Thursday, March 5, 2015

Whale Sharks at Coiba Island

February 19th-21st, 2015

If you scuba dive, which I do occasionally, one of the top specimens to see in the sea is a whale shark.  These massive docile plankton devourers slowly cruise through the ocean water and can grow to a size of 12 meters in length sporting a lovely black colour spotted skin with white dots that are surrounded by white interconnected boxes…incredible looking creatures.  When I had read that Coiba Island, a Panamanian National Park, was known for whale shark sightings, I had to give it a go….when in Rome…

I lucked out on my shuttle from Boquete to Santa Catalina, the location of the dive shops who operate in the Coiba waters, as there were only three other passengers, a young couple from Minnesota and a woman in her mid-twenties originally from Switzerland but living for the last five years in Israel.  Tali had enrolled in a diving course with the Coiba Dive Centre, the same company that I had made reservations with for three dives.  The van descended from the mountains into the city of David and then headed east through some lovely countryside with large hills partially covered in vegetation.  The further we went, the drier and hotter it became until we reached the seaside village of Santa Catalina.

After settling in at my hostel, Cabanas Rolo, I went for a wander to check out this spread out little enclave.  It was damn hot as I walked by the odd house, some converted into small but closed restaurants.  It was a super sleepy place with hardly any traffic on the road too.  Tourists come to Santa Catalina for either surfing, scuba diving or snorkelling but I got the impression that many of the locals didn’t seem to want these tourist dollars, or maybe they thought they just deserved them as there were many grumpy and unhappy restauranteurs or concierges.  More times than not I received slow, pathetic service at restaurants.  Santa Catalina itself had a bit of a strange vibe.  But I wasn’t here for the town…I was here for the whale sharks!  

The Santa Catalina beach:

Sunset on the first night:

Tali ended up staying in the same hostel room as me along with a couple of young Swedish women, Clara and Agnes.  The four of us headed out for dinner at a pizzeria and were joined by a couple of friends of the girls.  After dinner (which took a long time thanks to some of the previously mentioned slow service) the Swedes were speaking to each other in their native tongue when a Korean looking fellow on a nearby table shocked them by saying something to them in Swedish.  He was mildly scolding them for being rude and communicating to each other in their mother language and not in English, the common language at our “international table”.  The next morning, this guy Kim, would turn out to be my dive buddy.

There were six of us heading out to dive the following morning.  Two couples, Johannes and Johanna (how cute!) from Germany and Chantal and Stefan from Switzerland and the aforementioned Kim and myself.  The boat ride was over an hour long to get to our first dive site.  Our dive master, Luiz, gave us a briefing and then one by one we plunged backwards off of the side of the boat into the relatively warm water.  I told my buddy Kim that I had only 50 some dives under my belt (compared to his 1000s) and I would likely be an “air slut”, running out of oxygen long before him.  He was cool about it and reassured me that it was no big deal and to just relax down under.

A selfie:

A full boat selfie:

My last dive was eight months earlier with Naomi and some dolphins in the Red Sea but it was a shallow dive compared to what we would be doing.  Luiz had stated that there would be a chance of seeing a whale shark at this dive site so we were all pretty excited.  The dive was pretty decent and we did see a couple of white tipped reef sharks but the main attraction had not shown up and I was giving up hope of us seeing one when suddenly out of nowhere this enormous 5-6 meter long dark figure emerged and effortlessly cruised by, passing only a couple of meters away from me.  I was gobsmacked.  Wow, what a gorgeous creature!  The next two dives will just be bonus now…I’ve seen the impressive whale shark with my own eyes, and it did not disappoint.  Oh, and I definitely was an air hog, needing to breathe from Luiz’s spare regulator for the last five minutes as my tank was quite low.

A white tipped reef shark:

Our first whale shark:

After the dive we head to a lovely cove on a small island for a short break.  Chantal and Stefan stayed there as they were only doing two dives and the rest of us headed off to a new site.  Luiz told us that it wasn’t a spot for whale sharks but we might see turtles, sharks, sea horses and frogfish (I didn’t even know what a frogfish was!).  We ended up seeing all but the sea horse.  I loved the turtle.  He was just chillin’ on the bottom floor although he was checking us out.  The frogfish was a super bizarre looking creature, totally motionless while touching some rocks.  This one was yellow with various bumps on it to camouflage itself amongst the coral, waiting for its prey which it can snatch at in as quick as 6 milliseconds!

"Ninja Kim" after the first dive:

Our first break spot:

The chillin' turtle:

Mr. Pufferfish:

The crazy looking frogfish:

And the crazy looking diver:

We picked up Chantal and Stefan and headed to Coiba Island’s ranger station which is situated on a lovely beach with a couple of coves for a lunch break before heading back out for our third, and last dive of the day.

Heading into the ranger station:

It's hard to see, but there's a lizard on the base of the tree, with this vulture seemingly pestering him:

Some old bones...whale shark I assume:

What a nice spot:

This final one proved to be simply fantastic.  It started off slow but we were in an area filled with plankton and soon we had a glimpse of a whale shark swimming around.  Over the next twenty minutes we probably had 7-8 sightings which included seeing one opening up its huge mouth and sucking in some lunch, another passed right over me so I rolled onto my back to see its belly and some other really close passes.  One of them must have been 7-8 meters long…massive.  It was probably the same two or three whale sharks passing by us while our group just hung around in the same area, waiting for the show.  Truly amazing.

Kim took this photo (thankfully he had an underwater camera) and unfortunately it doesn't do what we saw justice..but it's well imprinted in my brain!

For some reason our dive master then led us off in a direction that was straight into a strong current.  I was kicking but barely making any forward progress.  I knew I could kick harder and faster but recalled an incident I had on my fifth or sixth dive back in Victoria, during my certification training.  We had finished our skills for the dive and then swam along the breakwater but on the return we fought a strong current.  I overexerted myself and was out of breath.  I remember vividly being on the bottom of the seafloor some 35 feet down, having caught up with the rest of the group, and just wanting to swim straight to the surface for some fresh air.  My eyes felt like they were almost popping out of my head.  I didn’t want to repeat this experience.

Kim stayed near me and I could tell that he didn’t understand why Luiz had headed off in that direction.  Due to the plankton, visibility was probably only 8-10 meters so we lost sight of the rest of the divers.  We did catch up with Chantal, and Kim signaled to her to stay with us.  A short time later we surfaced after doing our three minute safety stop at 5 meters.  The boat came to get us and once we were aboard we could see the other divers some 150 meters away.  Kim thought it was quite an irresponsible and not a safety conscious decision on the dive master’s part and I have to agree with him.

Back at the dive shop Kim decided to speak with the wife of the owner in private about the incident and she strangely stormed out of the office mumbling “I don’t have time for this shit” to herself.  A bit odd…but our group decided to not let this issue cloud the fact that we had had some truly amazing dives this day.  Something I’ll never forget.

And we were treated to another lovely sunset:

The next day was pretty chilled.  Kim and I rented some kayaks from my hostel and paddled over to an island with a nice beach and just hung out there for the afternoon, having a well-deserved snooze on the sand.  I finished my stay in Santa Catalina with a nice dinner with Kim and Johannes & Johanna.

It’s time to head off to the capital…Panama City.  I only have four days until I hop on a sailboat to Colombia!

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