Costa Rica is a country renowned for its well-preserved natural beauty. A haven for wildlife enthusiasts, the incredible beaches have become a must-visit destination for surfers.
But what exactly is going on under the water?
Costa Rica is rich in coastline, with both the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean lapping at the shore. Under the waves are two vastly different landscapes, and both are worth visiting.
On a dive trip to Costa Rica, you can expect to see some amazing wildlife, glorious rock formations, and colorful corals.
If Costa Rica isn’t on your diving bucket list, then it needs to be added. In this guide, we tell you everything you need to know to be prepared for the ultimate dive trip.
The Best Diving Spots
There are many diving spots around the long coastline of Costa Rica, presenting a huge range of opportunities.
Cocos Island National Marine Park
If you know anything about diving in Costa Rica, then you must know Cocos Island. This is one of the most amazing dive spots in the world, let alone Costa Rica, and a must-see for any dive enthusiasts.
Deep waters give way to rising walls of reef, which are rich in the nutrients that attract roaming sea creatures. Don’t go expecting to see glorious corals, but the wildlife is practically unmatched.
Bajo Alcyone is the place to go if you dream of being surrounded by hammerhead sharks. On the right day, you can find yourself in the middle of an entire shoal.
Cocos Islands is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located 340 miles from the west coast of Costa Rica. It’s uninhabited, apart from a few rangers, and access is only possible via charter liveaboards.
This can make it an expensive trip, as you have to head out for a few days. The longer trip is necessary, to see all the dive spots the island has to offer.
Heavy currents and sudden surges means only the most experienced should consider diving here. The best time to go is between June and November, when the rains bring travelling schools of fish. Visibility ranges from 33 to 100 feet.
Caño Island Biological Reserve
Located 19 miles off the glorious Osa Peninsula, the breathtaking beauty of Caño Island can’t be overestimated. There are 5 designated diving areas across this superb island, and they’re protected biological reserves due to the amazing species that reside there.
This does mean that only a small number of people are allowed into the water at any one time. Day trips are possible leaving from nearby Drake Bay, or Manuel Antonio.
Perhaps the best spot to visit in Caño Islands is El Bajo del Diablo, (The Devil’s Rock). The sweeping canyons and soaring peaks that litter the landscape are home to elegant manta rays and a variety of sharks.
Paraiso, another designated diving area, is named after “paradise”, and within a minute of diving you can understand why. The volcanic rock formations are full of colorful snappers, circled by hungry barracuda.
Beginner divers will enjoy Cuevas del Tiburon, where you can view lightly slumbering sharks. The Coral Gardens and Marenco Rock are also well worth a visit.
Visibility can be over 100 feet. May to November is the best time to go.
For something a little different, there are potential sites for divers with all kinds of experience at Tortuga. Alongside the incredible underwater landscape and diverse wildlife, this is also the location of several shipwrecks.
There are three fascinating shipwrecks to explore at Tortuga Island. The Coronel Lafonso Monge is found in just 52 feet of water, making it accessible for novice divers.
The Franklin Chang Diaz is home to roaming schools of snappers, and is also accessible for divers without advanced experience. If you’re able to go deeper, then definitely make a trip out to the Caroline Star. Sleeping sharks can be seen amongst the wreckage.
The underwater landscape of Tortuga Island is sure to impress any diver. Visit Canones or El Laberinto to see some awe-inspiring rock formations.
Tortuga Island is located on the Nicoya Peninsula. It can be visited as a day trip from Montezuma, and the combination of deep and shallow waters presents real opportunities for divers of different skill levels.
Visit during December to April for a chance to see manta ray, or between August and January if you’re interested in whales.
Giant manta rays are the stars of the diving at Catalina Islands. Drifting through the water like dancers, they can be spotted year round when exploring the waters of this magnificent island.
Located midway along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, a day trip to Catalina Islands is possible from Playas del Coco. Alongside manta rays, you can see spotted eagle rays, bullseye round stingrays, and mobula rays.
