Snorkeling & Diving
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2014
What tropical getaway is complete without a dip into the great big unknown that lies just below sea level? With two different coasts to choose from and more than 7,000 different marine species you'll find every different shape, color and size of tropical fish among flourishing coral gardens, expansive underwater canyons, ship wrecks and more in Costa Rica. Costa Rica's incredible biodiversity attracts underwater explorers of all experience levels from every corner of the world.
For visitors with no diving experience, most dive shops offer "resort" or "discovery dives" up to 30 feet deep that include classroom study, practice time, and an open water dive under the guidance of a certified dive master. You'll find reputable PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certified dive shops on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts that offer four-day PADI Open Water courses for certification. The course includes a pool dive 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. But you don't need to dive deep to explore Costa Rica's underwater realms of reef and tropical fish, snorkeling offers insight under the sea without all the training.
Knowledgeable dive masters provide visitors with unparalleled dive and snorkel tours of the country's greatest underwater attractions. Costa Rica's coral reefs support hundreds of species of algae, which in turn feed tropical fish like puffers, king angelfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, damsels and zebra 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, great for snorkelers on a day-trip. Assorted species of sharks – including bull, hammerhead, silky, whitetip 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 weather, season and location. If conditions are not ideal in one region, they may be great in another. This makes snorkeling and diving excursions possible throughout the year. On both 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. Seasonal rains can affect the visibility close to the coastline where silt and debris gets carried from the rivers into the ocean, but farther offshore destinations like Cano and Cocos islands are less affected.
Famous for its expansive sparkling waters and colorful living coral, the south Caribbean coast features some of the country's best snorkeling spots. Dive and snorkel among the elkhorn, brain and fire coral among hundreds of tropical fish while looking out for sting rays, nurse sharks, octopi, sea turtles, lobsters and more. Visit the waters off the coast of Cahuita National Park, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo for an opportunity to explore one of Costa Rica's only living reefs in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean.
The best months for snorkeling and diving are March through April and October through September coinciding with the Caribbean's dry season (Dec-March). Highlights include unique underwater gorges and canyons formed by shifting tectonic plates and earthquakes 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.
Whales, whitetip reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and sea turtles are just a few of the large marine animals waiting off the shores of the north Pacific coast. Visit Playa del Coco, the Bat and Catalina Islands for a chance to spot them among shipwrecks, shark's cave and a variety of unusual and intriguing undersea locations found less than 20 minutes off 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 Playa del 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 north Pacific coast is from May to December and into January, but conditions are good year round.
The central Pacific underwater world is known for its diverse marine life that includes bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, orcas and sea turtles found alongside islands, coastlines, volcanic formations and sandy sea bottoms. Manuel Antonio, Dominical and Uvita all offer nearby snorkel and dive locations with access to Cano Island, the Pacific's bastion for diving and snorkeling and home to whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, seahorses and parrotfish among others.
You'll find the best locales for snorkeling off the coast of the central Pacific in Uvita at the Ballena National Marine Park around Las Gemelas (The Twins), rock formations and the Whale's Tail, a unique geographic formation formed by an offshore sandbar connected to the mainland by a thin strip of sand that disappears when the tide rises.
Water temperatures average about 82 degrees, and visibility oftentimes exceeds 100 feet – depending upon the weather and season. The best time of year for snorkeling and diving is from November to April coinciding with the dry season (Dec.-April).
In the south Pacific, you don't find aquatic life – it finds you. Warm waters and high visibility make Cano Island, one of the best dive spots in Costa Rica, second only to Cocos Island. Volcanic mounds, long reefs and 80-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 and the birthing place for hundreds of species of tropical fish and whales.
Whitetip 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 not afraid of humans, which allows snorkelers and divers an intense, up-close experience. Snorkeling and diving are good all year, but are best during the dry season (Dec.-April).
One of the world’s top ten scuba diving destinations, Cocos Island features an amazing display of biodiversity among ethereal underwater experiences. This lush, uninhabited island is located 340 miles off Costa Rica’s south Pacific coast. Cocos’ waters brim with eight species of sharks, including whitetip 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 wet season (May-Nov.). 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.