North Pacific Dive Summary
Last Updated: Sep 20, 2011
The north Pacific coast is one of the best places in Costa Rica for observing large marine animals in their natural habitat. White tip reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, hawksbill sea turtles and octopi can nearly always be seen around Playa del Coco's numerous dive sites, most of which are suitable for all skill levels. Notable seascapes include a sunken shipwreck and a baby shark cave. Visibility is fairly constant throughout the year, ranging from 18 - 100 feet.
Thirty miles northeast of Playa del Coco, near Santa Rosa National Park, lie the legendary Bat Islands where bull sharks flock during March - October. Giant manta rays visit the area in large groups during November and May, and sea turtles can be seen throughout the year. An hour south of Playa del Coco, the Catalina Islands are best known for hosting gigantic schools of 300 - 400 cownose rays, bands of 50 or more devil rays, and occasional whale shark and orca sightings. Manta rays tend to flock here January - March.
- Aquatic Life: Soft coral, sea anemone, seahorse, grouper, white tip reef shark, bull shark, squid, octopus, hawksbill sea turtle, green sea turtle, Olive Ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, spotted eagle ray, manta ray, devil stingray, angelfish, pufferfish and moorish idol. The Catalina Islands support manta rays November-May, and the Bat Islands host bull sharks March - October. Whales can be spotted September through March.
- Average Visibility: 18 to 100 feet
- Best Time of Year: All year, although visibility is better from May through early November.
- Skill Level: Beginner to intermediate except for the Bat Islands, which are for advanced divers only.
- Surge/Current: Currents are generally calm near the shore. A gentle surge is often present around the Catalina Islands and Isla Chora, but not bothersome. Waters can get quite rough at the Bat Islands.
- Thermoclines: There are a few thermoclines (steep temperature gradients that can be felt descending through layers of water) in the area, but they are only noticeable on deep dives.
- Water Temperature: 75-85°F May-September, 65-70°F November - March.
- Wetsuit Recommendation: Wetsuits are preferred throughout the year to protect against stings and scrapes, and strongly recommended December - March, when temperatures drastically drop.
North of Coco (travel times by boat from Playa del Coco):
A. Punta Santa Elena (Santa Elena Point): Just off of Santa Rosa National Park lies one of the most isolated dive sites in the country. While generally not as impressive as the Bat Islands, these two locales can be combined into a day trip if so desired. Travel Time: 2 hours.
B. Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands): The Bat Islands is one of the most rewarding – and sometimes challenging – dive sites in the country. Its isolated location two hours from Playa del Coco provides the perfect atmosphere for large schools of snappers, jacks, sharks, eagle rays, cownose rays, manta rays and the occasional whale shark. Waters can get quite rough here, and divers need to be confident swimming with predators (don't worry – with so many fish to feast on, they prefer not to munch on humans). Be sure to plan a trip to the Bat Islands at least two days in advance, as the journey is long and requires special preparation. The minimum number of divers for a Bat Islands excursion is normally three. Two and three tank dives are common. Depth: 30-90 feet; Skill Level: advanced; Travel Time: 1-2 hours depending on weather conditions; Visibility: 40-50 feet.
C. Isla Colorada (Red Island): A great spot for viewing most of the wildlife typical of the area, including king angelfish, Moray eels, and octopi. Travel Time: 1-2 hours.
D. Playa Naranjo (Orange Beach): A part of Santa Rosa National Park, Playa Naranjo is a hotspot for nesting Olive Ridley sea turtles. These beautiful creatures are most likely to be spotted swimming offshore June-December. Travel Time: 1-1.5 hours.
Playa del Coco, Ocotal, and Hermosa Area (travel times by boat from Playa del Coco):
A. Isla Palmares (Palmares Island): Set of three dive sites located just north of Playa del Coco. Travel Time: 25 minutes.
B. Punta Toreles (Toreles Point): An interesting dive similar to Palmares, located just a short distance from Playa del Coco. Travel Time: 25 minutes.
C. Islas Viradores (Virador Islands): A consistently great site to see a variety of fish and other species. Depth: 20-90 feet; Travel Time: 20 minutes.
D. Monkey Head: When observed from a side angle, this small island really looks like the head of a monkey. A steep wall leads to an impressive array of aquatic life. Depth: 25-75 feet; Travel Time: 20 minutes.
E. Playa Blanca (White Beach): Playa Blanca is located just offshore of the Four Seasons resort, a getaway frequented by some of the most famous celebrities in the world. Travel Time: 20 minutes.