Although, you don’t need to dive for mobula rays, as they're known for leaping above the waves. Sharks and turtles also pass through, as do large shoals of colorful fish. In some seasons, you may even be able to spot orcas and humpbacks.
It isn’t just the wildlife you need to look out for when visiting Catalina Islands. The underwater landscape is just as spectacular, with rugged volcanic rock formations rising up to greet you.
November to May is the best time to visit if you’re interested in seeing rays, but December to April is perfect for casual divers who want to enjoy the beaches. Currents can be strong, so only advanced divers are welcome.
Bat Islands aren’t for novice divers - and not just because of the currents. You may find your heart in your mouth as the massive bull sharks drift past you.
Reaching a potential size of 23 feet, even experienced divers are likely to feel a shiver of anticipation, sharing water with these intimidating creatures.
If you're curious, the place to go is the appropriately named “Big Scare”. This is one of the few places you can dive to see the bull shark without the protection of the cage.
Known as Islas Murcielagos to the locals, there’s more to the Bat Islands than just bull sharks. Head to Bajo Negro to see fascinating schools of game fish.
Bat Islands is located in the Guanacaste region, and like the Catalina Islands is accessible from Playas del Coco. Visit between July and March to get a potential glimpse at the migrating humpbacks.
The Bat Islands are only for advanced divers. With a depth of 100 feet, and strong currents, it’s a tricky place to dive. Visibility is also all over the place.
Some days you may see as far as 100 feet, and other days you’ll be lucky to see more than 16 feet away. Despite the difficulties, it’s all worth it to see those bull sharks up close.
Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Diving in Costa Rica tends to take place on the Pacific coast, but that isn’t to say there’s nothing worth seeing on the Caribbean side of the country. The water may not be as rich in nutrients, but it still attracts some incredible wildlife.
If you head to the wildlife refuge from March to July, you have a chance to see the nesting sea turtles. The sea turtles are the star of this stretch of the coast, but you can also spot manatees, crocodiles, and dolphins.
Further down the coastline is Cahuita National Park, which is home to one of the largest living coral reefs in Costa Rica. Ideal for scuba divers, the warm and shallow waters are beautifully clear.
The Caribbean coastline offers a completely different experience to the Pacific, but it’s still worth a visit. As well as the crystal waves, the seas are generally less crowded.
What You Will See
There is an abundance of things to see when diving in Costa Rica. From wildlife to landscapes, it’s one of the most exciting and rewarding places to dive in the world.
Sharks are perhaps the biggest attraction, and there is a range of them to be found around the seas of Costa Rica. The giant bull shark can be experienced in close up at Bat Islands, if you think you can handle the fear.
Shoals of hammerhead sharks will surround you at Bajo Alcyone, which is the kind of experience you never forget. Or head over to Tortuga and see sleeping white tip sharks in the remains of the Caroline Star.
Sharks can be seen year round off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The whale shark also comes through seasonally - between June to September, they make their way to Costa Rica to feast on the plankton.
Another type of wildlife that Costa Rica is known for is the rays. Immense manta rays spread out across the sea in a rippling wave that is simply breathtaking. Many visitors make the trip to Costa Rica solely to try and spot these remarkable creatures. The spotted eagle ray can also be found.
The waters of Costa Rica are absolutely loaded with nutrients, which attract a wide range of pelagic fish. Pelagic fish occupy the middle space of the ocean - not too close to the bottom, not too far from the top. They tend to come with the seasons, when different tides release the plankton and nutrients into the sea.
Schools of fish, travelling whales, and even turtles can all be spotted when diving in the Pacific sea of Costa Rica. There’s so much to discover, and some sites are beyond the imagination. The waters have an almost untouched feel to them, allowing you to experience wildlife on another level.
But it isn’t just wildlife that makes diving in Costa Rica so unforgettable. The underwater landscape is full of steep reefs, volcanic formations, and sharply rising peaks.
