AS THE TAXI BUMPED ITS WAY DOWN THE DUSTY TRACK, a look of disbelief came over Neal's face. "Are you sure there's a dive centre down here?"
If I hadn't already been in touch with the centre, I could understand why he might be asking. Our destination was Santa Catalina, a small fishing community on the Pacific coast of Panama.
The email had said "Bring everything you need, there's no paved road, no supermarket, no ATM and one public phone". Could this be one of the few places in the world where you won't find an Internet café and can't get a skinny latte after your dive?
We were here in Panama to visit Coiba National Marine Park, an isolated group of 38 islands 16 miles off the mainland, and covered in impenetrable rainforest. We had long been fascinated by the diving potential of this unexplored area and our quest was to visit some of the more remote sites to discover just how spectacular they might be, and to research its marine life for a television documentary.
Coiba has a fascinating, if somewhat gruesome, history. It was a penal colony during Noriega's dictatorship and its looming presence became legendary, with tales of "disappeared" political opponents, dangerous currents, blood-thirsty sharks and rivers teeming with man-eating crocodiles.
This group of islands is part of the eastern Pacific chain that links the better-known diving meccas of the Galapagos, Cocos and Malpelo. We were hoping its status as a marine park, and the isolation it had enjoyed, would ensure some amazing encounters.
Scuba Coiba, the dive centre for which we were heading, has recently been opened by an enterprising Austrian, Herbie Sunk, and with the help of English instructor Rachel Fulton it had begun to open up the area for diving. So far, diving in Panama has mainly been developed on the more benign Caribbean coastline. Santa Catalina, already known for its spectacular surfing conditions, is just beginning to attract tourists.
Our plan was to start with a few dives around the mainland and then head off to Coiba, where it is possible to stay in basic accommodation at the ranger's station. Following that, our real adventure would start with a four-day trip on a sailing boat, the Lady Sconset.
Our captain, Darcy Gasparovic, would be taking us to the furthest reaches of Coiba and its sister islands, where day boats can't go. One of the highlights would be crossing the vast ocean to reach the deep water of Hannibal Banks, where we hoped to see hammerhead sharks. We would be looking for sudden depth changes, and seamounts where pelagic fish and sharks are likely to shelter.
This would be the first time the centre had organised a liveaboard trip and our dives would include the sites that Rachel had visited before as well as blue dives Ð dropping into the sea when we encountered any kind of sea mount, and drifting with the current.
We settled into Santa Catalina, where the highlight of the day is the evening volleyball game in which villagers, tourists and barefooted children areall welcome. The net is strung across the dirt road outside the bar, and if you're not playing, you're cheering the teams on.
The match became symbolic of the communal living and relaxed attitude of a population that does not speak much English, but where the expression "cool nice" is used to describe almost everything.
We stayed at local surfer Rolo's cabinas, basic but comfortable rooms where the evening breeze brought welcome relief from the heat of the day.
Outside living is the norm in Panama and brushing our teeth in the morning al fresco with a view of swaying palms and the rolling surf was a great way to start each day.
The topography on this part of the Pacific coast was strangely familiar to us. It has a lot in common with the sites we dive from our own centre in Dingle, Ireland, with offshore islands, green water and big rocky outcrops smothered in soft corals.
The difference would be the sheer abundance and size of the marine life. The area is also known for strong currents. The water temperature when we were there in January was a very comfortable 28¡C, so a 3mm suit was adequate.
Our initial dives were around the islands just offshore from Santa Catalina, and they didn't disappoint. When Rachel promised us sharks on every dive, we knew we were in for something special. The local sites are around an hour away on a small skiff called a lancha, with pleasant surface intervals spent on the sandybeaches trying to crack open fallen coconuts.
We visited two dive sites, Punta Pargo (Snapper Point) and El Palo Grande (The Big Tree).
Both were notable for their huge aggregations of schooling fish. There were enormous schools of oversized jacks, snappers and grunts and numerous moray eels, which surprised us by being out swimming during the day.
