When people dream of scuba diving in tropical places, they picture clear, turquoise water, crystal visibility, and bright-colored coral reefs with bands of colorful fish darting everywhere.
This is what you find in many diving destinations around the world; the Caribbean, Asia, Hawaii, Australia and more.
So why dive in Costa Rica? Why torture yourself with cooler water temperatures, choppier water, cold upwellings, and so-so visibility?
Because diving in Costa Rica is incredible!!
“The Pacific coast offers the best diving with year-round great places to go. There are some good spots in the north and where we are on the Central Pacific coast, as well as Caño island which is home to lots of beautiful rays and sharks.” Georgia King, Oceans Unlimited
Georgia King, the training director of Oceans Unlimited in Quepos on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, agrees.
“Costa Rica offers a great mix of diving with awe-inspiring reef topography, big pelagic visitors including sharks and rays, as well as an amazing macro life of nudibranchs, reef fish and more. Plus we have an eight-month whale season, which is unlike anywhere else in the world”, she says.
The best way to describe diving in the Pacific versus diving in the Caribbean is to compare visiting the tropical rainforest to, say, the temperate forest in the States. It’s all about density versus diversity.
In the Pennsylvania woods, I’m likely to spot whitetail deer, grey squirrels, chipmunks, maybe a raccoon. I’m likely to see a lot of them, many of them, tons of them, but not much else.
If I take a walk in Carara National Park in Costa Rica, I may encounter agoutis, coatis, peccaries, jaguarundis, possums, bats, ocelots, tapirs, mice, sloths, brocket deer, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, margays, pacas, tamanduas, armadillos, and more. But, I’m most likely to spot only one or two individuals of each species.
The Pacific Ocean is the tropical rainforest of the marine world.
75 percent of all species of saltwater fish live in the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific is the largest and oldest ocean in the world. It covers 51 percent of our planet. That’s a big backyard for all our finned, shelled, and tentacled friends to play in.
This is why Costa Rica is such an enchanting place for scuba divers.
Descend 60 feet and you may marvel at a giant Pacific manta, a huge school of spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, whitetip reef sharks, bull sharks, sea turtles, massive schools of jacks, regal queen angelfish, lurking moray eels, secretive octopi, and dancing schools of squid. And that’s in your first 30 minutes.
Continue to the lava formations and become transfixed on delicate seahorses, tiny blennies popping in and out of their holes, and lace-like fiddler crabs making their way across purple starfish.
The possibilities of seeing this wide array of species are normal.
My Top Spots to Dive in Costa Rica:
1. Caño Island
La Isla del Caño (Caño Island) is 45 minutes by boat from Drake Bay in the Southern Pacific.
The weather affects visibility and can vary a lot. Visibility ranges from 20 to 90 feet.
I love Bajo del Diablo with its area of vast rock formations creating peaks and valleys and winding channels. Most diving is at 55-90 feet, but experienced divers can reach depths of 150 feet. This site is great for the big fish; black tip reef sharks, Pacific mantas, ocean groupers, even hammerhead sharks.
Coral Gardens is a good site for less experienced divers or those wanting a great night dive. The depths range from 15 to 40 feet with easy conditions and a nice array of colorful tropical fish, nurse sharks, and turtles.
“On the Pacific side of Costa Rica, you can expect to see a fantastic selection of marine life, including sharks, manta rays, humpback whales and the whale shark as well. The southern Pacific zone around Isla del Caño is best experienced around August/September for a great chance to see the humpback whales.” Adam Baker, a diving enthusiast in Costa Rica since 2009.
El Barco Hundido (sunken boat) is a cool site running between 40 -75 ft. deep. It was once the site of a sunken ship (long since gone), and now features deep rock formations frequented by enormous schools of grunts and jacks, giant groupers, scorpionfish, octopus, manta rays and sea turtles.
2. The Catalina Islands
Located 30 minutes offshore from Playa Flamingo in Guanacaste are the beautiful Catalina Islands. They are home to 16 different dive sites.
