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Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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If you want a memorable trip to Panama, don't miss the opportunity to go snorkeling in Bocas del Toro or San Blas. Both of these Caribbean island groups are beautiful above the water, of course, and they are just as pretty beneath the waves.


I recently wrote about spending two days exploring Bocas del Toro, and a reader asked us if we saw any starfish there. The answer is yes, absolutely! There were plentiful brittle stars, as well as orange sea stars, basket stars, and more with names that we know but I won't bore you with. Here's a green sponge with some brittle starfish at its base.

Green sponge we saw while snorkeling in Bocas del Toro

Photography is a challenge.

Dan was a little frustrated by not always getting the best focus in his shots. If you plan to take your camera on this trip, be forewarned: It's harder to focus when in the water than on land because the photographer, the water and the fish are all moving. As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, this was his first time to try out our brand new underwater point-and-shoot camera. For a first time user, I think he did pretty well.

But then, I'm a lot more forgiving of photography errors. That's why he's the photographer and I'm the writer in this team!

The entire collection of Dan's Bocas underwater photos are in our Bocas del Toro Underwater gallery.

Underwater wildlife

Besides a variety of starfish, we saw plenty of other things, many of which we used to keep in our 90-gallon saltwater fish tank.

Here, we could look at a lot more beautiful marine life than any fish shop could carry, and for a far lower price. I especially enjoyed looking at the flame scallops on the reef. Each one we saw would have cost $6 in the store, yet here they were, free to enjoy (and a lot happier, I'm sure!).

flame scallop among the rocks

red sponges

How to have a bit of fun while you're snorkeling

If you look closely at the reefs, you'll see feathery things sticking out from between the rocks. You might think that they are unusual varieties of coral, but they're not. They're actually a type of worm known as a feather duster. Those feathery fronds sweep microscopic particles into their mouths. That's how they eat.

Feather dusters come in a variety of hues … purple, pink, brown … some are as big as your hand, while others are as small as a fingernail. And those worms are extremely skittish too, which makes them really fun to play with. Any time you get near them, they vanish back into their tubes so quickly that you'll wonder if they were there to start with!

feather duster worms

We tried to see how close we could get before they disappeared. It became a fun game. See how small they are? Some day we hope to go to Hawaii, where there are worms as long as an arm.

Life under the water

This is a type of damsel fish. It kept attacking whenever one of us got close. Damsels are very protective of their young. If you look carefully behind and slightly above the tail you will see the eggs she was protecting.

Though they don't look like it, these neon-purple sponges are actually animals. Like the feather duster worms, they too are filter feeders. The starfish wrapped around the one on the left is called a brittle star. The area is chock full of brittle stars, and that is not a good thing for the reef.

Draped across some rocks and nestled among the sponges is a mint green carpet anemone. They are outrageously expensive to buy because they are so hard to keep.

green carpet anemone seen while snorkeling in Bocas del Toro

I tried to get a better shot of these two butterfly fish while they were feeding, but they kept “fluttering” away from the camera. (Lame joke, I know.)

Where to snorkel in Bocas

Here's another tip: I don't recommend that you try to stay in Bocas Town, where the nightlife is, and jump off the nearest dock to go snorkeling. I mean, you can, of course, but you will mostly be watching the fish swim among a lot of bottles, trash, and so forth. It's better to visit cleaner, more remote areas.

Boat service to other islands is inexpensive and also many tour services are available to take you to better areas. We booked a full-day trip that included dolphin spotting, a lunch stop at a seafood restaurant (bring extra money to pay for the food) and stops on different islands for swimming, snorkeling and exploring.

Tour boats docked during the lunch stop

Read next: Explore the Islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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14 thoughts on “Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama

  1. My husband and I and two friends are visiting Panama in December and wondering if this is a good time for snorkeling. If so, would San Blas or Bocas del Toro be a better destination? Do you know anything about clarity of the water as this is toward the end of the rainy season? Also what is the status of coral bleaching of the reefs in both places. I would appreciate any info you may have.

