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Snorkeling at Sol Bungalows in Bocas del Toro

Exploring the marine life in Bocas has never been easier than at Sol Bungalows, as some of the best reefs in the area are located pretty much right in front of you.

If you grab your mask and hop in to the water directly in front of the bungalows you will find yourself in what feels like a forest of soft corals. As their name implies, these corals are soft and instead of building a hard skeleton they sway with the waves and currents. We have many species of soft corals here in Bocas del Toro, known by the common names of sea rods, sea feathers, and sea fans. These soft corals often appear fuzzy, as they may have their polyps extended, and if you get close you can see the individual polyps that are open in hopes of catching small particles of food in the water. Other soft corals might appear skinnier, smoother, and have a different color, but often these are the same species with their polyps retracted.

You can also find some hard corals mixed in the reef, particularly the purple-red massive starlet coral (Siderastrea siderea) and distinctively patterned boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans). Hard corals produce a calcium carbonate skeleton and build the structure of the reef, creating habitat for fish and other organisms. Both hard and soft corals are animals belonging to the phylum cnidaria that have a symbiotic relationship with a type of algae that lives inside the corals, called zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae photosynthesize and create food for the coral, and the coral provides a home and nutrients for the zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae also give the coral their colors.

Massive starlet coral (Siderastrea siderea)

Boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans)

There is also a little bit of branching fire coral in the area. While this is technically a hydrozoan and not a true coral, it still creates a hard skeleton and is part of the reef. It also has small stinging cells that cause a mild sting if you brush up against them, so always be sure to be aware of your surroundings and remember to look but don’t touch!

Our reefs aren’t only made of corals; we also have a lot of sponges (over 120 species!) Out in front of Sol Bungalows you will find many orange and yellow rope sponges as well as bright purple branching tube sponges. Sponges are also animals, belonging to the phylum porifera, and filter feed on small organisms living in the water.

There are also several types of macro algae, one of the most distinctive being the flat top bristle brush algae (Penicillus pyriformis), which looks to me like something out of a Dr. Seuss book!

Several species of fish can be found using the corals and sponges as habitat, swimming around and using these structures to hide. Be sure to be on the lookout for the small foureye butterflyfish, with their distinguishing black “eyespot.” Butterflyfish typically mate for life and can be found in pairs, so if you see one, look out for its partner! Another commonly seen fish is the striped parrotfish, especially the juveniles that use this area as a nursery. We also have a lot of dusky, three spot, and bicolor damselfish. These small fish are quite territorial and might dart out at you if you get too close to their home!

Foureye butterflyfish Three spot damselfish

Striped parrotfish

Explore a little further…

Take out one of the SUPs (stand up paddleboard) or kayaks and paddle out a little further in front of the bungalows and along the coast to explore the expansive reef on this side of Solarte. There is also a sunken sailboat that you might be able to find and practice your free diving skills at! Just be sure to take your yellow noodles as markers (in addition to the board/kayak), have a snorkel buddy, and always have someone keeping an eye out for boats, as a lot of these areas of reef are located within the route of water taxis.

Out on these slightly deeper reefs you will find a greater abundance and diversity of hard corals, invertebrates, and fishes, including star coral, barrel sponges, sea cucumbers, stoplight parrotfish, sergeant majors, and schools of blue tang and surgeonfish.

Yellow tail damselfish, sponges, and branching fire coral

Initial phase stoplight parrotfish and a donkey dung sea cucumber

Sergeant majors swimming in front of soft and hard corals

And even further!

Want to explore even more reefs in Bocas?

  • Hospital Point is just around the corner on Solarte and can be accessed by boat taxi or land trails.

  • Arrange for a boat out to Isla Zapatillas, which not only has some of the most beautiful beaches in the archipelago but also some of our most spectacular reefs, known for elkhorn and staghorn corals.

  • If the conditions are calm, snorkeling the rock formations and caves out at Polo Beach is unlike any of the other snorkel sites in the area.

  • Arrange a tour of the Caribbean Coral Restoration site on the other side of Solarte and snorkel their artificial reefs, which are home to large angelfish, snapper, and often times nurse sharks!

  • I think the mangroves provide some of the most spectacular snorkeling Bocas - the roots are covered in a rainbow sponges and serve as habitat for many fish and other organisms.

  • Go out with one of the dive shops in Bocas town! Whether you are certified or just want to try it out with a Discover Scuba Dive, it is worth exploring the reefs at depth.

How to be a responsible snorkeler:

Be aware of your body and the reef! Make sure that you don’t kick the corals or sponges with your feet or fins, and please don’t stand on the corals. Corals are fragile and slow growing organisms, and it only takes second to damage years of growth.

Use a reef-friendly sunscreen. The chemicals in many sunscreens can harm reefs, so it is best for them (and you!) to choose mineral sunscreens with non-nano zinc (and avoid oxybenzone, ocinoxate, octocrylene, and homosalate). The best sun protection? A rashguard!

Look but don’t touch! Please leave all of the marine life in peace, both for your safety and theirs!

Learn more about the marine world you are exploring. Feel free to check out the identification page or list of resources on this website, or the Instagram account @VidaMarinaBocas to learn more coral and fish ID!

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