Scuba Diving The Pearl Islands of Panama
It was early in the morning. The sun was just about to come up when I got up. I took my camera gear, and went out to the balcony to watch the sunrise over the Panama Canal.
After the sun rose we waited for the ferry to come pick us up and take us to the Pearl Islands.
The Pearl Islands are a group of over 200 islands and islets in the Pacific Ocean. They are about 40 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama.
After I took a few pictures we began to take our dive gear and camera gear down from the hotel down to the area where we would catch the ferry. The ferry was large enough to hold about 80 people and their gear. The gear was not inconsequential.
The ferry ride took approximately 2 ½ hours to go from Panama City to Contador Island, one of the few inhabited islands in the Pearl Islands. It is not surprising that the television show “Survivor” filmed one of its seasons in the Pearl islands. They are largely uninhabited and they are wild and untamed.
On the way out to the Pearl Islands we saw several bait balls. We saw dolphins, and other assorted marine life which caused some excitement as we were waiting to get to Contadora Island.
The islands of Pearl Island
As we approached Contadora Island it struck me that the seasonal tides were substantial. There was no dock for the ferry to land. Instead, we anchored and then a series of tenders came out from the shore to pick up our gear and the people. I later learned that the tidal shift every 12 hours was 18 feet. That meant that every 12 hours the tide increased by 18 feet or on the other side of the clock decreased 18 feet.
The tidal shift is not a straight line calculation. It started out slow and then increased in speed as it the clock approached the 6th hour from the tidal shift.
There were many places where the tidal shift looked like a river flowing between the islands where there was once an island with calm water for boats to land.
As a result of the tides, on every single dive, our captain and dive master had to plan for us to dive as close to slack tide either high or low or we would risk being washed out to sea. Based on the timing of our arrival, we dove mostly on the low slack tide.
We realized that our dive times had to match the tidal shift fairly closely or we could find ourselves far away from our dive site.
Underwater photographers on a Liveaboard
All together there were twelve divers on our 60 ft. catamaran liveaboard. Seven of us were underwater photographers. The table in the saloon area of the boat looked like a morass of wires, cables and lenses waiting to be unraveled. Getting everything ready for each dive was quite a challenge.
On Contador Island which is the most populous island in the Pearl Island chain there is one dive shop. It was closed during our October trip based on a Panamanian holiday. This meant that we could have every single air tank from the shop–all 24 of them. Thus we could do 2 dives and then return to the shop to have the tanks refilled because we did not have a compressor on the boat.
Our October trip meant we were at the end of Humpback whale season. During the course of our trip we saw on average 5 to 6 whales a day. Most of the whales were mothers with calves.
The calves that had already grown to be 12 to 15 feet in length.
The whales were, however, relatively shy. It was very hard to approach them any closer than 40 or 50 meters before they would move away. Nonetheless given the relative size of these animals you could be a half mile away and still see them very clearly.
And when they were breaching you defiantly didn’t want to be that close.
Adventurous diving in Pearl Island
I would characterize the diving in the Pearl Islands as adventure diving. We were never quite sure what we would see as we were diving.
We always had to be very careful to avoid any currents that could pull us away from an island where we were diving. On one planned dive we expected to round the corner of an island to do a swim through. We reached the point where we would make the turn around the island and recognized that the current was too strong to swim against so we had to turn around and go back the same way we came.
The dives were each quite challenging. Water visibility was perhaps at best 40 feet. The particulate in the water was probably part of the reason the large animals were so numerous. There was plenty of food in the water. The schools of fish that were present were incredible. There were a number of times while diving when we were surrounded by a school of fish so large that you could swim with the fish and feel as a part of the school.
Pacific Grunts were the predominant fish that we saw. We saw numerous large schools of these fish. We also saw a number of Pacific Chub that would school up and were quite interesting to watch.
On virtually every dive we would hear whales singing in the background. Given that visibility was only about 40 ft. it is not surprising we did not see any whales during our dives. In retrospect given that most of the whales were females with calves I was not upset that we were not close enough to the whales to see them underwater.
During the week of diving we saw perhaps many of the islands in the Pearl Island chain. We sailed by many, but had time to set foot on fewer than 10 of the islands.
The highlight of the trip was always the whales. Our 60 foot catamaran was dwarfed by the relative size of some of these animals. Occasionally we would sail by them as they were sleeping at the surface.
Go back, for sure
Would I go back and dive the Perl Islands again: absolutely. Next time I want to take a compressor so we spend less time traveling back to the dive shop to refill our tanks.
Have you ever dived Pearl Island? Tell us your best experience in a comment below!