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Where to dive late January? Costa Rica? Belize? Panama? Other?

Discussion in 'Central America' started by sapphires, Jan 3, 2016.

  1. sapphires

    sapphires Garibaldi


    My husband and I are certified Advanced Open Water divers with 35+ dives and we're planning a (diving) vacation from the end of January till early February (8-9 days in total, at least 3 days of diving). We've been doing a lot of research on what places might be best around this time of the year but it's really hard to decide. We're from Colombia, living at the Caribbean coast and the diving is good here but not great (it's cheap and you can see a lot of nice fish and eels, once we even saw dolphins, but never sharks, octopuses or anything bigger). These are our options so far:

    - Costa Rica, Pacific coast. I've read that the Catalina Islands are great to dive and you'll 'most likely' see big manta rays, sharks, turtles etc. I've read though that the visibility is quite crappy. I also read something about Cano island.

    - Belize. The blue whole sounds interesting of course, also we're usually more interested in marine life than anything else. I've heard you can see sharks. Water could be quite cold in January though, and I've heard the visibility might not be the best around this time of the year.

    - Panama. Cheap diving and I've heard Bocas del Toro is great. On the other hand, not sure if we'll really see anything different than we see in Colombia

    - Galapagos. It's always been our dream to go, but I read that it's better to go between May and November, since there's much more sea life. So not sure if it would be worth it.

    Which one would you pick around this time of the year? Or do you have any better recommendations? We already dove Caribbean Colombia (of course), Mexico (the Cenotes, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen) and other destinations outside of the Americas.

    Thanks a lot!
  2. KathyV

    KathyV ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Midwestern US
    The only place on your list that I have dived is Belize and I think it is a good option but I have never been there in January so I don't know about the visibility - hopefully others can answer that question.

    Curacao is not far from Colombia and I think it might be a good option for you because the diving is good (boat and shore diving) and there are more topside activities than nearby Bonaire, since you only want to dive for a few days. The water will be warm (80s F) but you won't see a lot of big animals. Nice reefs and tropical fish and there will be turtles and tarpons.

    The northern Caribbean/Atlantic are not on your list but they offer good chances to see sharks, but the water will be a bit colder at that time of year (mid to upper 70s F). I have never been to Cuba but I understand that Jardiennes de la Reina is a great shark-diving destination.

    The Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas are good Caribbean destinations to see lots of sharks. Provo in the T&C islands offers good restaurants and topside attractions and diving. And there are several places in the Bahamas where you can see sharks (Nassau, Freeport, Abaco). San Salvador is a good place to see sharks in the Bahamas but not much to do topside.

    Grand Cayman is a great place for a tropical vacation with some diving because there are lots of things to do and see topside, you will probably see a few sharks (nurse sharks and reef sharks) but it is not a "sharky destination" but there will be lots of turtles, tarpons, eels, stingrays, and many groupers - possibly even goliath groupers (rare).

    You say that you have done some diving "outside the Americas" so where have you been? This is kind of an "off the wall" suggestion, but since you are looking for "sharks and something different" so you might also consider the Red Sea. The sea life is very different from the Caribbean and you have a good chance of shark encounters. There are lots of things to do and see topside in Egypt.

    And I am sure that there are other good options to consider in the far Pacific and in the Indian Ocean, but I have little experience with these areas so hopefully others can advise you. Good luck!
    diverkim likes this.
  3. sapphires

    sapphires Garibaldi

    That's for your answer Kathy! We have dived in Italy and Thailand (Koh Phangan and Similans, where we saw a leopard shark, reef sharks, squids, turtles, a giant moray, sea horses, star fishes etc.). I have to say Thailand was my favorite because we saw amazing stuff in every dive, while in Colombia for example I haven't seen anything bigger (minus a few black tip sharks in San Andres island).

    I don't necessarily need to see sharks, but of course it would be nice to see something I haven't seen before. Maybe dolphins, whale sharks (even though I think it's pretty unlikely at this time of the year), humpback whales, octopuses or big manta rays. What months did you dive in Belize and what did you see?
  4. Moray

    Moray Nassau Grouper

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Here
    Cocos or Socorro Islands
  5. gb_williams

    gb_williams Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Smyrna, Georgia
    Regarding Panama, I wouldn't recommend Bocas del Toro. At least not for you. As you said, you've been diving the Colombian Caribbean and I don't think Bocas is that much different.

    However, I would recommend Isla Coiba on the Pacific side. My wife and I dove three days there during the same time of year that you're looking to go -- the first of February. We saw a lot of the same types of reef fish that you encounter in Hawaii, plus frog fish, lots of different types of morays, very large schools of barracuda and jacks and lots of sharks. In fact, Coiba Dive Center even "guarantees" sharks on every dive. This is also the time of year when mantas and whale sharks are around Coiba, but we didn't see any.

    Coiba diving isn't for everyone. There are currents and thermoclines to contend with. Visibility varies from 10 feet to 80 feet. And, many of the dives are 70 to 80 feet.

    Staying on Isla Coiba is quite an experience as well. It's a former penal colony turned national park, so it's very much untouched. There is a lot wildlife -- monkeys, ñeques, etc. But, the accommodations are very basic.

    The dive operators are located in Santa Catalina -- about a 7 hour drive from Panama City. Isla Coiba is another 90 minutes by boat.

    There is another concern -- Carnival. This year, it's February 6 through 9. So, getting reservations in Panama City and Santa Catalina may be tricky at this late date.
  6. USdiver1

    USdiver1 Divemaster

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    Location: Southwest Ohio
    I lived in Central America for quite a few years and have been diving in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. I would recommend Belize first from the list you have presented. It is Caribbean diving, what you are used to but superior to San Andres or other Colombian Caribbean sights. I would recommend Placencia in southern Belize over other areas. It is more remote and unspoiled. As far as Costa Rica, I have been to the Islas Huevos and Islas Murcielagos in Guanacaste. Visibility is only so, so. Coiba in Panama is fantastic, but only for the experienced diver. If you are very comfortable in the water and do not mind currents, then it would be my first choice. Bocas del Toro is mediocre Caribbean diving, although the marine park on the Islas Zapatillas is very nice. (Not to be confused with Islas Sapodillas in Placencia, Belize which was my first recommendation).
  7. farsidefan1

    farsidefan1 Loggerhead Turtle Rest in Peace

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Salt Lake Valley, Utah USA
    I have been to Belize in January (Ambergris Caye) and found it very good. Indeed near excellent by Caribbean standards. I would not pay extra for the Blue Hole dive although the dives you get along the way are truly memorable. I just wore a t short (and suit - you wouldn't want to see me any other way except in a 7 mil lol) but I was younger and dumber. I'd suggest a 3 - 5 mil wetsuit.

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