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A peek into the waters of the Gulf of Papagayo: 

One of the Top 20 places in the world to dive.


By: Andrés Benavente

Photos by: Martin Van Gestel-

Owen Shilling -

Patrick Odermatt -

Oliver Bloemeke

Edwar Herreño-

Diego Mejías -

The diving in the North Pacific coast of Costa Rica is all about encountering big schools of large varieties of fish, waters that are almost always warm, immense arrays of marine life and close encounters with giant marine creatures such as cetaceans, manta rays, bull sharks or a gentle whale shark.


Curiously, this richness of marine life is a phenomenon that originates on land.  The trade winds blow from the center of the continent towards the ocean and move large amounts of superficial water from the coast hundreds of miles far out into the ocean.

The displacement of this large amount of water causes a momentary vacuum effect on the coast, which is then replaced by the resurgence of masses of cold water from the depths of the ocean.  This deep current emerges loaded with nutrients, eggs, larvae and other microorganisms, providing an elaborate concentration of food for those “higher up” on the food chain. 

This density of micro-life supports and nourishes tens of species of phytoplankton and zooplankton, hundreds of fish species, many types of cetaceans, 4 species of turtles and thousands of mollusks, crustaceans, algae, sponges, corals, medusas and anemone. 

The oceans of Costa Rica are home to a total of 6,778 different species, that is, 3.5% of all known marine life.  In other words, this marine territory, represents barely 0.0016 of the total ocean volume, but encompasses 1 in every 28 marine species on the planet.

Visibility, quantity, temperature, proximity to dive sites and the variety of species?

Due to the emergence of nutrients from the bottom and the richness of microscopic life, the visibility in the area can be quite inconsistent (ranging from 13 to 80 feet).  In some periods, on any given day it may be very clear while the next day you may find yourself swimming in a microorganism broth.  Nevertheless, even with very poor visibility, the high concentration of life provides for an outstanding experience, full of sightings and close encounters, from the miniscule to the monumental.


The best visibility is found from June to September (from 40 to 80 feet), while the lowest visibility usually occurs between October and February (13 to 50 feet), however this period provides for the best opportunity for close contact with large pelagic species.

The bottom. The marine bottom of the Gulf of Papagayo is made up of volcanic rock formations, valleys of sand and rocky and coral peaks. The depths at the dive sites range from 40 to 110 feet.

Temperature.With waters that most of the time range between 70ºF and 82ºF and with constant migration of species with each season, Guanacaste is ideal for diving year-round. However, due to cold thermoclines (as low as 60˚ F), always wearing a 3mm wetsuit is recommended. 

Dive shops. With 6 PADI operators in Playas del Coco, Playa Hermosa and Ocotal, plus a complete infrastructure of tourist services and 25 close local diving sites, the Gulf of Papagayo is undisputedly the epicenter of diving in Costa Rica.

While there are dive shops in other areas of the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Central Valley, those who know go directly to the Gulf.

Dive sites.  Beyond the 25 outstanding local sites in the Gulf of Papagayo, there are two additional world class dive locations in the Gulf: The Catalina Islands (Islas Catalinas), a site famous for manta ray encounters (50 minutes away by boat) and the Bat Islands (Islas Murciélago) also known as The House of the Bull Sharks (75 minutes away by boat).

Diving acts as a magnet in Costa Rica, attracting some 35,000 tourists annually.  This is an important economic activity that is not greatly affected by seasonality and has very low environmental impact.  In fact, diving is one of the better-regulated and more sustainable tourist activities in the country.

Many of the divers we interviewed summed their view of the area as follows: These waters are not the clearest waters on the planet, and the dives aren’t the cheapest on the continent, nor is the marine floor the prettiest one can find. 

However, the incredible food chain that results from the plankton soup enable you to encounter large marine life in incredible abundance.  That’s why this area is unique. Each dive carries a great surprise of what large or macro life might unveil itself.  Everyone knows that what awaits them on each dive is something uncertain, but whatever it may be, it will always be…a dive to remember.

Let yourself go into the depths of the Gulf of Papagayo. Dive in and discover all the wonders that await you in the other 2/3 of your planet.


Major dive sites in the Gulf of Papagayo 

Virador (Spinner) (30-80 feet): A submerged volcanic isle permanently surrounded by life.  At a depth of 33 feet there is a cave where it’s common to encounter reef sharks and nurse sharks. At a slightly deeper depth next to some rocks there is a plateau that functions as a cleaning station for rays and sharks.  It is also usual to see large schools of snappers, grunts, king angelfish and sergeant majors here. Level: Easy, with moderate currents.                                              

Cabeza de Mono (Monkey Head) (30-75feet)

In the vicinity of this eye-catching pinnacle of eroded volcanic rock, that resembles the head of a gorilla, one finds groups of eagle rays and large schools of tropical fish.  This is also the permanenthome of an Olive Ridley turtle. Level:  Easy, sometimes with cross currents.

