By Cindi – (Atlanta, GA)
I wanted to share my trip report for snorkeling the San Blas Islands, Panama. They are an archipelago off the northeast coast of Panama. The only real way to see the islands is by boat and I would highly recommend spending 3-5 days sailing the area – the islands are beautiful and it’s rare to be in an area that is so devoid of commercialization. Charter sailboats are readily available and reasonably priced as compared to other areas in the Caribbean.
We spent four days and four nights in November 2015 on board the Perle. If you’d like further information on the boat please let me know but for this review I’ll concentrate on the snorkeling.
The islands are largely untouched as they are under the authority of the Guna (Kuna) Indians. The islands are all coral atolls – “Gilligan’s Island” style. The Guna live a very simple subsistence lifestyle and it’s fascinating to visit them. The Guna do not allow scuba diving (yeah) so snorkeling is the way to go.
We visited Holandes Cay, Banedup, Chichime Cays and Dog Island. All snorkeling is from the boat, with moderate swims to the reefs, depending on where your boat anchors.
Now for the important part, what the snorkeling is like. I have to say that the reefs are some of the healthiest and most beautiful coral I have seen outside of Palau. Giant Elkhorn Coral, massive brain coral, and tons of other coral that I have no idea the names for. The one thing missing? FISH! My husband and I remarked time and again over the absolute lack of fish in every area we went to. Yes, there were the isolated schools of Blue Tangs and surgeonfish, but no large schools of French Grunts, or many of the other very common Caribbean fish.
It was such a shame as so often you see beautiful and plentiful fish but the backdrop is dead, bleached coral. Here the backdrop was amazing but the cast of characters was missing. No turtles spotted in approximately 10 hours of snorkeling. We did see a Spotted Eagle Ray three of the four days of snorkeling and a couple of nice filefish but that was pretty much the highlight.
Not to discourage anyone from visiting the islands and snorkeling there, especially since you just don’t see coral like this in many places anymore. But be aware that if you are like me who thinks “coral is nice but I snorkel for the fish” then you might be a bit disappointed. On the other hand, even somewhat disappointing snorkeling is still better than sitting behind a desk all day!
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Thank You! – Dec 8, 2015 – Nicole & Galen
Hi Cindi, thank you for taking the time to write this up and for sharing the pictures. Great info for anyone wondering what the snorkeling is like in the San Blas Islands off Panama.
Martha – Dec 8, 2015 – San Blas Islands
Thanks for the info. We snorkeled the San Blas Islands several years ago while on a cruise aboard the Amazing Grace, one of the boats from the barefoot cruises. Sadly they are no longer in existence. The area is very unique and if you can also fit in a trip through the Panama Canal, very worth while.
I agree with you in that I like a large variety of fish with my coral. Of the places I have snorkeled the best place is Curaçao. I highly recommend it if you have not been there.
Don Robinson – Dec 8, 2015 – Informative Write Up
Cindi, thank you for providing such details on the San Blas Islands. I was seriously looking at them for a trip for next fall, but like most, I am in it for the fish with great coral being a bonus. I appreciate you taking the time to post this.
Pam S – Dec 8, 2015 – Been to San Blas
You are totally right! Hubby and I snorkeled there several years ago. We found the coral, especially the abundance of soft corals, simply amazing.
But although we did see some fish, we were struck by the lack of numbers.
If you want it all, amazing coral, abundant and varied fish, and best of all, very few people, go to Raja Ampat. We have a piece on this site about our trip there. It simply blew our minds.
Mike Stout – Feb 6, 2018 – We Found an Abundance of Fish
We spent several months in the area and observed an abundance of fish. We saw many schools of surgeonfish and snappers especially in the cuts through the reefs. We also found a good diversity of species.