Snorkeling over the coral reef is a surreal experience; gliding weightless over alien structures populated by hundreds of colorful creatures.
Dozens of fish species dart in and out of the formations, seeking food or shelter from larger fish.
The inundated forms on the sea floor include brain coral, fan coral, lettuce coral, feather stars, and oddly tree-like forms. Strangest is a type of sponge that looks like a huge white trumpet. The spectrum, even on this overcast day, ranges from green, white and grey to bright yellow, orange and red.
Not all life on the reef is in harmony. I see a pair of bright yellow fish, a foot long, chase after a school of small butterfly fish. The prey eludes them by ducking into the crevices of coral.
After an hour-and-a-half my group of eight fellow tourists swims back to the boat. In our group is a young girl, her brother and parents from Oklahoma. The family’s enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious; the kids can’t get enough snorkeling, enough Caribbean, or enough fun out of everything they see.
“I saw a huge spider crab, a skinny trumpet fish, and a barracuda with tons of teeth,” the Oklahoma girl tells us.
All aboard, we motor half a mile back to the floating restaurant. Our group had perused the menu and placed our orders before snorkeling. On offer were some tempting seafood dishes. The cook came out to show us a live lobster which he promised would be prepared to perfection. We all had built up appetites in the water and the meal break was the perfect antidote.
That morning had begun with a full throttle run from, Bocas del Toro, Panama to Dolphin Bay.
Our boat sped towards the mangrove choked shore, slowing as we approached a narrow passage. This channel was barely wider than the boat, with tangled roots growing inwards. After a hundred meters it opened up into a broad bay, rimmed by mangrove on three sides and palm trees along the far shore. Within moments Dolphin Bay earned its name as our group spotted our first porpoises. We bonded in the process of sighting the raising bottlenose dolphins.
Martin, our guide told us that here in the bay there are plenty of shrimp to eat and the surrounding mangroves shelter the bay keeping out predators and strong seas, making it ideal as a dolphin nursery.
Now, lunch finished we motor towards our final stop, one of the two Cayos Zapatilla (Shoe Cays), a part of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. These small uninhabited islands are perfect Caribbean cays with white sand beaches, palm fringed with a jungle interior. The cays are protected habitat to four types of nesting sea turtles as well as many other species of reptiles, fish, birds, monkeys, etc.
Our group wanders the beach until we find the ideal swimming hole, sheltered from waves and currents. We lull in the warm clear waters for a couple of hours until it’s time to head back to the landing.
Martin has prepared (with his machete) a fruit snack. Pineapples, mangoes, and oranges have been chopped into bite size pieces. It is a refreshing and tasty dose of tropical vitamins. Afterwards we boat back to Bocas town.
Bocas del Toro is a perfect archipelago of tropical islands on the north Caribbean shore of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. Bocas has lush vegetation, beautiful beaches, and coral reefs teeming with marine life. Bocas town has quaint hotels, friendly locals, a vibrant nightlife and an enchanting culture. A short boat ride away there are isolated resorts and uninhabited islands.
Snorkel and dive tours on the coral reef are popular at Bocas. A number of operators offer different experiences. My combination snorkel, dolphin, and island tour was exactly as I imagined a tropical paradise.
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Andrew Kolasinski has published three travel guide books: Complete Vancouver Island Tourist Guide; Guide to Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of Peru; and The Best of Peru. He also publishes Island Angler (Guide to Fishing on Vancouver Island, Canada). When not fishing for salmon and trout, he travels the world and writes for websites, newspapers, and magazines.