    1. Hi Roberta, thanks for asking. We’ve only snorkeled in Bocas del Toro, so we can’t make comparisons from personal experience. Here’s what we can tell you:
      1. You’ll be in rather shallow waters in both places, so you might not notice any visibility issues.
      2. If you hire someone to take you snorkeling, as we did, he’ll take you to the best snorkeling spots, so you won’t need to worry about coral bleaching.
      3. As to water clarity, so much of it depends on currents and whether there’s been any rain in the previous few days. Chiriqui province (Bocas) has highlands, so the Caribbean around Bocas would get some rain runoff. How much thaat would affect the visibility really depends. Some Decembers are drier than others.
      4. If snorkeling is your #1 priority, you might be better off in San Blas. On the other hand, there’s a lot more to do in Bocas, and better restaurants.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful pictures . We don’t know where to go this January or February which is when it’s horrible in New York We like to go to different places each winter but now we don’t want to have a long flight time.

    I am looking forward to reading your posts on other places. We always snorkel. Have been doing that for over 30 years and have seen huge destruction of the reef everywhere.

    1. Can’t say we blame you for wanting to escape New York winters. What do you consider a “long flight time”? It’s 5.5 hours to Panama from JFK, and far less to Mexico and the Caribbean. Of course, part of it depends on whether your flight is nonstop or you have a layover. Have you tried Hipmunk, Skyscanner or Momondo? When it comes to flight reservations, those search engines are far more user-friendly – at least in our opinion.

  3. Hi Linda,
    I am going to Bocas wit my family (3 children aged 10, 8 and 6) we are going specifically for the snorkeling. What area do you recommend we stay in? Is there a place you can get good snorkeling just off a beach (of course we will do boat tours as well) but it would be great to know where to book accommodation that is hopefully away from the noisy night life places and easy snorkeling available.
    Have you got any tips?
    Thanks so much
    Georgia

    1. Hi Georgia,

      Thanks for your question. You have chosen a wonderful destination for snorkeling and I think you’ll enjoy it.

      As a mom, I’d steer clear of any hotels on Isla Colon because of the noise alone; Panamanians like their music loud and it carries over the water like you wouldn’t believe, into the wee hours of the morning. Besides, the water near the hotels is full of trash. Anyway, the popular hotels along Isla Colon’s waterfront are built over the water so there are no beaches nearby. (You will, however, find the best shopping and dining options there.)

      The best snorkeling is among the mangroves, rather than the beaches. Fish feel safer there because they can hide, and it’s fun to snorkel among the mangroves. If you want to snorkel the coral reefs, most of them are offshore and generally you will need a boat to get there.

      Though we haven’t stayed there I believe you might like Isla Bastimentos. North beach, a 20 minute hike from Playa Tortuga, is a great dive site with some of the best snorkeling in Panama. Tranquilo Bay Eco Lodge is one hotel to consider, but there are a lot of other excellent options as well, such as Red Frog Beach Rainforest Resort. Well, that’s a start, anyway. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Hi Linda,

    What tour company did you use to go snorkeling in Bocas? Will be there next week and am researching who we should book our day trips with.

    Any recommendations are greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!
    Michelle

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Please forgive me. I love to share resources whenever I can but I didn’t think to write down their name. All I can remember is that their office was halfway down on the main street, water side. We asked our hotel desk clerk because we figured they would know which companies are the best.

      If you wouldn’t mind sharing your experience with everyone, please come back to let us know who you ended up using and how you liked them.

      Thanks!
      Linda

  5. These are great photos! I’ve never been snorkeling but I have spent many a very early morning exploring the tide pools when I was a 6th grade teacher. It is amazing what the ocean has to offer!

  6. Love it. Were these all at one “island” or several different locations? I don’t think I ever seen a purple sponge before.

    1. We took a tour to a few different spots. Thanks for asking … I’ve updated the article to briefly explain how we managed to do that.

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