A peek into the waters of the Gulf
One of the Top 20 places in
the world to dive.
By: Andrés Benavente
Photos by: Martin Van Gestel- RichCoastDiving.com
Owen Shilling - SunkenCamera.com
Patrick Odermatt - Summer-Salt.com
Oliver Bloemeke DeepBlue-Diving.com
Edwar Herreño- EdwarPhotoVideo.com
Diego Mejías - DiegoPhotoArt.com
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
there are dive shops in other areas of the Pacific, the Caribbean and the
Central Valley, those who know go directly to the Gulf.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
(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.
de Mono (Monkey Head) (30-75feet)
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.
(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
(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.
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.
(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
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
(Sharks) (25-100 feet)
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.
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…
more about the Catalinas, read a complete article at: RevistaUtopia.com/Catalinas-island--Rays-rays-and-more-rays.aspx
best dive spots at the Catalinas are:
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
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
Level: Advanced, with medium to strong currents.
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: RevistaUtopia.com/Bat-Island-the-house-of-Bull-Sharks.aspx
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.
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
The quality standards of the
operators in the area are highly recognized, amongst PADI (Professional
Association of Dive Instructors) and the dive community.