Tamarindo Day Trip: Snorkeling & Scuba Diving the Catalina Islands
Every year, divers from around the world make their pilgrimage to Costa Rica’s Catalinas Islands – a haven for a spectacular variety of marine life, including giant manta rays with jaw-dropping wingspans up to 20 feet.
Indeed, the Catalina Islands are a special place. A sprinkling of 20 rocky islands, this scuba paradise invites divers and snorkelers to mask up, jump in, and break through the sparkling surface of an indigo Pacific. To dive into these warm and clear-watered depths, in search of devil manta rays, humpback whales, white-tipped reef sharks, angel fish, orcas, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and so much more.
To discover “the Cats” and their incredible secrets. To explore one of Costa Rica’s most sought-after dive sites. To experience just a hint of what lies beneath the surface of this eco-paradise. And, what lies above.
The Catalinas Islands: At a Glance
Location: 2 to 15 miles offshore (west) of Flamingo
Altitude: Sea Level
In addition to its neighbor, the Bat Islands (Las Islas Murciélagos), the Cats are considered one of the top scuba-diving spots in Costa Rica. We’re talking warm waters that teem with life – life that easy to see, thanks to clear visibility up to 75 feet. And, since this scattering of 20 “islands” – some are more like rocks – are located directly off the shores of Tamarindo, we’re perfectly located to all your underwater diving dreams.
Indeed, whether you’re a casual snorkelers or die-hard diver, if you’re in Costa Rica, you cannot miss the Catalina Islands. But, you’ve already found your way to this article, so we’re guessing you already know that.
And with that, off we go. Here’s everything you need to know about the Catalinas Islands.
When to Visit
The great news is that you can visit the Catalinas Islands almost any day of the year: visibility is clear (20-75 feet or 6-23 meters) and the water is always warm (75-85º F or 24-29º C).
Remember, this the tropics and here, the weather cooperates. Well, mostly. What you should know is that, while land and water temperatures / conditions are amenable to year-round exploration, and while marine life is happy to put on a year-round show, what does change are the currents. Depending on day-to-day conditions, the currents can kick up quite a fight. (We recommend this trip for advanced-certified divers.)
Additionally, if spotting manta rays is high on your list, try to time your visit for November through May, when they’re most common and visibility is best. Those numbers (and visibility) reach their true between January and March.
Note that the best time for whale-watching (usually aboard the boat, on your way to/from the Catalina Islands) is between September and March.
Rays, Rays – Everywhere!
We’ve already mentioned this a few times, but here’s our official declaration: Costa Rica’s Catalinas Islands are famous for their concentrated populations of massive manta rays – they can grow to almost 23 feet (7 meters) and weigh up to 3,000 pounds (1,400 kgs)! – as well as sting rays, devil rays, bullseye electric rays, spotted eagle rays, mobular rays, bat rays, and cow-nosed rays.
In fact – and try to keep your cool (because it’s so exciting!) – it’s not uncommon to swim amongst schools of these graceful rays, as they explore the same undersea world that you do.
Other Marine Life to Spot
The Catalinas may be famous for their rays, but these rocky islands and their waters protect plenty of other wildlife, too. Nature lovers, this is definitely your cup of tea. In fact, it’s your paradise. Because, as spectacular as is the rest of Costa Rica, the Catalina Islands are one of the most beautiful, bio-diverse and spectacular sites in the country.
And, because the islands are so far offshore and so isolated from mainland Costa Rica, you’re likely to encounter many marine animals you won’t see anywhere else. Schools of tropical fish. Whales, dolphins and sharks. And, almost every time you look up, the graceful silhouettes of 20-foot rays, skimming the surface above.
Dive beneath the sparkling surface of the Pacific, and come face-to-face with bright-striped Cortez angelfish, tiger sharks, green moray eels, spinner dolphins, sea fans, pilot whales, barracudas, lemon-colored barberfish, white-tipped reef sharks, spiny scorpionfish, humpback whales, Moorish idols (aka crowned scythes), killer whales, starfish, whale sharks, octopuses, and several species of sea turtles, including leatherbacks, green sea turtles, and hawksbills.
