots, margays, jaguars, and jaguarondis roam. Adventure lovers are catered for with rafting, ziplining, rainforest tours or even waterfall hopping in the Colce region. If you like that type of fun, you could also opt to gamble the night away at one of the many casinos in Panama City, Chiriqui and Chitre, or visit the Panama Canal of course.

Getting there

The majority of travel to Panama is by air using the international airlines that fly out of major airports in North and South America. The only direct flights out of Europe are from Amsterdam and Madrid. If you are traveling from South America, you are able to choose from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina amongst others. Whether it is by cruise ship or if you can sail, the country will welcome you by water too.


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