SEA OF CORTEZ - OCTOBER, 2002

Those of you who have been reading these reports over the years know that the Sea of Cortez holds a special place in my heart, so it’s not surprising that I looked forward to this trip with great anticipation. And, as it would turn out, our trip proved unique in many aspects.

First off was the size of the group. While we normally fill this trip (16 divers), that was not to be the case this year. Whether it’s the economy, or post-9/11 jitters, or whatever, we only had 11 divers on this vacation. And to top it off, two of those people canceled within 72 hours of our departure. With some scrambling, we were able to fill and re-book one of the spots, but not the other. So now we were going now with only 10 (myself included).

Of course, there’s an upside to all of this since it meant less divers and gear on the boat which translated into more room for everyone. It also meant that four of the seven cabins on the Don Jose only had one person in them (instead of two or three). And, with fewer divers, you never had to wait for fresh tanks or panga rides. Fewer divers makes it easier on the crew, too, although it also cuts into their post-trip tip since we pre-build a basic tip into our trip fee.

Another unique thing about this trip was the weather. The past few years, due to unusual worldwide weather conditions, we’ve experienced a lot more wind on these trips than we used to. That made for bumpier rides and decreased visibility, though it never seemed to affect the fish life.

But this year was like the good old days. Although we had a touch of wind towards the end, in general terms we enjoyed sunny days, 83-87º water temps, 60-100’ visibility, smooth rides, tons of animals, and beautiful daily sunsets. And on top of all that, we had a really nice bunch of people who seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

Getting out of LAX was a breeze. Check-in at the AeroCalifornia desk took all of ten minutes, leaving us plenty of time to have lunch upstairs at the Daily Grill. It took maybe another ten minutes to navigate through the security checkpoint and then we were on our way. There’s short stop in Loreto (it used to be in Hermisillo) to clear Mexican immigration, and then it’s straight in to La Paz. Once we cleared customs, a short taxi ride brought us to the Don Jose.

To say the Don Jose is one of my favorite boats would be an understatement. It’s certainly not the most luxurious or largest of the liveaboards we use, but it’s perfectly suited for the Sea of Cortez, extremely comfortable, there’s plenty of space, and I always feel like I’m coming home when I re-board it every year.

We also look forward to seeing the crew, as we’ve formed a really close bond with them over the years. Jose is still the captain, Luis and Felix run the pangas, and Hernan makes sure everything is in working order. But there’s been a change in the galley.

Roberto decided to move on and is now working for a hotel in Cabo San Lucas. Enrique has been promoted to head chef (he wears his toque for every meal) and did a fabulous job cooking for us. Not only is the food good and plentiful, but always artfully presented and arranged with garnishes, carved veggie decorations, and small touches like that. Enrique is now assisted in galley by the newest crew member, Dios.

Our divemaster this year was Alfredo Barroso. Alfredo usually works the Rio Rita (the day boat for Baja Expeditions) so this was as much a treat for him as it was for us. Alfredo replaced Kevin White who’s done the trip with us the last few years, as Kevin’s recovering from leg surgery and is sitting out the diving season (but should be back next year).

The other change - and a welcome one at that - is upstairs. The Don Jose does not have private heads in the staterooms but has communal ones, two on the main deck and one on the second deck. The heads can be a bit . . . temperamental . . . which is why we conduct a flushing clinic at the start of each trip. But in the past, the upstairs heads was always the worst and you REALLY had to have a magic touch to get it to flush consistently. But now . . . THERE’S A NEW HEAD UPSTAIRS!!!! And, it flushes at the drop of a hat. (Those of you who have never been on the Don Jose before may be shaking your heads right now but those of you who have done this trip will know why this is such a welcome improvement.)

With all of this in place, as well as new paint in many areas and just general sprucing up, we were eager to get started with our trip. So it was with high hopes that we departed La Paz at 7AM Monday morning, and headed out to Los Islotes, about 30 miles to the north.

Those of us who dive Santa Barbara Island regularly sometimes forget how special it is to have sea lion encounters. But for those who have never experienced pinnipeds before (and even for those who have), Los Islotes represents some of the best sea lion encounters I’ve ever seen worldwide. And in October, the pups are brave enough to venture out to greet/harass the divers, the bulls aren’t too concerned about intruders (though you still have to keep your eye on them), and the sea lion moms keep an eye on the whole process.

But there’s more to Islotes than just sea lions. The last few years, the west end of the island has become home to many schools of fish, and this year was no exception. We’d heard rumors about schooling barracuda so they were high on our list. The first groups didn’t spot them. However, they did run into a huge school of needlefish and half-beaks, parrotfish, leopard groupers, and saw puffers everywhere, along with tons of eels - more than I remember seeing in past years.

We also discovered something new when we went looking for giant jawfish. This year we found dozens of pikeblennies (a small, skinny, elongated, pointy-snout fish) in the sand around 60’ deep, many of them males displaying and flashing their dorsal fins trying to attract females to mate with them. (The underwater equivalent of a Friday night pick-up scene at a bar.)