Several of the green morays we saw were so big that it was hard to see how they ever got out of the crevices into which they had squeezed. Their small, pointy noses seemed ridiculous perched on the end of big, fat necks as thick as a diver's torso.
The sharks we saw were whitetip reef sharks, but bull sharks, nurse sharks, hammerheads, blacktips and tiger sharks are all resident.
The next day, after arriving on Coiba Island, our first dive was at Bajo Frijoles, and this soon became one of our favourite sites. Something about the name, which means "Beneath Beans", made us giggle.
There we saw endless sharks, at least four types of moray, huge triggerfish, bigeye jacks, spadefish, barracuda, surgeonfish, groupers and an amazing variety of puffer and porcupinefish.
A new one for us was the indigenous milkfish, a large, prehistoric and stately silver fish related to tarpon. It would glide by, unfortunately always just out of reach of our cameras.
There is very basic accommodation at the ranger's station, but you need a special permit and to be self-sufficient. Electricity is limited and there are no fluffy towels, but the white beaches, amazing sunrises and noises of the birds and monkeys from the surrounding forest easily compensate for that.
Following our three days on Coiba, it was time to join Darcy and head off for more distant sites.
This time, we were joined by local fisherman Coba. The information he would provide would be crucial, as
Rachel had not visited many of the outlying areas.
A sailboat is not ideal for diving, and the Lady Sconset is more commonly used for surf and eco-trips, but after a day or so we could all negotiate getting on and off the boat safely.
There's nothing quite like cruising across open ocean, watching out for the frequent schools of dolphins, while Darcy prepared delicious dinners and told us stories of his travels around the Pacific.
As this was an exploratory trip, the sites we chose varied enormously. There were a couple of fairly fruitless dives in the blue, but we invariably encountered large aggregations of fish that would engulf us, blocking out the sun.
We were almost always accompanied by huge blue-finned trevally, zipping around and flashing their brilliant colours. It was hard to tear our eyes away from the blue, but examining the reef in detail revealed lobsters, grunts, jawfish, scorpionfish, hundreds of hawkfish and, on one memorable dive, spectacularly patterned harlequin shrimps.
One of the best sites was Rompiente, where soft white-tipped corals smother the rocks and create the sort of scene that makes you stop and stare, and wonder whether you really are under water or looking at a small forest covered in snow.
At night, the reefs show their true colours as the corals begin to feed, stretching out their bright orange and yellow tentacles. Luminescent sea cucumbers slither around and octopus and the ever-present moray eels glide by on their nightly hunt.
Another highlight was the continual presence on the surface of mobula rays, spotted dolphins, turtles and sea snakes. We also had a real treat watching marlin and sailfish jumping clear out of the water as they chased down their prey.
Visibility varied during the time we were there, but that is one of the things that makes Pacific coast diving so exciting Ð you are never quite sure what is going to come zooming along in front of you. One thing is fairly certain, however, and that is that you will encounter current during your dive, sometimes mild and sometimes ripping.
At El Faro, we swam around a corner and had to hold onto a rock as our regs and masks vibrated. Our reward was to see more than eight sharks, schools of amberjacks, a couple of turtles and six mobulas cruising past.
According to Rachel, sperm, pilot, humpback and killer whales and whale sharks may also appear, and as time goes on the dive centre will begin to get more of an idea of the seasonality of such visits and be able to predict the best time to see these visitors.
We thought our diving in Panama was over, but had an unexpected bonus when we travelled a little way down the coastline and stayed on Boca Brava, an island populated mainly by howler monkeys. In nearby Boca Chica, there is a new dive centre. Its owner, Carlos Spragge, has given a great deal of thought to his operation, with a custom dive boat and all-new equipment.
While he is a little far away from Coiba to make day-trips, his boat is perfect for a four- or five-day liveaboard trip, which is what we intend to do next January. We were excited to hear that the previous day a group of divers had seen humpback whales on the surface, and spent their dive mesmerised bytheir song.
