Costa Rica is famous worldwide for its astonishing abundance of flora and fauna. In fact, despite its relatively small size, the country contains 5% of the planet's total biodiversity. Much of this life is found in its teeming rainforests, but Costa Rica is not called the Rich Coast for nothing. Washed by the warm waters of the Caribbean on one side and the nutrient-rich Pacific on the other, it is also home to an incredible variety of marine life. For this reason, Costa Rica is a bucket list destination for scuba divers. In this article, we look at five of the country's best dive sites.
Without a doubt, Cocos Island is the most famous dive destination in Costa Rica. Located 340 miles/550 kilometers off the country's west coast, it is exclusively accessed via liveaboard charter. As a result, trips to Cocos are not cheap—but the wonder of what awaits there makes the expense worthwhile. The island is surrounded by deep oceanic waters punctuated by soaring pinnacles and steep reef walls. This sudden change in topography causes nutrient-rich upwellings, which in turn attract a multitude of pelagic species.
There are around 20 different dive sites at Cocos and potential sightings range from great schools of gamefish like trevally and tuna; to dolphins, sailfish, turtles and manta rays. Sharks are the main attraction here, however. Regular visitors include Galapagos sharks, bull sharks, tiger sharks, silky sharks and whitetip reef sharks. One of the most famous dive sites, Bajo Alcyone, is known worldwide for its vast schools of scalloped hammerhead. Visibility ranges from 33-100 feet/10-30 meters. The best season for wildlife sightings is June to November, when plankton blooms attract the greatest variety of life.
Dive sites at Cocos Island are usually deep and washed by strong current. As a result, divers must be confident in the water and have their PADI Advanced Open Water certification or equivalent.
Located 10 miles/16 kilometers off Costa Rica's southerly Osa Peninsula, Caño Island is part of a biological reserve and famous for its healthy coral reefs. It also boasts beautiful underwater topography, including archways, outcrops and swimthroughs. The visibility is generally good (sometimes exceeding 100 feet/30 meters), and the abundance of marine life makes this site a worthy alternative for those that don't have the time or the budget for Cocos.
On any dive, you can expect to see colorful reef fish interspersed with schools of snapper or barracuda as well as turtles, moray eels and whitetip reef sharks. Occasionally, pelagic visitors make an appearance—think dolphins and larger sharks (and sometimes, migrating humpback and pilot whales). Bajo del Diablo is often considered the area's most rewarding dive site. You can reach Caño Island via day trips from Manuel Antonio or Drake Bay; or you can stay there on a liveaboard charter.
Off the coast of Costa Rica's northwestern Guanacaste province lie the Catalina Islands, an archipelago of rugged rocky outcrops. Accessible via day trips with dive operators based in Playas del Coco, the islands are famous for giant manta rays. Mantas can be seen there all year round; although the best season for sightings is from November to May. Other rays are also present in large numbers, including spotted eagle rays, mobula rays and bullseye round stingrays.
Rays aren't the Catalina Islands' only attraction. Experienced divers can also keep an eye out for sharks, turtles and schools of colorful fish. On the way out to the islands, cetacean species including humpbacks and orcas are often spotted. The conditions here usually involve strong currents, so an Advanced certification is advised.
Also accessible from Playas del Coco, the Bat Islands (or Islas Murcielagos as they're known locally) are another excellent option for divers in the Guanacaste region. You'll need plenty of courage, though, because this is the domain of the mighty bull shark and one of the few places in the world where you can dive with the species outside a cage. The bull sharks congregate naturally around a site known appropriately as the Big Scare.
Safe diving practices demand a quick descent, and after that, the dive is spent finning along the rocky seafloor in search of sharks. Visibility can vary greatly—as much as 100 feet/30 meters one day, and as little as 16 feet/5 meters the next. The Big Scare is not the only dive site—other highlights include Bajo Negro, a steep pinnacle known for its schooling gamefish and possible manta sightings.
Tortuga Island is located in the Gulf of Nicoya on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast. With an array of shallow and deep sites, it's a great all-round destination for divers of all experience levels. In particular, it's known as the country's wreck diving capital. There are three ships to explore in the area: the Coronel Lafonso Monge, the Franklin Chang Diaz and the Caroline Star. Unusually, the Coronel Lafonso Monge sits in 52 feet/16 meters of water, putting it within reach of novice divers.
The Franklin Chang Diaz is a former Coast Guard vessel inhabited by large schools of jack and snapper, while the Caroline Star is the deepest wreck at 100 feet/30 meters. Sleeping whitetip reef sharks are often encountered in the hold of the Caroline Star and are also a highlight of local reef diving site La Cueva. Other creatures to look out for include manta rays (December to April) and whales (August to January). Montezuma-based Tortuga Island Dive Club can organize day trips from the mainland.