F. Islas Pelonas (Pelonas Islands): These four points of interest are situated around two small islands that, from a distance, look astonishingly like a mother and baby sea turtle. Travel Time: 15-20 minutes.
I. La Tortuga (The Turtle): Don't miss La Tortuga's algae-covered sunken ship – massive groups of white tip reef sharks routinely congregate near the hull. Approach with caution, and try not to kick up a lot of sand. Depth: 10-80 feet; Travel Time: 15 minutes.
II. La Argentina (The Argentina): La Argentina boasts a small cave that is just big enough for a single baby shark to hide in. More often then not, divers succeed in finding a young white tip reef peeking out. Depth: 10-90 feet; Travel Time: 15 minutes; Visibility: 40 feet.
III. Los Estudiantes (The Students): Los Estudiantes is a local favorite for both its convenience and biodiversity. Depth: 10-40 feet; Travel Time: 15 minutes.
IV. Patrick's Point: Because of its close proximity to the other sites at Islas Pelonas, Patrick's Point is often combined with a dive to La Tortuga or La Argentina. Travel Time: 15 minutes.
G. Playa Ocotal: Great for night diving, the shallow waters of Playa Ocotal can be entered directly from the shore – no boat necessary. Try to come around 5:30 p.m. in order to time your descent with a spectacular Pacific sunset. Travel Time: 10 minutes by car.
H. Punta Casique (Casique Point): This shallow dive site is absolutely perfect for amateurs and first-time discovery divers. Highlights include volcanic rock formations, rays, and the occasional guitar fish. Depth: 40-50 feet; Travel Time: 20 minutes.
I. Playa Penca: A shallow dive that often attracts red and yellow seahorses. The clear waters off this mangrove-lined stretch of shore are ideal for snorkeling. Depth: 15-30 feet; Travel Time: 20 minutes.
J. Punta Gorda (Fat Point): This is a gorgeous area, and a great place to see all types of rays. Currents can get a little choppy at the surface, and sometimes a surge is present near the rocks. Depth:15-80 feet; Travel Time: 25 minutes.
K. El Aquario (The Aquarium): El Aquario is known for the schools of tropical fish that inhabit the waters surrounding these steep walls. This phenomenal island truly makes divers feel as if they were swimming around the inside of a fish tank. Depth: 50-125 feet; Travel Time: 30 minutes.
L. Islote Peliapa (Peliapa Islet): Large numbers of rays, king angelfish and pufferfish are commonly spotted here, just south of Punta Gorda. Travel Time: 30-40 minutes.
M. Guacamaya (Macaw): Named after the marvelous green and scarlet New World parrots native to Costa Rica. Travel Time: 30-40 minutes.
N. Islas Brumel (Brumel Islands): The Brumel Islands are closer in proximity to the Catalina Islands than to Playa del Coco. Travel Time: 30-40 minutes.
The Catalina Islands (all sites are 15-20 minutes by boat from Playa Flamingo):
E. Roca Sucia (Dirty Rock a.k.a. The Widow): This site is one of the most frequented in the area, and with good reason – visibility is consistent and marine life plentiful. Depth: 45-100 feet.
F. Elefante (Elephant): Divers like to circle the giant rock known as the Elephant, in search of rays and white tip reef sharks. Depth: 45-100 feet.
G. Big Cupcake: King angelfish can be found in great quantity at Big Cupcake. Depth: 45-120 feet.
H. Little Cupcake: Little Cupcake is nearly identical to its big sister. Keep an eye out for parrotfish intermingling with schools of king angelfish. Depth: 45-100 feet.
I. Peligrosa (Dangerous): Don't let the name “dangerous” fool you. This place is no more dangerous than any of the other innocuous sites at the Catalina Islands. Depth: 45-100 feet.
J. Dos Sombreros (Two Hats): Named two hats for its rock protrusions that resemble a couple of Mexican sombreros. Steep walls provide great opportunities for marine life encounters. Depth: 45-120 feet.
K. Catalina Grande (Big Catalina): Catalina Grande is one of the best locations for viewing majestic manta rays and white tip reef sharks. Rays can be observed in huge numbers during January-March. Depth: 45-120 feet.
Playa Samara and Carrillo Area:
A. Isla Chora (Chora Island): Isla Chora is Playa Samara's central dive site, located just a couple of miles offshore. Sea turtles, colorful tropical fish, and sea anemones are commonly spotted here. Avoid diving in the afternoon during the rainy season, as frequent thunderstorms are usually accompanied by lightning. Travel Time: 10 minutes from Playa Samara.