SEA OF CORTEZ - OCTOBER, 2003

From a diving standpoint, the only thing better than dodging one hurricane . . . is dodging two or even three. And that’s the position we were in this year for our annual trip to the Sea of Cortez on the Don Jose out of La Paz.

Our group this year was a mix of Baja veterans and Baja newbies. The veterans included Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Duffy Daughenbaugh, Jay Wilson, Bruce Graham, Audrey & Marlow Anderson, Barb Ferrante, and Reef Seekers co-owner and trip leader Ken Kurtis. The Baja newbies were Luther Huffman, Richard Horn, David Kulka, Scott Kramer, Marty Oatman & Julie Baker, and Unes Nabipour & Helene Longenbaugh.

Historically, La Paz deals with a hurricane once a decade. But in past few years that pattern seems to have changed a bit. And this year, it was thrown totally out the window as La Paz was directly hit by two hurricanes (Ignancio earlier this summer and the devastating Marty 10 days before we went down), one tropical storm (Kevin), and had close calls with three or four others, including two (Nora and Olaf) while we were down there. So we knew from the start that things might be . . . different.

But different can be good. Based on pre-trip reports, we knew that water temps had been running as much as 5-10º cooler than normal. But that should also bring the hammerheads shallower and might also encourage more spawning. But we were also aware that there had yet to be a single manta ray sighting at La Reina all season (a spot that has been prodigiously reliable), presumably due to the weird weather pattern. Bottom line was that things were in a state of flux in the Sea of Cortez and it was going to be interesting to investigate the changes.

We arrived in La Paz Sunday evening without incident and made our way from the airport to the Don Jose. During the 20-minute drive, we could see signs of Marty’s wrath - trees down, billboards twisted, and stuff like that. But overall, La Paz had recovered quickly. As we pulled up to the Don Jose, we saw some sunken boats in the marina with their masts jutting up through the water but in general things were pretty much normal.

We were also keeping an eye on the aforementioned hurricanes Nora and Olaf. Nora was making it’s way up the Pacific side of Baja and but was starting to curve inland. Olaf was churning it’s way up the western coast of mainland Mexico and was aiming directly into the Sea of Cortez. (Nothing like starting a dive trip surrounding by threatening hurricanes.) But the weather reports were encouraging and the reality was that there was not a breath of wind at the dock Sunday evening so things were looking good. After margaritas and chips at a nearby waterfront cafe, we got a good night’s sleep on the Don Jose, ready for our Monday morning departure.

And what a glorious morning it was. A beautiful slightly-cloudy sky, still no wind (good sign), and it’s always nice to hear the throaty rumble of the Don Jose’s diesel and see our friends on the crew again.

As always, we can’t say enough good things about the crew. We’ve formed a very special bond with them over the years from the captain (Jose - quite a character in and of his own right) to the panga drivers (Luis & Felix) to the engineer (Hernan) to the chef (Enrique - who does an amazing job in preparing fabulous feasts). They take very good care of us throughout the week, are amazingly helpful, friendly, and fun, and take us (so we like to think) to spots that they don’t take others. And we were delighted to have Kevin White again as our Divemaster as he’s always been a good guy to spend time with, is great at finding hard-to-spot animals, and is happy to act as someone’s buddy on a moment’s notice. Plus we welcomed Pato, the new assistant chef, to the fold.

We also had a Monday morning surprise/treat for the crew as Vick Thomas had purchased a brand new combo DVD/VCR player for the boat (they previously only had a VCR). We also gave them four DVDs (including "Top Gun" - their all-time favorite). So if you’ve got an upcoming trip on the Don Jose, a gift of DVDs for their library will be appreciated.

Because of all the storms, the La Paz area, which normally gets less than 10" of rain annually, has been deluged. As a result, there’s more green on the islands than we’d ever seen before. Unfortunately, the rain also brought out something else we’d never before encountered in La Paz . . . bugs. There were a few mosquitoes, an abundance of gnats, some flies, and the dreaded no-see-ums. (Fortunately, the bug activity subsided as soon as the sun went down.) But the no-see-ums were probably the worst and attacked the exposed body parts of some in our group with such a vengeance that by Tuesday evening, it looked like half the boat had been stricken with the measles.

