Tap, tap, tap. “Come quickly. I want to show you something,” said Divemaster Diego Mejías as he knocked on my door.
We walked to the back of the boat and gazed at the ocean. For about 10 minutes I didn’t see anything but black. Finally, one, two, three, then a mass of countless grayish-brown mobula rays, three to four feet in diameter, came into view. Their backs skimmed out of the water before diving down at irregular intervals, mouths gaping and ready to catch anything and everything in their path. They rushed directly at the boat and dove down under it at the last possible second, narrowly avoiding contact. This was definitely worth waking up for.
Rays don’t even begin to scratch what’s beneath the surface at Coiba National Park, a protected area of 270,125 hectares encompassing 38 islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí, off Panama’s Pacific coast. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to vast numbers of hammerhead sharks, enormous schooling fish, large populations of lobster, octopus, frogfish and even the occasional whale shark, all protected here under park jurisdiction. On any given day, you might see electric rays or sea turtles in the morning, a hundred black-and-white spadefish spiraling about midday, and marlin at sportfishing hot spot Hannibal Bank at sunset.
Because of the island’s isolation, a live-aboard cruise ship like the 115-foot MV Yemaya, operated by Coiba Dive Expeditions, is one of the only ways to reach this National Geographic-worthy destination. The excursion can also be combined with trips to Costa Rica’s Cocos Island and Colombia’s Malpelo Island, two other world-renowned shark-diving spots that are geologically similar.
While amenities may be akin to those on a commercial cruise ship, a voyage on a live-aboard vessel is a unique experience. Guests often come from all over the world, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for diving. For eight days and seven nights, the cruise ship takes up to 16 people five hours offshore of Panama’s Pacific coast to explore the blue depths.
A typical day on the vessel begins with coffee and breakfast at 7 a.m. Gourmet chef Juan Carlos Suárez never fails to put out a varied and impressive spread. The first dive of the day is at 8 a.m., followed by a morning nap or snack break and a second dive at 11 a.m. Lunch is served around midday; then comes a long rest break, followed by an afternoon dive and sometimes a night immersion. In between dives, guests are welcome to graze, snooze or paddle a kayak around the park’s picturesque white-sand beaches.
Toward the end of the week, the routine is interrupted to experience perhaps the most distinctive part of Coiba National Park: its history as a former penal colony. Its infamy in this country is comparable to that of Alcatraz Island in the United States. Dilapidated guard stations and jail buildings can still be found here, trafficked now only by visitors. The prison was closed in 2004, after housing the country’s most violent criminals for 85 years.
Although the penitentiary is no more, considering Coiba Island’s spectacular beaches and world-class diving at half the price of other live-aboard dive trips departing from Central America’s western coast, I say lock me up and throw away the key.
Coiba Dive Expeditions’ MV Yemaya trips to Coiba National Park and Malpelo Island depart from and return to Puerto Mutis, roughly 4.5 hours from Panama City. Trips to Cocos Island depart from Golfito, Costa Rica, and return to Puerto Mutis. All meals, snacks and nonalcoholic beverages are included. Nitrox is $100 extra per trip.
Prices for a seven-night Coiba National Park and Gulf of Chiriquí trip range from $2,400 to $2,900 per person, plus daily park fees. A nine-night Malpelo Island and Coiba National Park trip costs $3,500 to $4,100 per person, and a 12-night Cocos Island and Coiba trip costs $4,250 to $4,850 per person, plus park fees.