Panama is a narrow strip of land (in places less than 60km wide) that separates the Caribbean Sea to the north from the Pacific Ocean to the south.
The country, therefore, offers the opportunity to explore two completely different marine ecosystems, each with specific underwater landscapes and unique species.
On the Pacific side, Isla Coiba National Park is often considered as the best option for snorkeling. The crystal clear waters that surround these paradisiacal islets (particularly Granito de Oro and Isla Coco, which can be reached by boat tours) are visited by many hawksbill turtles, whitetip reef sharks, and a wide variety of reef fish.
Isla Parida (in the Gulf of Chiriqui) is also a good destination, as is, in the Gulf of Panama, Isla Iguana.
On the Caribbean coast, at the western end of the country, the Bocas del Toro archipelago and the San Blas archipelago are often cited as the most enjoyable destinations for snorkeling.
Composed of 9 main islands, around fifty cays, and several hundred tiny islets, the archipelago of Bocas del Toro offers numerous snorkeling possibilities, diversified and easily accessible.
Barrier reefs made up of hard corals (as in Cayo Zapatilla), reefs dominated by soft corals and sponges (an environment that can be discovered for example in Cayo Coral), mangroves or seagrass dotted with starfish (for example in Playa Estrella, at Restaurante Alfonso or in Bocas Town), or wrecks (Barco Hundido), each spot is a different experience.
Much of the reefs in the Bocas del Toro archipelago are protected by the Parque Nacional Isla Bastimentos, and most spots can be reached by boat (many day-trippers offer to take you there from Isla Colón).
Be careful though, because underwater visibility is very variable throughout the year, and the reefs tend to deteriorate rapidly under the effect of mass tourism.
Further east, the San Blas archipelago is made up of more than 350 coral cays, of which only 60 are inhabited. These tiny, remote islands, with their few coconut palms and their white sand licked by the Caribbean Sea, look like a lost world.
Most of the San Blas Islands are fringed by pretty coral reefs that are accessible from the beach (eg at Isla Diablo) and are also home to a few shallow wrecks, such as at Isla Perro Chico.
The islands are in fact inhabited by the Kuna people who have established their own regulations on each island, close to that of an integral marine reserve: scuba diving, spearfishing, and fishing are prohibited. Only angling for the island’s inhabitants is allowed, as well as snorkeling for visitors.
The Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Panama each have a specific underwater atmosphere. On the Caribbean side, you’ll mainly explore mangroves and small coral and sponge reefs. The gray angelfish, spotted moray eel, spotfin butterflyfish, and cushion starfish are some of the most common (and iconic) species in Panama’s Caribbean waters.
On the Pacific side, you’ll mainly find rocky bottoms with small hard corals. Many reef fish also live on this side of the country, such as the king angelfish, the guineafowl puffer, or the blacknosed butterflyfish. However, it is the presence of numerous hawksbill turtles and whitetip reef sharks that attract snorkel enthusiasts to the region.
If you are planning a trip to Panama and want to bring a fish ID guide with you, we recommend the excellent Reef Fish Identification – Florida Caribbean Bahamas (also available in ebook) for the Caribbean Coast, and Reef Fish Identification – Baja to Panama (available in ebook too) for the Pacific Coast. These two books are the reference guides to ID the fish you will encounter snorkeling in the country.
Snorkeling is possible all the year round in Panama, where the climate is tropical and temperatures vary between 75 and 86°F (24 and 30°C). The Caribbean coast is more humid than the Pacific coast, rainfall is more frequent and heat is omnipresent (86-95°F/30-35°C).
During the dry season, from January to April, the heat and humidity are less pronounced than during the rainy season. During the rainy season (or green season), from May to December, it rains almost every day.
The water temperature is constant (about 82°F/28°C) on both coasts, with variations according to the season and the weather.
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On the Caribbean coast only. You can’t miss them in Bocas del Toro, especially at Playa Estrella and Restaurante Alfonso
Frequently sighted in Coiba National Park, in particular at Granito de Oro and Isla Coco
Found on every snorkeling spot of the Caribbean coast; a very similar species (abudefduf saxatilis) occur on the Pacific side
Found on the Pacific coast; abundant at Granito de Oro and Isla Coco
Juveniles are frequently sighted in Bocas del Toro, especially at Playa Estrella and Cayo Zapatilla
Common on all spots of the Caribbean side
Common in Bocas del Toro, for instance at Cayo Coral
On all spots of the Caribbean side
On all spots of the Pacific coast
On all spots of the Caribbean coast
Rocky seabed with turtles, sharks and reef fish
Rocks and coral reef with turtles and colorful fish
Shallow lagoon with seagrass meadows and hard coral
Coral and sponges reef with lots of fish
Coral cay fringed by a coral reef
Shallow seagrass flats with sea stars and juvenile fish
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