SEA OF CORTEZ - OCTOBER, 2001
This was shaping up to be an interesting year to visit the Sea of Cortez. Obviously the events of September 11 were going to have some impact on our airport experience. And, at the end of September, Hurricane Juliette roared through La Paz and many of the areas that we planned to dive, and it was going to be interesting to see what effect that had on the underwater life in Baja.
LAX was no problem at all. We left on the same day that the Afghan bombing began (on the way to the airport, I kept repeating, "Please donít close American airspace, please donít close American airspace . . .") and once we got to LAXís inner loop (our taxi passed two police checkpoints) and walked into the terminal, it took perhaps 20 minutes to get everyone checked in, no longer than it normally would. The biggest problem then was killing 3Ĺ hours until our flight left. And other than the fact that our plane, designed to carry about 150 passengers, had only 25 on board, it was an uneventful flight to La Paz.
The hurricane had more potential to affect our trip. I already knew that it was responsible for the sinking of a dive boat further north in the Sea of Cortez (Poseidonís Mistress- no loss of life, thank goodness). I also knew that not too many people had been out diving in the week since the hurricane passed (we were going to be the first trip on the Don Jose in three weeks due to all the commotion) but that those who had gone out were reporting lower visibility, colder water, changes in the underwater topography such as loss of sand or absence of sea fans (which probably got ripped away), as well as changes in numbers of animals and distribution.
By the same token, I was reminded of what Jeff Goldblumís character in Jurassic Park kept saying, "Nature finds a way," so I was pretty confident that even if we didnít see evidence of it on our trip, the Sea of Cortez would bounce back.
Our group was 15 strong, comprised of John Morgan, Marilyn Lawrence, Chris Rybak, Linda Gorman, Kathryn Traweek, Bob & Laura Mosqueda, David & Marylou McCray, myself, and a group of five from Colorado - Maria Matellotto, Tom & Rona Culp, and Marlow & Audrey Anderson.
The weather was simply stunning with warm (but not too hot) days and very comfortable nights. In fact, the evenings were so cool that most of us wimpy gringos didnít even use the air conditioning.
We started, as usual, at Los Islotes, home to some of the friendliest sea lions in the world., One thing we noticed immediately was that many of the sea lions, who normally hang on the more-protected south side of the island, had moved to the north side, as that was the side that was more protected when the hurricane came through.
But even with lessened visibility (20-30í, depending on where you were) and cooler water (81ļ at the surface, 77ļ at the bottom - a 3mm suit seemed fine for everyone) we still had very nice dives. The sea lions cavorted, the schooling fish swarmed, and the divers had a ball.
This was also the area where last year we had spotted, at a depth of about 70í, numerous Giant and Fine-spotted jawfish. Much to our delight, they were still there. These animals, with a head the size of your fist and a body about as long as your arm, hover above their holes but slowly sink back down when divers (or anything they perceive as danger) approach. But if you work slowly and let them know youíre not a threat, theyíll stay within sight.
And we were very fortunate this year to find a male who was brooding eggs. The males do that by keeping the eggs in their mouths, and every now and then spitting the whole batch out to oxygenate them and then sucking the eggs back in. Think of a kid with bubble gum in his mouth blowing a bubble and then sucking it back in and youíre got an idea of what it looks like.
Islotes also had tons of scissortail damsels, sergeant-majors, king angels, Cortez wrasses, leopard groupers, various eels, and all the other animals weíd come to expect.
Day two found us further north at Las Animas and also brought us slightly better visibility, now in the 50-60í range, with the water temp still around 81ļ but with no noticeable thermocline.
Animas is a truly rugged and spectacular place to dive, getting perhaps 300 divers a year and is also home to what I consider to be one the finest dive in the world - The Pinnacles.
The Pinnacles are three rocks that are perhaps 400 yards off the eastern side of Animas and offer some truly spectacular diving with a combination of walls, canyons, tunnels, arches, outcroppings, and shallow shelves. Iíve said before that I could dive the Pinnacles the rest of my life and never get bored. Thereís always something going on.
Itís also a spot to see hammerheads and we were fortunate to see two there on one of our dives. More accurately, of the seven people in my group, six spotted the hammerhead pair. Guess who didnít. You see, Iíd found a VERY interesting sea fan to photograph and was concentrating on that (and even remember thinking to myself, "This is probably when theyíll see hammerheads - while my back is turned . . .") and when I finally turned around, the group was pointing at the retreating sharks and I was just far enough away that they were beyond my range of visibility.
Did I mention that it was a REALLY nice sea fan?
We also dove at the other usual spots around Animas: Seal Rock with just an amazing amount of sea life in the shallows and thousands of Cortez wrasses grouping together in a spawning frenzy, rushing upward, and releasing sperm & eggs into the water; the SW Bajo, which provides a good opportunity for hammerheads but is also an interesting dive in and of itself with lots of sea fans, big schools of fish, skipjacks passing by, and an occasional barracuda; the "safe" cave with itís fire shrimp in the back chimney; and the southern and eastern walls of the island.
Wednesday (day three) we moved still further north to a small seamount called Isla Catalan. And here was the first time we encountered Bajaís legendary 100í+ visibility. What a lovely spot. Itís festooned with yellow-polyped black coral, has tons of fish roaming around, and we were even treated to a pair of mobulas (smaller species of manta) buzzing about the reef.
Because Catalan is a deep dive (the top plateau is around 80í) we only did two dives there, then motored south to spend the afternoon at San Diegito, a small rock reef just off of Isla San Diego. There we found more barracuda, a wonderful small tunnel/cave to swim through, schooling king angels and scissortail damsels, tons of puffers, and all the other Baja creatures youíd expect to find on a shallow Cortez reef.
