Cano Island Biological Reserve is a marine protected area lying off the coast of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. A short hop from the Corcovado and Marino Ballena National Parks, this is one of the wildest and most biodiverse places in the world. Despite covering an area of just 700 square miles, the Peninsula is estimated to support 2.5% of the entire world’s biodiversity!
The rich waters around Cano Island provide some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving in the country (after the remote and more inaccessible Cocos Islands). You can expect to see turtles, white-tip reef sharks, barracuda, sea horses, stingrays, and many types of fish. The Reserve is on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. This means lower visibility, colder water, and more currents than the Caribbean side. The upside is a much higher chance of encounters with the big marine species that are attracted by nutrient-rich waters, such as manta rays, whale sharks, spotted dolphins, and humpback whales! You can see a video of our trip to Cano Island here.
Average rating: 3.8 (good)
Average cost: prices vary depending on your activity and your tour operator. You can typically expect to pay around $130 for a snorkelling trip and $175 for diving. We went with Costa Rica Dive and Surf based in Uvita who were excellent.
Best time to visit: the best time to dive or snorkel is the dry season from December to June when visibility is highest. If you want to see whales there are two seasons – December to February and July to October. The latter is the best time for whale sightings as numbers are much higher – although it is the rainy season.
How to get there: most of the hotels and hostels around the Osa Peninsula can help to arrange a tour to the island. Boats typically leave from Drake Bay (45 mins) although there are also trips from the nearby towns of Sierpe and Uvita (1.5 hours).
Typical activities: scuba diving, snorkelling, whale watching
Number of reports: 4
Last updated: 2022
WILDLIFE IN cano island
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
manta ray – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of the big draws of diving at the Reserve is the chance to see the spectacular giant oceanic manta ray. Mantas can be seen year-round although sightings are not by any means guaranteed – we didn’t see any on our dives. The best spot to see them is El Bajo del Diablo (Devil’s Pinnacle) which they use as a cleaning station. Numbers in 2019 were low although sightings increased substantially in 2020 – which may be due to the introduction of tighter controls on fishing practices. Estimates of the population put numbers at around 10-16 individuals visiting the Reserve. Check out this nice video of these incredible animals taken at Cano Island!
humpback whale – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Costa Rica has the longest humpback whale season in the world! This is because California humpbacks migrate down from the northern hemisphere to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast from December to February, while Antarctic humpbacks migrate up from the southern hemisphere from July to October. This makes the waters around Cano Island an amazing spot for humpback watching. Particularly in the main whale watching season starting in July.
You can see humpbacks on snorkelling and diving trips to Cano Island. And in very, very rare circumstances you may encounter them while you’re in the water. However, for the best chances, you need to take a dedicated whale watching tour. Most of the whale watching tours are based in the shallow waters of Drake Bay, where mothers raise their calves. You can also take trips from the nearby town of Uvita to the Marino Ballena National Park which was set up to protect these amazing creatures.
spotted dolphin – 75% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Another cetacean you can spot on the boat ride out to Cano Island is the pantropical spotted dolphin. Unlike humpbacks, you can see dolphins year-round. They are fast and agile dolphins, often performing acrobatic leaps as they race through the water. Spotted dolphins hunt out in the open water in large pods. A good tip for spotting them is to look out for brown boobies diving into the water. When the dolphins are feeding they force the fish up to the surface which attracts diving birds – and provides a helpful signal to dolphin watchers! Spotted dolphins have dark backs and pale stomachs. The number of spots varies and some don’t have any spots at all. Other species such as bottlenose dolphins – larger and a more uniform grey colouring – can also be spotted in these waters.
whale shark – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
While we didn’t see any whale sharks, dive operators say that they can occasionally be seen in the waters around Cano Island. Reports on TripAdvisor suggest that they can be seen from January through to May. Like manta rays, the best dive spot for finding these giants is said to be El Bajo del Diablo (Devil’s Pinnacle) where they are attracted to the plankton-rich waters. Unlike mantas, however, sightings of whale sharks are even less frequent – so let us know if you see one!
Reef Shark – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (4/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Cano Island is one of the best places in the world to see whitetip reef sharks. If you’re diving or snorkelling you are pretty much guaranteed to spot one of these small and docile sharks. During the day they are typically found resting on the sea bed or in caves. They aren’t usually bothered by the presence of people so you can often get quite close providing excellent photo opportunities. The dive spot ‘Cueva del Tiburon’ (Shark Cave) is a great spot to look for whitetips. The cave is home to several whitetip sharks, and divers can often see around 6 or 7 of these sleeping from the mouth of the cave.
olive ridley sea turtle – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (4/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Another marine creature that is a regular visitor to Cano Island is the Olive Ridley sea turtle. There are actually several species that can be seen in the Reserve, including hawksbill and green sea turtles. Olive Ridleys are one of the most common species given the nearby nesting site at Playa Tortuga. It can be difficult to tell the three species apart so check out this handy guide. Generally, turtles are hard to miss year-round, whether you are scuba diving or snorkelling. Seeing them swimming gracefully through the water is a highlight of any trip to the Reserve.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White