Meros (Grouper)(0-60 feet) A beautiful submerged peak whose main attraction is a sunken sailboat at a depth of 60 feet.  Here you can see marine life ranging from tiny nudibranchs to large groupers.  Its shallow depth makes this an ideal spot for snorkelers as well as divers. Level: Easy

Sorpresa (Surpraise) (45-110 feet) A large submerged volcanic rock that makes for interesting deep diving. This is home to devil, eagle and cow nose rays, and also to large moray eels and another half dozen species. Level: Advanced.

Punta Argentina (25-90 feet) This small submerged isle is one of the most popular sites in the area.  Here you can commonly observe seahorses, clown shrimp, frogfish and octopus. There is also a narrow canal full of life. If the water is cold, the site is usually full of eagle rays, southern stingrays and guitarfish.  When the water is warmer, it’s populated with more sharks than rays.   This is one of the closest spots where sometimes one can see whale sharks. Level: Easy to midlevel.

Tortuga (Turtle) (15-70 feet) Another interesting and very popular site.  The primary attraction here is a sunken fishing boat that lies at 65 feet.  A sandy canal cuts through the rocks where white-tipped reef sharks often take their mid-morning nap.  Among the permanent inhabitants of the boat are seahorses, balloon fish, clown shrimp and a gigantic grouper who assumes the role as captain of this submerged boat. Level:  Very easy.

Punta Gorda (Fat Point) (15-70 feet) This site is also a very good site for free diving or snorkeling.  It’s frequented by schools of tropical fish, different varieties of rays and an abundance of moray eels and octopus. The bottom is covered in Garden eels and there is a cave that is usually full of baby sharks. Level: very easy

Tiburones (Sharks) (25-100 feet)

This large submerged rock with smaller rocks scattered around is one of the white-tip reef sharks and nurse sharks favorite places.  It is also a good place to see eagle and devil rays.  Another attraction to Tiburones is the large moray eels that make this location their home along with many octopus and other invertebrates.   Level:  Mid-level with currents.

Islas Catalinas (Catalina Islands): This is ray paradise, with large groups of eagle, diamond, round, cow nose, guitar, and the most sought after, the gigantic manta rays…

For more about the Catalinas, read a complete article at:

The best dive spots at the Catalinas are:

La Pared (The wall) (40-70 feet): The dive starts at a point where sharks are commonly at rest, and continues across  some coral peaks where one finally arrives at an open area where gigantic mantas, eagle rays and large schools of cow nose or golden rays like to swim. 

Level: Intermediate to Advanced, depending on the currents, which can be very strong.

La Punta (The Point) (40-110 feet):On this immersion one floats leisurely with the goal of encountering the giant manta ray, allowing the current to carry you towards deeper waters to see reef sharks.

Level: Advanced, with medium to strong currents.

Islas Murciélago (Bat Islands): Also known as, “The house of the bull shark”, The Bat Islands is one of 5 spots in the world where you can safely dive among these feared sharks. 

For more about Islas Murciélago, read our prior article at:

Some notable sites at Islas Murciélago:

Arcos (Arches) (20-72 feet): The reason this site is attractive is not for its abundance of life but for the thrill of swimming through rock arches, a very unusual type of formation in this area.  On this trip through the arches there is the possibility of calmly observing the many forms of small life that takes refuge in these unique rock formations. Level: Easy to intermediate.

Bajo Negro (Black deep)(0-120 feet): This pinnacle, beautifully sculpted by the ocean, is covered in corals, sponges and dancing algae. Surrounding the rock in an ascending direction, one finds the imposing bull sharks, large schools of tropical fish and several species of rays.Level: Advanced, with strong currents

Gran Susto (Big Scare) (30-130 feet)

This site boasts the best opportunity at the Bat islands for one to come in close contact with bull sharks.  The site’s name is due to the strong rush of adrenaline that one receives upon suddenly finding yourself deeply submerged with a large number of adult sharks surrounding you. Level:  Advanced.


New to diving?

Not a problem.  All of the dive shops offer beginner courses, which allow you to go diving in the ocean the same day.  The morning consists of a class on theory and the practice of basic skills in the pool. By the afternoon, you are ready for your first dive in the ocean! It’s that simple. There are also 3-4 day courses that train and certify you to dive anywhere in the world.



Or…Would you like to go pro?

There are PADI instructors in the area for all dive levels: basic, advanced, technical and professional. There is even a course director! (Instructor of instructors).  All the dive shops have dive-master training programs that subsidize the cost of instruction in exchange for work with the company. 

The quality standards of the operators in the area are highly recognized, amongst PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) and the dive community.

Dive with...

Summer Salt: 2670 0308 Playas del Coco

Deep Blue diving: 2670 1004 P. del Coco

Diving Safaris: 2672 1260 Playa Hermosa y Playas del Coco

Rich Coast Diving: 2670 0176 Playas del Coco y P. Hermosa



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utopia magazine and travel guide

What else would you like to see in Utopia Magazine? 

Things to do in Costa Rica

Golf in Guanacaste 

Tico Glossary Catalinas island 

Barra Honda Caves

Rincón de la Vieja

Diving in Guanacaste


Marina Papagayo Medical tourism

What does Pura Vida means? 

MAPS Ecology   Culture   

Hotels in Costa Rica Birds

watching guide MarineTurtles 

Playas del Coco NationalParks 

Transportation guide 

Humpback Whales 


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