Day four (Thursday) took us back out to Las Animas and all we can say is . . . what a difference two days made!!! We couldnít believe how clean the water had gotten in such a short period of time. Where the visibility had been 50í two days earlier, it was now easily around 100í. But the best was to happen between the dives.
We were anchored, due to a slight swell, along the southern wall of Animas and we could see, perhaps half a mile from the boat, a HUGE school of dolphins cavorting in the water. We asked Captain Jose if it was be possible to take the pangas out to snorkel with the dolphins and he gave his blessing. What a thrill!!!
Panageros Luis and Felix are very highly skilled at maneuvering the pangas but their skills (and love of the animals) became even more evident as we went through the dolphin school.
The pangas would run at a speed conducive for the dolphins, sometimes as many as 20-30, to ride the pressure wake of the bow. And if you think itís a thrill seeing dolphins on the bow of a California dive boat (where youíre maybe 10 feet away) think of hanging your head over the side of a panga where you can almost literally reach out and touch the magnificent creatures as they break the surface to breathe.
But everyone wanted to see the dolphins from underwater. So we all bailed out of the pangas, floated together as a group, and Luis and Felix would take the panga away, run through the school picking up bow-riding dolphins, and then head for our group, bringing the dolphins right by our noses. You could really hear them clicking and whistling as they went by and many of them would look at us as if to say, "Who ARE these stationary creatures?" Sometimes there would be only five or six dolphins coming by, and sometimes there were as many as 30. Whew!!! We must have spent at least 45 minutes doing this and John Morgan got some exquisite video footage.
Our group mainly was content to explore the central seamount, which is another one of Bajaís truly spectacular dives. You start at Moray Condos, so named because there are more Panamic moray eels than youíve eve seen in one place before, so many that multiple eels occupy a single hole or crevice. Itís not uncommon to find three or four eels in the same hole.
In the center of the mount, in a sandy area, you can also find garden eels that are amazingly willing to let you come extremely close without slithering down into the safety of their burrow. Plus youíve got Creole fish, more king angels, passing jacks, a school of yellowtail surgeonfish, swarming wrasses, and just a visual delight of underwater activity to feast your eyes upon.
During lunch, we moved back to Los Islotes, passing through an enormous school of dolphins - perhaps 400-500 strong - who jumped, tail-slapped, and seemingly enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs. After the dolphins, we did a couple of more dive at Islotes, with some people exploring areas they missed earlier and others revisiting favorite spots.
Saturday was our final day and itís a short one because weíre due back in port around noon. Although we usually dive the wreck of the Salvatierra, I was concerned that, because itís close to La Paz, there wouldnít be any visibility. So I asked Jose for a special favor to see if we could dive La Reina, off the tip of Cerralvo, because that posed our best chance at manta rays. After mulling it over for a bit, Jose said, "Si!"
We pulled into La Reina shortly after 6AM, just as the sun was coming over the horizon. Weíd only have time for one dive, and we split into smaller groups so we could cover more territory. As luck would have it (unlike my hammerhead experience), this time Iíd be in the right group and actually looking in the right direction.
La Reina in and of itself is an interesting dive. Huge rolling plateaus that top out around 30-40í are separated by canyons that run 60-80í deep. The mantas will cruise through the canyons and over the plateaus. Part of the trick here is to spread out and cover as much ground as you can and keep looking up.
We were 17 minutes into the dive when I saw our divemaster, Kevin White, excitedly pointing up and in front of him. And there it was . . . a giant manta, with a wingspan that we estimate at about 12 feet, fully equipped with two remoras hitching a ride behind the mantaís frontal lobes. So off we went.
Luckily for us, the manta didnít regard us as a threat and, it seemed to me, even slowed down so we could catch up. For the next ten minutes, this magnificent creature shared the ocean with us, allowing us to closely approach, follow, tag along, and just marvel at the gracefulness of a creature so large.
My own personal goal was to swim on top of the manta, not touching it, but just staying a foot or so over itís back in the slipstream and going along for the ride. And through some luck, good timing, and hard kicking, I was able to put myself in that place. (If you get these via e-mail, the picture is on the back page.) What a thrill! And it allowed me a chance to really closely observe the remoras and how they are constantly repositioning themselves.
But perhaps the most amazing thing that happened was that after Iíd been in this position hovering over the manta for a few minutes, it started a somersault where it pitched itís nose downward and did a full 360ļ turn, so that it came up from behind me and swam over my head. (Donít know if it was trying to ditch me or not but it was a pretty awesome thing to experience.) Most amazing was that as it completed the turn, it kept itís tail tucked in so that the tail didnít whack me. Incredible!
As the manta sailed off into the distance, our bottom time was up and while we hung at our safety stop, we could only marvel at what an incredible way this was to end a really enjoyable trip.
Once again, we have nothing but praise for the crew of the Don Jose. From Jose the captain, to Luis and Felix driving the pangas, to Hernan the engineer, to Roberto the chef (how does he cook the wonderful food he cooks in such a small kitchen???) and Enrique the sous chef, to Kevin the divemaster, each gave their all to make sure that we got the best that the Sea of Cortez had to offer and that our needs were met. And, as always for us, the crew was simply outstanding and is as big a reason as to why we keep coming back as the sea life is.
And speaking of which, we will be going back again next year. The dates will be October 13-20 and weíre happy to start taking reservations and deposits ($500) whenever you feel like making the commitment.
The Sea of Cortez truly is one of our favorite places to dive and we sincerely hope, whether itís with us, another group, or own your own, that youíll put this on your "Must-Dive" list and see all that Baja has to offer.