The 500 km² sized Isla Coiba, located 25 km off the Panamanian coast, still has an aura of mystery.
Until the step-by-step closure of the infamous prison, which began in 1990 and was only completed in 2005 with the release of the last prisoner, only inmates and their guards were allowed to see the island. In the same two years, 1990 and 2005 respectively, the archipelago was declared a Marine National Park and a Unesco World Heritage Site. What was a curse for the inmates of the penal colony, not a few politically unpopular people “disappeared” forever on Isla Coiba, proved to be a blessing for the nature of the island and the surrounding waters: An economic exploitation of natural resources did not take place, so that, for example, 85 percent of the forest is primary forest to this day. It is home to numerous endangered species such as the crested eagle and the bright red macaw. Under water, species diversity includes 760 fish species, 33 shark species and 20 species of whales and dolphins. Especially in the winter months of the dry season between January and March, when a constant north wind blows, deep water rises. These cold, plankton-rich ocean currents attract large schools of fish, predators and rare whale sharks. While air temperatures are between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius all year round and water temperatures on the surface between 27 and 29 degrees Celsius, it is usually only 24 degrees Celsius in deeper layers and in cold currents the temperature can cool down to 19 degrees Celsius in some places. This results in crack layers and the visibility changes with them. As a rule, visibility is between 5 and 10 metres in the cool area and between 20 and 25 metres in the warmer area. The Marine National Park is one of the best areas for experienced divers. In Santa Catalina, tours (or day tours) lasting several days are offered, during which the participants spend the night on Isla Coiba in the local ranger station (very simple accommodation in the dormitory).
PLEASE NOTE: In November 2017 the government of Panama closed the Ranger Station until further notice. The island as such and the dive sites are not affected. One of the tour operators has found an alternative accommodation in the Bahia Honda, which offers even more comfort (private rooms with own bathroom). Thus the distance to the dive sites remains the same and the tours can continue.
Isla Coiba is part of a network of marine protected areas that form a biological corridor in the Eastern Pacific. Apart from Coiba, these include the Islas del Coco off Costa Rica, the two Colombian islands of Malpelo and Gorgona and the Galapagos Islands (“Corredor Marino de Conservación del Pacífico Este Tropical”). The coral reefs on some islands of this corridor belong to the few reefs of the tropical East Pacific. The largest of them is located a few kilometers off Coiba’s west coast and is called Hannibal Bank. Behind the reef, the seabed drops to a depth of several thousand meters.
A collection of pictures of the underwater world around Isla Coiba can be found here.
The coastal town on the eastern edge of the Golfo de Chiriquí with its dark beaches was only known to surfers outside Panama for a long time, as Catalina’s Point Break is considered one of the best surf spots in Central America. Since the access road from Soná has been paved, the days of seclusion are numbered. Signs pointing to real estate brokers and landowners willing to sell indicate future developments. Santa Catalina has also become an increasingly popular destination for divers from all over the world in recent years. It is not only the geographically closest mainland point to the archipelago of Isla Coiba, but also has interesting local dive sites to offer.