A narrow isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea and home to 27 marine protected areas, Panama offers the perfect setting to explore a wide range of unique marine environments on your vacation. On our 8-day Panama snorkeling trip, we visit three beautiful marine protected areas on both coasts: Coiba National Park and Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park in the Pacific, and Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park (Bocas del Toro area) in the Caribbean.
Coiba National Park was established in 1992 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. To be selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a park has to meet certain qualifications, such as it “must be of outstanding universal value.” UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a tool for preserving and protecting habitats and endangered species, and creates a way to gain international attention and action. Coíba National Park encompasses Coiba Island (Isla Coiba) and 38 smaller islands, protecting the archipelago and its surrounding waters. It is often compared to the Galápagos in terms of its marine wildlife diversity and geological similarities, and has been called “a paradise for nature lovers” by the New York Times. Coiba National Park hosts one of the biggest coral reefs in the eastern Pacific, and is home to over 800 species of tropical fish, 33 species of sharks, and 20 species of cetaceans. Snorkeling in the spectacular waters provide the opportunity to see corals, butterflyfish, angelfish, tiger sharks, whitetip reef sharks, whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, and even humpback or pilot whales!
The Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park lies just to the north of Coíba National Park along the Panamanian coastline, making it easy to visit both on the same trip. This protected area was established in 1994 and covers 25 uninhabited islands and the surrounding waters, which contain important marine ecosystems like mangroves, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs. Like Coíba National Park, the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park hosts lively coral reefs which are home to sea turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, and many species of reef fish. According to Frommer’s, this park is “one of Panama’s best-kept secrets.”
A short trip across Panama’s interior brings you to the shores of the Caribbean Sea, where we explore Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. This protected area was created in 1988 in the famed Bocas del Toro Archipelago, with the goal to protect and conserve marine and terrestrial wildlife and habitats. With some of the best snorkeling in the region, Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park boasts incredible species diversity of sponges, reef fish, four species of sea turtle, and nearly eighty different coral species.
These three wonderful parks are the focus of our 8-day Panama: Snorkeling Marine Parks of the Pacific and Caribbean expedition, and we also visit the rarely-visited Isla Uvas and Islas Secas Archipelago as well as the Panama Canal. Grab your mask, fins, and snorkel and join us on our next expedition!
Huntley Penniman is an Oceanic Society social media specialist and communications strategist. From diving to conservation and environmental communications, her passion lies in learning more about the wildlife that lives under the surface of the ocean. Huntley holds a B.S. in Biology from Boston College and a Master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.