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South Caribbean dive sites

South Caribbean dive sites

Snorkel and dive among reef gardens flourishing with life. Fire, elkhorn, brain and 32 other species of coral act as nurseries for tropical minnow and other local marine wildlife. Octopi squeeze into holes and camouflage themselves with the coral while lionfish swim idly in a shady crevice. Nurse sharks and rays swim across the nearby sandy sea bottoms while giant lobsters scuttle under the cover of rock formations. This is the southern Caribbean where you'll find Costa Rican's two living reefs. Running along the coastline from Cahuita down to Manzanillo, the south Caribbean's ecosystem contains an impressive display of the diversity of marine life with 400 species of fish, 11 types of sponge and 27 varieties of algae. Angelfish, parrotfish, anemones, crabs, starfish, sea fans and sea cucumbers are frequently encountered, along with sea turtles and Atlantic tarpon. Consistently warm waters and very little surge make underwater exploration a pleasure. The best times to dive are March through May and September to October when the weather is the driest and the visibility can reach as much as 100 feet.

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Extraordinarily tranquil and vivid dive and snorkel sites can be found at Punta Uva, just south of Puerto Viejo; and Punta Mona, an island near the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Though it had suffered significant damage in the past few decades, the coral reef in Cahuita has been making a remarkable recovery due to stringent protective measures.

General Information

  • Aquatic life: Sea turtle, lobster, grouper, yellowtail, Atlantic tarpon, purple barrel sponge, fan coral, black coral, trunk fish, lionfish, nurse shark, chub, snapper, angelfish, seahorse, parrotfish, sea anemone, crab, gamma fish, starfish and sea cucumber.
  • Average visibility: 10 to 100 feet.
  • Best time of year: March through May and September through October.
  • Skill level: All sites are suitable for divers of all levels, with the exception the Labyrinth, which is for intermediate to advanced divers.
  • Surge/current: Currents are predominantly calm. The shallow waters and dive sites near the shore can become agitated when a storm is brewing.
  • Thermoclines: Thermoclines, (steep temperature gradients that can be felt while descending through layers of water), are not present.
  • Water temperature: 86 degrees
  • Wetsuit recommendation: Wetsuits are preferred year-round to protect against stings and scrapes, but are not required.

Dive Sites
(Travel times are estimated from Puerto Viejo by boat unless otherwise noted.)

  1. Cahuita Reef: One of Costa Rica's only living coral reefs, Cahuita hosts an array of colorful aquatic life including 35 species of coral, 125 species of tropical fish, octopi, manta rays, nurse sharks and sea turtles. Fan corals are particularly beautiful here. Travel time: 20-30 minutes.
  2. Long Shoal: Home to thriving coral gardens, this secluded site attracts large numbers of moray eels and the occasional lionfish. Depth: 20-80 feet; Travel time: 10 minutes.
  3. El Chino (The Chinaman): Lobsters and small tropical fish are common at El Chino. Depth: 10-20 feet; travel time: five minute swim from the shore.
  4. The Labyrinth: A beautiful maze of coral and rock tunnels is located just a short swim from Puerto Viejo's park, or “parqueo.” It is a fantastic place to see bright fish, rays, lobsters, and soft corals. Skill level: intermediate to advanced (divers must have good buoyancy to avoid damaging living coral). Depth: 30-50 feet; Travel time: five minute swim from shore.
  5. Ned's Beard: Named after the local dive master who discovered it. Depth: 20-30 feet; travel time: five minute swim from shore.
  6. Urchin Bag: As its name implies, this site is overflowing with urchins – particularly sea porcupines. Depth: 20-40 feet; travel time: five minute swim from shore.
  7. Salsa Brava (Hot Sauce): Salsa Brava isn't just for surfers. In addition to wildlife watching, it is highly entertaining to observe surfers riding these huge waves from an underwater perspective. Expect to see lobster, midnight parrotfish, and barracuda throughout a number of shallow caves. Depth: 20-30 feet; travel time: five to ten minutes.
  8. Island Reef: This shallow locale is often frequented by sting rays and nurse sharks. Nudibranchs and fire worms are also common. Depth: 20-45 feet; travel time: five minutes.
  9. Chiquita Banana: Populated with small tropical fish and various corals, Chiquita Banana is an easy dive – perfect for beginners and underwater photographers. Depth: 20-40 feet; travel time: five minutes.
  10. The Wall: Also known as “Seahorse Stables,” in honor of the purple and yellow seahorses that live among these corals. Divers begin by dropping down the reef about 75 feet and working their way up. Depth: 30-80 feet; travel time: 10-15 minutes.
  11. Coral Garden: Black coral, fire coral, and a slew of soft corals can be found at the Coral Garden near Punta Uva. Yellowtail and lobster are also abundant. Depth: 30-85 feet; travel time: 15 minutes.
  12. Pinnacle: An especially deep reef that hosts nearly every species of fish found along Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Depth: 75-90 feet; travel time: 15 minutes.
  13. The Holes: This site is essentially a shallow hole about 30 feet below the surface. It was created by an earthquake back in 1991. The field of nooks and crannies inside provides ideal hiding places for sea anemones, crabs, lobsters, and small fish. Depth: 25-40 feet; travel time: 15 minutes.
  14. Punta Mona (Monkey Point): A pristine dive site near Manzanillo, Punta Mona is possibly the most isolated in the area. Extremely clear waters create delightful diving conditions. The area is also the site of a completely sustainable living community, which is no doubt partly responsible for keeping nearby waters immaculate. The best time to visit is during September and October. Depth: 30-65 feet; travel time: 1-1.5 hours.