Diving with Sea Monsters in Panama

Friend of IT Tobias Nowlan sinks into the murky depths that surround Panama’s Isla Coiba.

The sunlight is obscured as hundreds of smooth-tailed manta rays float overhead. The swarm twists as the plankton feeders flex their sides like wings, then cruise away into the blue.

I’m scuba diving in waters around Isla Coiba, off Panama’s Pacific coast, where giants graze on plankton soup. The seas are so thick with the stuff that visibility is often reduced to just a few meters. As a result, pelagic beasts can appear in front of you as if from nowhere, and vanish just as quickly, leaving me constantly wondering what could suddenly emerge from the deep. Two weeks prior to my arrival these waters were host to the largest fish in the world: the whale shark. Now the leviathans have moved on, and other colossal planktivores are stealing the scene.

Coiba is renowned as one of the world’s top sites for viewing marine monsters like these, and I see plenty of plankton-feeding action. Troops of mantas sail by every few minutes, and 30-meter-high columns of blackfin barracuda, their torpedo-shaped bodies as long as my arm, surround and engulf me.

With air running low I approach the surface. As I do so, clicking and whining sounds become louder. A black shape the size of a small car looms in front of me; I pause nervously. I break above the water and not five meters away three pilot whales surface with me, blowing out jets of water as they take in air. Like submarines surfacing in fast forward, they rise and descend again in seconds. I glimpse them again at the surface 100 meters away – they must be moving with incredible speed.

Dive number two, and as soon as I’m submerged two almost alarmingly large wahoo (massive silver fish like stretched out, bigger barracuda)

lurk towards me. We descend and come face to face with two brown groupers; the slow-moving bully-boys of the reef. A diver comes within a meter of one of the giants, and in awe I see that the fish is twice her width and nearly double her length.

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The strong currents pull me over a sandy plain interspersed with filter-feeding garden eels stretching vertically up from the seabed like long retractable fingers, creating a landscape like a sci-fi scene out of Dune or some alien world. The currents then deposit me next to a giant frogfish. As if it’s been painted with army camouflage, the frogfish looks like extension of the rock it’s anchored itself to with hand-like pelvic fins. Its tiny star-shaped eyes rotate over gaping jaws as it lies in wait for an unwary young damselfish or fusilier.

I cling to a rock and peer over at a gang of half-meter-long bluefin trevalli patrolling a cloud of blue-and-yellow jacks, and wonder what else is out there, hoovering up plankton in Coiba’s deep blue. Anything could turn up; a hammerhead, a humpback, or the greatest fish of them all: the whale shark. If you’re underwater in Panama’s Pacific, expect surprise.

Photo: Jose Benchetrit

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