There are plenty of outstanding sites on the way to Coiba, especially around the Seca Islands, including a site that rises up from 70m to a plateau at around 35m. Carlos had not dived this site but was as keen as we were to see what it was like.
Diving there was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The beauty of the topography and the volume and variety of the fish took our breath away.
During our short dive we saw eagle rays, cubera and dog snappers and huge spadefish, and a vast area covered with pristine fans and corals.
Unfortunately it is a little too deep to be dived regularly, but it was a clear demonstration of the potential of undiscovered sites in the area.
At the moment, the future of Coiba hangs in the balance. It is the last place in Panama where you will see the endangered scarlet macaw, as well as being an important refuge for many other birds, animals and marine life. So far, being covered in impenetrable rainforest and the reputation of its waters as being "shark-infested" has afforded it natural protection, but now, because of the dual threats of tourism and the desire to exploit its natural resources, it is under a lot of pressure.
As inevitable development reaches even this remote part of Panama (paved roads will be built this year to both Santa Catalina and Boca Chica), how long will the government resist the pressures of tourism and logging?
We expected Coiba to be deserted, as befits its park status, but a steady stream of day-trippers and cruise-ship guests were visiting. So far it is all low-key and kept to a very small area, as there are only a few trails on the island and it would be difficult to negotiate the jungle alone. There is, however, much evidence of illegal fishing and few resources in this poor province to patrol such a large area.
Once you are outside the marine park, it is easy to see the damage that is already being done to the reefs by over-fishing, particularly with the use of gill nets and long-lines which catch fish, marine mammals and sea birds indiscriminately.
The villagers take part only in subsistence fishing, taking what they need by freediving with spearguns or using single handlines, but we saw many small hammerhead sharks killed for their fins and left to rot on the shore.
Panama is an amazingly scenic country with food and accommodation basic but cheap, a slow, relaxed pace of life, and very welcoming people.
It's easy to get around to the major cities, and the extra effort required to dive on the Pacific coast is well worth it. But remember when you go that you are diving in a remote area and that safety standards may be different and emergency facilities not be as accessible as you are used to.
Don't go if you want guaranteed schools of reef fish, clear blue water and easy cruising, but do make the effort if you are looking for adventure and the unexpected.
At the moment Coiba's marine life, in particular the sharks, is safe in the immediate vicinity but, given that the sharks' ranges are vast, it is increasingly important that protection be given down the entire eastern pacific seaboard.
Tourism is only beginning in this part of Panama and sustainable development such as diving could play a part by bringing prosperity to the area, so that the precious marine resources become of more value alive than served up in restaurants around the world.
A good way to travel - the Lady Sconset
A resting whitetip reef shark
A striking nudibranch
Moray eel in a colourful setting
Pufferfish in its golden phase
Hawkfish on sponge
GETTING THERE: Numerous flights to Panama City, followed by a six-hour bus to Santiago and bus or taxi to Sona and then Santa Catalina. To get to Boca Chica you can catch a bus or flight to David, followed by a one-hour bus journey.
DIVING: From Santa Catalina, www.scubacoiba.com. Three-tank dives to Coiba including all equipment cost US $150. Three- or four-day packages to stay on the island also available. Diving is not really suitable for beginners or those not comfortable in currents. Take your own SMB. For surf & eco tours on the Lady Sconset, visit www.surfkats.com. For information on a guided trip in January 2006, visit www.divedingle.com/coiba.htm
ACCOMODATION: Comfortable rooms with shared bathrooms start at around $7 per person. In main cities, expect to pay around $25 for two sharing. Average price of a meal is $2 but in Santa Catalina availability is limited. You can stock up in Santiago and use the kitchen at Rolo's, www.rolocabins.com
WHEN TO GO: Diving is available all year round but it is better to avoid the wet season. Dry season is November to April. A 3mm wetsuit is adequate but as you may encounter thermoclines down to 24°C you may prefer a 5mm.
CURRENCY: US dollars are used in Panama but called the balboa. Take cash in small notes rather than relying on credit cards or travellers' cheques.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.coibapanama.com