Dominican Republic offers a wide variety of adventure sports, including Scuba Diving, hiking, and swimming (all of my favorite activities). On our recent trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic we planned for all of these activities with scuba diving at the top of my to do list!
From Punta Cana there are a few dive sites north & south of the island. The south side is known for calmer water and better visibility,so I looked south for a good dive and snorkel spot. I am a huge fan of wall dives, and the wall at Isla Catalina sounded perfect with scuba, snorkel, beach day complete with souvenir shopping and hot BBQ lunch.
Choosing A Dive Boat
Since this was my first dive in DR, I asked my local dive shop for recommendations or tips. Two of my dive masters warned me against booking with a company that offers 2 tank dives under $60 deals, as they have a bad reputation for dropping divers off in a new site, leaving, and coming back in an hour to switch tanks. Um, no thank you. I checked for top rated PADI certified operators and selected SeaPro divers because they had great ratings, good website, and offered transportation and lunch.
Disclaimer: They did not compensate me in anyway, I am sharing which dive boat that I paid to dive with as information only.
Taxi cabs are pretty expensive in DR, so hotel pick-up in Punta Cana was a requirement for any excursion out of the resort. The day trip to Isla Catalina entails a van pick-up to rendezvous with a coach bus to make the 45 mile (75 km) trek down to the Marina La Romana to board the dive boat. The hour ride passed pretty quickly with entertaining tour guide and pleasant drive past in across the east interior of the island, passing the Punta Cana mall, farm houses, and a few small towns.
Once we reached the marina at La Romana, the scuba divers were split off from the snorkelers and boat passengers to pick up gear and load the boat. The drop off location was well organized, clean, and cozy atmosphere.A short walk down to the boat, load up, and we were off to the first dive site at Isla Catalina approximately 25 minutes in the boat.
The first dive site is known as the Wall with a shallow reef that leads to a literal rock wall drop off.
The wall dive site was crowded with boats and snorkelers, which is not my favorite combination. The boats kept coming in and out of the area thrashing the snorkelers around, it did not look pleasant for them. It was chaotic and crowded. All snorkelers must wear a life vest, so there is zero opportunity for free dive for a closer look at the reef. I would be hesitant to recommend this for snorkelers, especially with children.
When we first descended toward the wall, there is a large field of damaged coral from irresponsible divers, snorkelers, and boats. A short swim reveals the underwater beauty of crystal-clear water and loads of fish in a healthy coral reef. The experienced guides lead the newbie divers on a short shallow circuit leaving the more experienced divers to split off for deeper dive and spend quality time exploring.
My dive buddy had an equipment malfunction within the first five minutes of the dive and had to go back to the boat to switch out her regulator. We took this opportunity to take some silly underwater photos before she & the dive master returned to our location. The dive boat was equipped with plenty of spares (as I expect from any professional company) and we quickly resumed our dive. A cheap boat that just dropped us off would have ended in misery and an aborted dive.
The wall did not disappoint! Excellent visibility and a wide range of colorful tropical fish joined us on our underwater adventure.Massive lion fish could be seen in almost every large, dark crevasse and did not seem bothered by the human invasion. Healthy corals of bright greens and purples cover the side of the wall and various reef fish swam around.
Advanced divers are able to descend deeper along the wall and swim between the rock overhangs for up-close views of lobsters and lionfish. Be sure to check out my YouTube video to see for yourself!
At the halfway point, a slight cold current allowed us to drift back to the boat pick up location. The deepest point of our dive along the wall was ~85 feet, and while there was nothing particularly difficult or technical about the dive, it was incredibly relaxing and beautiful.
There was a group of newbie divers recently certified for open water on a previous vacation, the dive master kept them at a reasonable depth for their skill and oxygen consumption. This was a good practice site for buoyancy control and not allowing the (light) current to push them up against the wall.
The newbie divers returned to the boat, snorkelers soon joined them, and the advanced divers were the last to board the boat. The boat made a quick trip over to the dock at Isla Catalina to drop of non-divers for beach time and drinks, then we were taken to the much shallower dive site near Playa Grande. Our surface interval was the drop off and re-positioning to the second site, then back in the water.
The second dive site is the known as the Aquarium, presumably for the sheer amount of fish and creatures. A stark contrast to the wall, the shallow aquarium site (max depth 65 feet) is largely a white sandy bottom with small clumps of coral reefs teeming with more variety of creatures than the wall! We encountered many lemon rays, puffer fish, eels, flounder, crabs, lobster, and even a tiny 4 inch sea horse! With a very light, gentle current it was easy to swim in for a closer look and maintain neutral buoyancy for underwater video and photography. This is a fantastic site for newbie divers!
Overall, the scuba diving around Isla Catalina is excellent! I am ready for my next dive vacation around DR to explore the mangrove forests, deep wreck sites, and swim through caverns.
Completing our dives, the boat returned to pick us up and drop us back on Catalina Island for a hot meal, cold drink, and some beach time. The island is built out with wooden board walks to shopping kiosks at the end of the beach, dining tents, bathroom facilities, and large grill area for buffet style meals. The facilities are modern rustic, meaning that it feels very manufactured and crowded. An hour was plenty of time to eat, enjoy the beach, buy a souvenir, and be ready to leave. While some guests (mostly families with smaller-ish children) came just for beach day & BBQ lunch on the island, I would only book this excursion for the scuba diving aspect.
The BBQ lunch was actually a simple preparation of grilled chicken, pork, rice & beans, cold pasta, and fruit. This was a welcome improvement over normal dive boat lunches of sandwiches & cookies. Do not expect a lavish gourmet meal, it is grilled lunch served in a buffet line.
After lunch, we enjoyed some overpriced drinks at the bar, walked down the board walk to purchase some local Mama wana drink and various souvenirs.
The boat returned to the Isla Catalina dock precisely on-time, a short ~20 minute boat ride back to the marina, drop off gear, and back on the clean air conditioned bus to return to our resort in Punta Cana. The entire operation is very well coordinated and easy. It is understandable why so many families would choose this excursion.
I rarely dive with a wetsuit I did not pack mine for this trip to DR in order to save luggage space. Next time I will bring my 2.5Mm shorty wetsuit for DR. The water at depth on the south side of the island was just cool enough that I regretted not having my wetsuit. My dive buddy dove with a full length 3Mm wetsuit and she mentioned still being cold. Also, since I was not wearing a wetsuit, the dive company insisted that I wear a life vest while the boat was moving (wet suit wearers did not need the life vest).
Bring small denominations of cash on the excursion. Between buying a few beverages (after the dive), tipping the dive crew, buying souvenirs,and tipping the bathroom attendant I used more cash than normal for a dive excursion.
This excursion was double the price of what I normally pay in Fajardo, Puerto Rico for something similar. The transportation to the marina was the deciding factor for me, as I would have spent far more on a taxi or rental car without the added security and piece of mind that the excursion company was coordinating all of the details & timing. For me, it was worth the extra cost to enjoy these amazing dive sites without any hassle.