Like Caño, visibility can range between 20-90 feet with 50-60 being the norm on a good day.
“Las Catalinas has everything from seahorses to humpback whales. The specialty of this area for divers is the Pacific Giant Manta Rays which are seasonal from December to April. In general at this time of year there are so many Ray species to be seen in great numbers. Also, we see whitetip reef sharks all year along with giant schools of Latin grunts, big-eyed jacks, moray eels and several species of puffer fish to name just a few.” Phil O’Shea, Scuba Dive Costa Rica
All the sites here are good, and the dive masters will lead divers to the sites with the best conditions for the day.
These islands act as a cleaning station for large sea-going creatures. Pacific mantas, schools of barracuda, large sharks, and even pilot whales are here. The Catalinas are fantastic for rays too, including giant manta rays.
3. Isla Murcielago (Bat Island)
Ready for the “Big Scare”? That’s what local divers call Isla Murcielago. The island sits about an hour away from Ocotal in northern Guanacaste.
This site is only for very experienced divers. The average visibility is 30-100 feet, water temperatures hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and lots of big fish call on Bat Island.
Divers can view bull sharks, tiger sharks, Pacific mantas, sailfish, marlins, and giant schools of jacks, ladyfish, snapper, and spadefish.
Murcielago is the oldest geological site in Costa Rica and the windiest place, too. The ride out can be choppy and getting out of the water back onto the boat can be a thrill ride.
The island guarantees an experience you’ll never forget.
4. Cocos Island
Cocos Island is about 36 hours by boat from Costa Rica. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime destinations that no avid diver should miss.
Jacques Cousteau called Cocos Island the most beautiful and exciting island in the world.
The island is home to sharks, rays, tuna, dolphins, whale sharks, and a huge diversity of pelagic species.
Divers need to plan a “stay-on-board” trip as there are no accommodations on the island.
Every dive at Cocos is a drift dive and a shark dive. Currents carry divers through the clear water and sharks abound at every location.
The water is so clear, tropical fish like angels, parrot fish, and squirrelfish shimmer.
If hammerheads are your thing, put Cocos on your calendar and get there.
If you love birds (as many divers do), there are five endemic bird species found nowhere in the world but Cocos Island. Check those out too.
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is also great for learning to dive. It’s not only for established divers and experts.
Indeed, operators exist up and down the coast, all offering PADI certifications.
Phil O’Shea is the owner of Scuba Dive Costa Rica in Flamingo and Tamarindo in Guanacaste. He’s a PADI Course Director qualified to teach all levels and courses from beginners through to instructor and technical courses.
“Our dive boat can get out to all dive sites in 15 to 20 minutes. Here we have the right depth and conditions for all levels of diver so when it comes to learning to dive we have the perfect environment,” he says.
“Costa Rica’s diving environment, especially here at Las Catalinas, is great for entry levels such as Discover Scuba Diving and Open Water courses because of the easy and great diving conditions. The diving here good for all levels of divers so experienced divers can also enjoy this environment. The diversity and volume of marine life here are amazing with something special for everyone at all times of the year.” Phil O’Shea, Scuba Dive Costa Rica
Adam Baker, an English expat living in San Jose got his PADI certification in Ocotal, Guanacaste in 2009. He says the Pacific Ocean hooked him straight away on his very first dive during his PADI course.
“I remember seeing my first whitetip reef shark and at 6ft long, they can be intimidating, even if harmless. We also saw octopi, Olive ridley turtles, eels, rays, along with a whole number of schools that I cannot identify. I knew this was an experience I had to repeat.”
Are you interested in diving in Costa Rica?
Costa Rican Vacations offers a number of diving packages on their website. Go ahead and contact a Travel Consultant who can customize a scuba diving vacation for you.
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Joan Borreli moved to Costa Rica in 2005 with her dog, Simon. Her love of nature led her to meet her Costa Rican husband, Rudy. Today, Joan is the sales manager of the Namu Travel Group in San Jose, Costa Rica.