On the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, prepare for a completely different experience. These warm and clear waters are home to sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, and crocodiles.
It’s also the place to go if you want to see coral reefs. There are coral reefs on the Pacific coast, but the most impressive is the Caribbean Cahuita National Park. This is home to over 35 species of coral.
Types of Risks
There are risks to be found in diving anywhere in the world, and Costa Rica is no exception.
Many of the diving areas in Costa Rica are only suitable for advanced divers. The currents can be strong, and unexpected.
An inexperienced diver would struggle greatly when diving in an area such as Cocos Island. The steep reef walls, deep water, and powerful current makes it completely unsafe for divers without experience in open waters.
Outside of Cocos Island, much of the Pacific coast is only safe for intermediate to experienced divers. Again, this is due to the strong currents and deep waters. If you want to dive along the Pacific coast, then check the safety of the area you intend to travel to.
There’s better diving for beginners along the Caribbean coast. The water is generally shallower even at the best spots, and visibility is good. If you’re after a safe and easy dive, then the waters on the east coast of Costa Rica are best. Even snorkelers can explore the colorful corals of the Caribbean.
For the most part, diving in Costa Rica is safe, partly because of how many good diving schools there are in the area. Diving is a popular pastime, which means there are plenty of talented teachers around to lend a hand.
A lot of the very best diving areas are only reachable by boat, so you will be heading out under the watchful eye of several trained divers.
There’s some pretty dangerous wildlife to be found in the seas surrounding Costa Rica. For the most part, they’ll be perfectly happy to leave you alone. As long as you aren’t an idiot, there’s no need to worry.
Anything Else You Should Know
Timing is everything with a trip to Costa Rica. Humpback whales, orcas, and rays are just a few of the glorious sea creatures that come with the season. If you want to visit, then be sure to check when you can expect to see visitors in certain areas.
That said, diving is pretty great in Costa Rica year round. The waters stay consistently warm, and the underwater landscapes are always worth seeing. The Caribbean coast in particular is worth visiting from January through to December - although migrating animals will be visible at different times.
Things are slightly different for the Pacific, when the rainy season really changes the atmosphere beneath the waves. If you want diving to be only a small part of the trip, the dry season between December and April is probably the best time to go.
You can enjoy a great dip in the water, and dry off in the sun afterwards. This is also the best time to see the humpback whales passing through.
However, if you want to see the greatest range of wildlife, then aim to visit in the wet season. This is from May to November. With the rain comes the release of plankton, which fills the water with nutrients.
The sea creatures follow, attracted by the delicious plankton. From colorful shoals of fish to hunting barracuda, this rainy season is when to see the very best Costa Rica has to offer
The rainy season doesn’t mean non-stop rain. Instead, showers fall for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but the morning is generally bright.
There are fewer visitors at this time of year, so you’re more likely to get the water to yourself (and the prices are cheaper). Experienced divers tend to argue for the rainy season being the absolute best time to visit.
Many areas of Costa Rica are protected. It’s home to such a vibrant and diverse array of species that preserving this unique habitat is imperative. All divers have to be respectful to the surrounding environment, to be sure this incredible underwater paradise is around for future visitors.
Visibility in the water can be varying. For the Caribbean coastline, it’s generally pretty good. On the Pacific side, waters get clearer the further out to the islands you go. Visibility can be between 16 and 100 feet, depending on where you are, and the time of year.
Water temperatures are good year round. At its warmest, the water will be roughly 78 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Even at its coldest, temperatures in the water should still be no lower than 68F.
Diving in Costa Rica can be expensive. The reason for this is often linked to the protected status: fewer divers are allowed in the water, so places come at a premium.
This is particularly true for Cocos Island. Further, many of the dive spots are only reached via liveaboard cruises. These tend to last for several days, and only take a few people.
Costa Rica is a wildlife paradise, both in and out of the water. Any moment not spent diving should be spent enjoying the birds and monkeys that make their way through the trees.