Believe it or not, the Catalina Islands have more than marine life in store: Boat tours to the island often double as informal birdwatching tours. Depending on the time of year, you may spot brown boobies, frigate birds, albatross, spoonbills, and Bridled tern nests (March through September).
Catalinas Islands Dive Sites
By now, you’re probably itching to don your O2 tanks and get diving. Right? Right! So, let’s discuss dive sites:
Catalina Grande (Depth: 45-120 feet): A favorite dive site among seasoned divers – that is, divers with plenty of experience and bravery to match – “Big Catalina” is one of the country’s best spots to spot giant manta rays, white-tipped reef sharks, and other species high on your list.
Little Cupcake (Depth: 45-100 feet): If you’re after that dream-worthy moment of swimming in the middle of massive schools of king angelfish and parrotfish, then you can’t miss a dive at Little Cupcake.
Big Cupcake (Depth: 45-120 feet): Like its little sister, here you can swim amongst huge schools of the neon-purple, electric-blue, and other colored King angelfish that make their home here.
Dos Sombreros (Depth: 45-120 feet): Named for the twin islands that jut out of the water like sombrero hats (thus, Dos Sombreros or “Two Hats”), these rock formations drop off into steep, underwater rock walls that afford excellent underwater wildlife encounters.
Elefante (Depth: 45-100 feet): When you’re after ray and shark sightings, it’s time to head to Elefante, or the Elephant.
La Pared (Depth: 40-70 feet): The Wall is more than a Pink Floyd album; at the Catalina Islands, it’s a shark channel where you can spot giant mantas, white-tipped reef sharks, cow-nosed rays, eagle rays, and more.
Peligrosa (Depth: 45-100 feet): With a name like Peligrosa or “Dangerous,” you might think of giving this one a pass. Don’t! As safe as other Catalinas dive sites, this is an excellent site to spot and snap photos of underwater coral formations.
Roca Sucia (Depth: 45-100 feet): Known as both Dirty Rock and The Window, this may be the Catalinas’ top dive site. Named for the bird droppings that paint its above-water rocks, here you’ll spot all manner of marine life.
La Punta (Depth: 40-110 feet): At La Punta, or “The Point,” is home to a free descend and plenty of marine life, including white-tipped reef sharks. The currents here can be strong.
What to Take with You
Diving the Catalina Islands is much like diving any other site in the world: You’re going to need more than your swimsuit!
We recommend packing a wet bag + day pack, stuffed with all your gear. (You can leave it on the boat while you dive.) In addition to the above-mentioned swimsuit, we recommend bringing an underwater camera (with spare batteries) – there are myriad photo ops here, trust us! – and a high-factor, waterproof sunblock.
You’ll also need a large, insulated water bottle, insect repellent, and additional sun protection, for example a hat, sunglasses, and an SPF rash guard. And, if you’re visiting during the rainy season (April-November), you may want to throw a poncho into the mix, as well, just in case! And, don’t forget a beach towel and a change of clothes, for when you’re finished with your dives.
How to Get to the Catalina Islands
The Catalina Islands are an archipelago located 2-15 miles offshore of the Tamarindo-Flamingo area. From here, you can easily reach the islands via boat; daily tours launch from Tamarindo, Playa Flamingo, Conchal, Playa del Coco, and Papagayo.
The easiest (okay, only) way to reach the Catalina Islands is via boat, specifically a scuba or snorkeling tour, which begin with pick-up up at your Tamarindo vacation rental.
If you’d like help arranging a Catalina Islands scuba diving or snorkeling tour, birdwatching, or a private day trip to “The Cats,” please get in touch with our concierge, Cris! Her services are free and we promise, she’ll hook you up with the best option to match your Catalinas Islands adventure style.