Snorkeling & Diving
Last Updated: Feb 02, 2013
Home to an astounding 7,000 marine species – or 3.5% of the planet’s total aquatic life – Costa Rica's incredible biodiversity attracts underwater explorers from all corners of the world. Steep walls, mysterious shipwrecks, underwater caves, and striking coral reefs make for some of the top diving destinations in Central America. For visitors with no diving experience, most dive shops conduct "resort" or "discovery dives" that include classroom study, practice time, and an open water dive under the guidance of a certified dive master. There are reputable PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certified dive shops on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts that offer 4-day Open Water courses. The course includes five pool dives and four dives at local dive sites under the supervision of an instructor. With PADI certification, visitors can dive up to 60 feet in the open ocean.
Knowledgeable dive masters provide guests with unparalleled tours of the country's greatest underwater attractions. Coral reefs support hundreds of species of algae, which in turn feed tropical fish like puffers, king angelfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, damsels and needle fish. Lobster, eel and octopi hide among the nooks and crannies of rocks and corals, with some residing just a few feet below the surface. Assorted species of sharks – including bull, hammerhead, silky, white tip reef, nurse and whale sharks – as well as rays – like the manta, cownose, and spotted eagle rays – can be observed throughout the hundreds of dive locales along the pristine Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
Visibility varies by season and location. If conditions are not ideal in one region, they are absolutely perfect in another. This makes snorkeling and diving excursions possible throughout the year. Seasonal rains from May-November have little effect on diving in Costa Rica – visitors should remember that it doesn't rain below the surface. Be it the Caribbean or Pacific coast, adventurers are almost always rewarded with delightfully warm waters, unbelievable seascapes, and close encounters with interesting creatures like sea turtles, spiny puffer fish, sharks, and graceful rays.
Famous for its expansive acres of sparkling waters and colorful living coral, the southern Caribbean coast boasts some amazing snorkeling spots. Dive sites off of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo provide rich opportunities to view bright tropical fish in the clearest of waters.
Prime snorkeling and diving months are March - May and September - October. Highlights include unique underwater formations (like a field of holes caused by an earthquake) and masses of extremely rare black coral. Snorkeling is at its best around the rocky sections of downtown Puerto Viejo, as well as in the bay and estuary at Punta Uva. Truly phenomenal locations can also be found along the 600 acres of shallow reef that make up Cahuita National Park.
The northern Pacific is one of Costa Rica’s most celebrated diving and snorkeling areas. Playa del Coco, the Bat Islands, and the Catalina Islands are thrilling places to swim with large marine creatures such as white tip reef sharks, whales, spotted eagle rays and sea turtles.
Impressive shipwrecks, a lone baby shark’s cave, and other fascinating and unusual locations can be found less than 20 minutes from Playa del Coco's shore. While most dive sites are also good for snorkeling, the best places for shallow exploration are around the rocks at the south end of Coco that separate the beach from Playa Ocotal, and to the very north where a small waterfall runs from May - October. The best time to dive the northern Pacific coast is from May - December and into January, but conditions are good all year.
The central Pacific underwater world is known more for its diverse marine life and volcanic formations than for its coral. Manuel Antonio offers dive sites with dramatic rock formations as well access to the legendary Cano Island. The best locales for snorkeling are around Las Gemelas (The Twins), rock formations just 15 minutes by boat from Manuel Antonio. White tip reef sharks, sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, seahorses and parrotfish are just a few of the species likely to be observed on any given dive. Water temperatures average about 82°F, and visibility oftentimes exceeds 100 feet – depending upon the weather and season. The best time of year for snorkeling and diving is from November - April.
In the southern Pacific, you don't find aquatic life – it finds you. Warm waters and high visibility make the Osa Peninsula's Cano Island, one of the best dive spots in Costa Rica, second only to Cocos Island. Volcanic mounds, long reefs and eighty-foot walls offer an amazing habitat for a variety of marine life, including both pelagic and reef fish. Snorkeling is ideal around the shallow rocks of the north face of the island.
White tip reef sharks, stingrays, morays, sea turtles and jacks can be found effortlessly at most sites. These large creatures often reside at shallow depths and are unafraid of humans, which allows snorkelers and divers an intense, up-close experience. Snorkeling and diving are good all year, but are best from December - April.
One of the world’s top ten scuba diving destinations, Cocos Island boasts amazing biodiversity and ethereal underwater experiences. This lush, uninhabited island is located 340 miles off Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific coast. Cocos’ waters are brimming with eight species of sharks, including white tip reef sharks, tiger sharks, and scores of scalloped hammerhead sharks. Divers can also expect to encounter yellowfin tuna, green sea turtles and huge schools of bigeye jacks. Large numbers of hammerheads are most often seen during the rainy season, from May-November. Named a national park in 1978, Cocos Island receives very few tourists other than experienced divers who book 10-day scuba safaris with private tour companies.