Text and photos: Javier Pinzón
The island of Coiba in the Gulf of Chiriquí served as a maximum-security prison for over 85 years, which protected its invaluable wild treasures from colonization and exploitation. From 1919 to 2004, the island served as a seclusion center for the country’s most dangerous prisoners, who were contained on the island by the hostile primary tropical forest surrounding them. This allowed 80% of the island (an area of about 500 square kilometers) to escape intervention by humans, permitting the jungle to survive the rapid development of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Located in the Gulf of Chiriquí southwest of the mainland, Coiba is the largest island in the Panamanian Pacific. It is part of an archipelago made up of 38 islands and islets. This select group of lush, green islands filled with nature is surrounded by both calm and stormy turquoise waters in which large fish, whales, turtles, and dolphins swim among coral and all the beauty of a healthy ocean.
The waters’ charms are such that reef sharks can still be spotted. They are scarce in other parts of the region due to illegal fishing, but in Coiba, they swim among the tourists who come from all over the world to discover the beauty of the sea through scuba diving or snorkeling.
Coiba welcomes all sea lovers. For newcomers experiencing the sensation of breathing under water for the first time, there are calm, shallow waters filled with marine life. Coral reefs form here and crabs, sea urchins, and moray eels, among other species, abound in what appear to be giant pools. For the experienced seeking more extreme adventures, there are rocky walls with stronger currents and more turbulent waters offering unique treasures within reach of scuba divers. Coiba is the home par excellence of the soft coral forests of the Pacific. The more turbulent waters are inhabited by some forty different marine species.
With Coiba nearby, there is no need to visit an aquarium. At both ends of the island, in either calm or turbulent waters, a large number of marine animals are relatively easy to observe. On a good day you may even spot a whale shark hanging around Wahoo Rock. Although this shark reaches lengths of up to 40 feet, it has no teeth and must use a unique food filtration system similar to that of whales to feed on krill and other plankton organisms. Due to their large size and docile behavior, whale sharks can be carefully observed, if a minimum distance of six feet is maintained and other safety instructions are followed.
During a dip in the waters surrounding Don Juan Rock it is also possible to see groups of whitetip reef sharks, which measure about six feet in length and are also harmless. They are commonly seen in caves under rocks, swimming on the reef, or on sandbanks between the coral colonies. Though they are harmless, again, it’s a good idea to observe from a distance of about ten feet. If you visit El Faro you’re likely to encounter giant stingrays and large shoals of paddlefish and jacks. You may also have an opportunity to appreciate the “cleaning stations,” where larger fish wait for smaller ones, with the help of certain crabs, to clean their scales, gills, and even the inside of their mouths.
In September and October, Coiba offers visitors one of the best marine shows in the world: the breathtaking jumps of the humpback whales. These marine mammals, up to 52 feet in length, are migratory. They swim up from the cold southern waters where they feed, into the calm, warm waters of the tropics, to give birth. If you listen carefully beyond the bubbles while scuba diving, you may hear the song of a male searching for his mate.
In every corner, on every rock, and under every wave lie thousands of underwater treasures ready to be discovered. It’s no wonder that, after the prison closed, and given the near pristine condition of its forests and seas, the island was declared a National Park in 1991 —Panama’s largest marine reserve–, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, due to its amazing biodiversity and high degree of endemism (unique species found in one place only).
The creation of the park attracted increasing numbers of local and foreign tourists. To ensure the preservation of this wild jewel of Panama, a management plan was designed that took into account the surrounding communities, visitors to the park, and those in charge of transporting, lodging, feeding, and guiding these visitors.
To prevent the tourist boom from damaging the fragile ecosystems and to maintain control over all activities, specific scuba diving and snorkeling areas were designated. Some of them were initially marked with buoys to facilitate the mooring of boats and avoid anchoring and the damages that this generates. A recent alliance between NatGeo, the MarViva foundation, and local diving operators made possible the installation of additional buoys at twelve diving sites, bringing the total number of marked sites in the northeastern part of the park to 22. A larger number of buoys reduces the pressure from tourists at any one site by distributing visitors across different sites.
Your visit to Coiba, however, is not limited to its marine charms. Its primary forest and dense, green canopy are home to some 36 species of mammals, 147 bird species, and some 39 species of amphibians and reptiles, which can be spotted along any of its trails. Whether by boat or kayak, swimming, diving, or walking, Coiba is a wild treasure full of jewels just waiting to be discovered.
How to Get There
A 30-mile boat ride from Santa Catalina, a coastal community with lodging and tourist services two hours from the city of Santiago takes about 1.15 hours.
You can also approach from Puerto Mutis, half an hour from Santiago, a port community about 60 miles from the island. This route takes you through impressive mangrove forests and lasts about 2.5 hours.
Pixvae is another option. It is the closest mainland location to diving sites and about two hours from Santiago. This route travels through beautiful landscapes but requires a 4×4 vehicle.
Who to Contact
• Kevan Mantell, with his safety crew specializing in scientific, technical, and advanced dives, and with a world-renowned naturalist guide. Dive Base Coiba
• Fredy Gaviria, Expedición Coiba (expedicioncoiba.com)
• Herbie Sunk, Scuba Coiba (scubacoiba.com)
• Oriel Abrego (507-6926-9134)
• Juan Camarena (507-6792-0974)
• Victoriano Ortega (507-6513-1514)
• Cooperativa del Mar, Efraín Camarena
• Asociación Rural Agroturística de Montijo (ARAM), Andis Batista (507-6599-5605)