Towards the end of the day, I thought I’d give the west end of the island one more shot and this time, I hit paydirt. Barracuda!!!! Not just a few, not a hundred, not a thousand, but TENS of thousands. They encircled me, seemingly without a care that I was in their midst. REALLY cool. After I left the barracuda and worked my way back towards the boat, I passed a huge school of sergeant majors munching on some corals, and ended up in a small shallow cavern where Alfredo was willingly and joyfully being mugged by six juvy sea lion pups who were chewing on his mask, tugging on his snorkel, and trying to pull off his fins. I’m not sure who was having more fun. Not a bad first day.

Our second and third days found us 60 miles further north at Las Animas. This area, out of the range of the day boats, probably sees no more than a few hundred divers a year. And it’s well-known for it’s large animal encounters. So Animas is a place where we hope to see some big fish, specifically hammerheads. And these two days were not to disappoint.

There are four areas at Animas where you might encounter hammerheads, but the most productive in the past couple of years has been a shelf off the NW corner of the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles - even without sharks - is a world-class dive site as the place is crawling with fish, sea fans, turtles, eels, swim-throughs, dramatic landscape, and is usually blessed with good visibility. The sharks just make it that much better.

Everyone saw sharks this trip. Of course, you’ve got to go deep (generally at least 100’), and you’ve got to realize that since you’re below the thermocline you’re going to be in cooler water (around 80º) and the vis will drop (anywhere from 20-50’) but the animals will come to you if you’re patient and are there at the right time. This year we had multiple hammer encounters, sometimes with solitary individuals and sometimes with small groups of hammers. But hammerheads weren’t the only highlight of Animas.

We also had an incredible turtle experience. We ran across a juvy green sea turtle, probably no more than two feet long, who seemed fascinated by divers. He followed us around for part of one dive that started out on the SW seamount, and then we ran into him again on our next dive on the inside western portion of the anchorage cove. He’d look at us, swim from diver to diver, go up for a breath of air, and then come right back down to us. One time he swam between my legs as I was photographing something else. He even positioned himself under our hands to demand/allow us to scratch him.

But, delightful as this extended encounter was, even he wasn’t the highlight of the dive.

That came when we happened to look up, and watched in amazement as not one, but TWO marlin came cruising by, one with his sail partially displayed. We were down around 40’ (playing with the turtle) and the marlin were perhaps only ten feet deep. They cruised on by, seemed to glance down at us, and then we watched in awe as they disappeared into the blue. And before you ask about pictures, let me say that, like any good photographer, I had the wrong lens on. I was shooting macro so you’ll just have to take my word for this. Fortunately, I’ve got witnesses.

Other animals we sighted at Animas included schooling skipjacks, tons of puffers, lots of eels, octopi, numerous (and big) lobsters, barnacle blennies, a mobula (small manta) with remoras attached, scissortail damsels, Cortez wrasses, king angels, sergeant majors (many guarding nests), soldierfish, and many, many more.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the discovery of two seahorses. We were doing a dive down the east wall of the Animas, starting in a small cove and then heading south. Barb Ferrante spotted a small seahorse, tail wrapped around a seafan. This promoted Vick Thomas to say, "Well, if there’s one, there might be another," and sure enough, in about two minutes, he’d located a second, slighter larger seahorse. We presume they were a mated pair and were cruising through the area. Really a nice surprise as seahorses exist in Cortez, but aren’t spotted all that frequently.

Our fourth day found us at the famous El Bajo seamount, once again searching for sharks. And again, we found them, but this time VERY deep, perhaps around 150’ off the north end of the seamount, congregating around an abandoned fishing net. My group made two dives in the area and the second time we came up a couple of hundred yards from the boat. No problem as we simply inflated a safety sausage to signal the pangas. But one of the guys in the group, who happens to be gay, said, "They’ll never see that little sausage. I’ll get mine out." And he proceeds to whip out this sausage that’s got to be two feet wide and ten feet long. So the joke became, "Doesn’t it seem logical that a gay guy would have the largest sausage on the trip."

But El Bajo is not just about sharks off in the deep. The central seamount (there are three) teems with life. Although I didn’t think there were as many fish in years past (and this could also have been due to the fact that there was very little current), the place still has plenty to see. However, the Moray Condos, which in years past housed dozens of eels, only had a few this time. But, we did have another hammerhead encounter as two hammers swam over the edge of the central mount and then off into the blue.

We also had an amazing surface encounter at El Bajo as, while we were waiting between the second and third dive, a school of pilot whales slowly meandered through the area, moving slowly enough to allow us to grab our gear, jump into the pangas, get dropped off in their path, and snorkel with them for a few minutes until they executed a perfect surface dive and headed off into the deep blue. But, by waiting a few minutes, we could spot them again and begin the dance all over. Pretty spectacular and some people got within a few feet.

Our final full day of diving took us to La Reyna, a speck of an island off the north end of Cerralvo. But it is here that we’ve been encountering giant Pacific manta rays. And all summer long, La Reyna has been home to as many as a dozen of these gentle giants so we were really excited about arriving.

In my logbook, my note of our first dive starts off with "Yahoo!!!" We had a manta within two minutes of hitting the water. And he wouldn’t be the only one we’d see all day. We saw as many as five at one time. Many times, the mantas would glide and hover motionless, hanging in the current and letting the water rush over their bodies. In the four dives we made there, everyone saw mantas on the first three dives and half the group also on the fourth. And many times the mantas would stay with you for the entire hour-long dive. We estimate the wingspans to range from 12-18 feet. And the grace of these animals is amazing. They turn on a dime, move through the water effortlessly, and are simply a wonder to behold.

But La Reyna has more to offer than just mantas. There are some huge schools of fish that make their home here, including yellow-headed machete by the dozens, blue-lined grunts by the hundreds, barracuda by the multi-hundreds, skipjacks by the thousand, and scads by the tens of thousands. In fact, the school of scad, which we only saw on our fourth dive, was SO thick and plentiful and tightly packed that they literally blocked out the sun when you dove beneath them. My logbook notes say, "Absolutely magical."

Since we’re due back in La Paz around noon on our final day (Saturday), the diving is only a two-dive day. But this year, instead of diving the Salvatierra wreck, which is festooned with fish but sometimes not-so-great vis, we decided to try something new and dove Punta Lobo, at the southeast corner of Espiritu Santo, in hopes of finding a large school of mobulas there which had been sighted over the previous weeks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the school, though we did see some individuals. But it was nice to wrap the trip up with an exploratory dive that always provides an adrenaline rush since you never know what to expect.

All in all, a pretty good trip. We saw lots of interesting animals, had pretty good conditions, and a good time was had by all. We made it back into La Paz Saturday afternoon, checked into Los Arcos, and normally this would be the end of our story. But, as you may recall, I said there were a lot of unique aspects to this trip.

Although I won’t go into all the sordid details, we had three divers who each thought they might have been bent, plus another diver who thought her computer was malfunctioning. The good news in all of this is that each diver let me know there was a problem right away so we could deal with it. Speed is always critical in these issues so that was good. Here are the lessons learned:

• If you have a new computer and you’re adjusting the date & time three days into the trip, be careful that you don’t also accidentally disable the computer by putting it in "Gauge Only" mode. She did, noticed the pixels weren’t registering underwater, aborted the dive, and then had to sit out a full 24 hours to fully outgas and for the computer to unlock from the "Gauge Only" mode.

• If your computer falls off from your hose mount (thankfully in the panga - at least the computer didn’t get lost) and you don’t notice it until you’re 30 feet down, the proper response is to abort the dive, NOT to decide to do the dive anyhow, and just use at your buddy’s computer. Especially when . . .

• For computers to be useful, you actually have to look at them while you’re doing the dive, and not just at the end of the dive. If you choose the latter, especially when going to 100’ on the 4th dive of the day, you may find yourself with very little air and a 13-minute decompression obligation.

• There’s a difference between a "Safety Stop" and a "Required Decompression Stop" (the former being optional and the latter being mandatory). Surfacing when the computer still wants you to be doing deco can cause major problems. "I didn’t have enough air" is NOT a good excuse.

• When you’re doing a dive in a stiff current and you spend an hour holding on to a rock with your left arm, and two hours after that dive that same arm is sore, that does not necessarily mean you’re bent. (But, better safe than sorry.)

• If you think there’s a chance something might have gone wrong (and you’re a LONG way from the nearest chamber - in SoCal it’d be much easier to get you evacuated and evaluated) AND you’re asymptomatic . . . stop diving, stay hydrated, monitor your condition, try not to psyche yourself out, and stay out of the water for at least 24 hours.

• Although we don’t ever want you to take the bends lightly, also realize that by constantly sitting around and talking about bends symptoms, and minutely analyzing and fretting over every little body twitch, you can convince yourself you’ve got symptoms of the bends even if you’ve never been diving before in your life.

The upshot of all this is that everyone’s home and seems to be fine, and hopefully all the wiser from the experience. We relay this to you, not to point fingers or put anyone in a bad light, but so you can see how seemingly innocuous decisions can have consequences more serious than anticipated. Even on vacation, it’s always important to remember that diving’s a serious sport and you need to pay attention to what you’re doing and understand what’s going on it your body at all times.

All this notwithstanding, it seems that everyone had a fine time, enjoyed some incredible animal encounters, and returned with many great stories to tell. Even without the added excitement this year, this is always a great trip that always produces fabulous memories. We’re already down for next year - October 5-12 - and would love to have you join us. If you want to reserve your spot now, just give us a call.


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