Late Monday morning we pulled into the familiar surroundings of Los Islotes, home to one of the largest sea lion colonies in the Sea of Cortez. The water had a slight tinge of green to it (vis was generally 40-50’) but we were pleased to find the temperature around 81º, so a 3mm wetsuit would be just fine. But what was amazing to us were the schools of fish.

Probably the most impressive were the flat-tailed herring. These are small (3-4") silvery fish who move in unison. And there were MILLIONS of them, going as far as the eye could see and stretching from the shallow bottom (rarely deeper than 30’) almost to the surface. We started using the term "Rivers of fish" to describe their movement. At times we’d be diving amongst them and you literally could not see your buddy 10 feet away because of the number of fish. On top of that, the sea lions, along with needlefish, skipjacks, and halfbeaks, would dart through the middle of the schools trying to snatch a meal. This went on all day long. Really impressive.

We also ran into an enormous school of Mexican barracuda on the backside of Islotes, found more schools of herring, sardines, and silversides, kept finding Longnose hawkfish in the corals, saw tons of eels (Panamic, Zebra, Jewel, and Starry morays), lots of parrotfish, groups of Yellowtail surgeonfish, Blue-spotted and Fine-spotted (aka Giant) jawfish in the sand flats, and even a seahorse.

But the highlight of the day had to be when Barb Ferrante and I dropped down under the boat for the third dive of the day and saw flapping shadows on the bottom 60’ below. Further descent revealed five Cownose rays cruising over the sand, being followed by roughly 150 of their buddies. Wow!!! They were hard to approach but it was an amazing sight as the entire flock (???) winged their way directly over our heads, silhouetted against the surface. A fabulous experience.

Tuesday found us 40 miles further north at Las Animas, one of our favorite Cortez spots and one of the most remote. We were still monitoring the weather and heard that Olaf turned inland and was petering out. We also heard that Nora, which was just to our west, was losing strength but would still generate some wind for a day or so. And we could see the effects of that as we pulled into Animas.

To get an idea of what Animas looks like, hold your right hand up - palm facing away from you - with your fingers together and your thumb jutting out to the left. Your fingertips are due north. There’s a small rock island, Sea Rock, above your middle finger, another rock island to the left of your thumb, and a large rocky triple-outcrop, The Pinnacles, to the right of the middle of your hand. The curved area between your thumb and forefinger is a usually-protected cove, which is where we normally anchor.

As Jose circled the island looking for potential anchorages, we could feel the bounce of the building swell. However, since it was coming out of the north and there were already choppy whitecaps in the cove, Jose chose to anchor the boat along the south end of Animas. As the morning wore on, that would choose to be an amazingly good decision.

Animas usually represents your first chance at sharks but we got skunked on this day. Visibility was only running about 30-40 feet and we were limited to diving the south wall (which is still interesting) due to the swell. Although there wasn’t as much fish activity as at Islotes (which was unusual) there was still plenty of stuff to see, including lobster, needlefish, more barracuda, puffers of all sort (Sharpnose, Porcupine, and Guineafowl), plenty of blennies, and lots more.

But when we surfaced from our second dive, we discovered that the seas had really been building and the chop in the cove had built to 4-5’ breakers that were coming over the rocks protecting us. (Remember when we mentioned that good anchoring decision Jose made???) The South wall was becoming almost dangerous now and we decided to cut our day at Animas short and head back south to calmer waters.

Mid-afternoon we pulled into the south side of San Jose Island and a rocky outcrop called La Lobera which had some sea lions hanging out on the rocks (but not as numerous as Islotes) and a large stretch of garden eels down below. The water was a bit murky and there was a current running but as my notes say, "Better than nothing." Due to the conditions, we blew off the traditional Tuesday evening night dive.

We decided to spend Wednesday in this same area since didn’t think things had subsided at Animas. Jose had mentioned a bajo (seamount) they used to fish and dive 20 years ago in the area and wondered if we’d be interested in trying that. I said, "Sure." Then he laughed and said, "I hope I can still find it." It took us almost an hour, but he did, and we dove it, and what a treat it was.

We decided to call it "Jose’s Bajo" and there was no doubt in our minds that no one had been here for years and years as the place was fairly pristine. The top of the reef was 60’ and consisted of four "shallow" pinnacles all connected by big blocks of rock with sheer faces that dropped into depths well in excess of sport diving limits. The area was covered with Orange and Red gorgonians, Yellow-polyp black coral, and stubby little White gorgonians. There were tons of Scissortail damsels and juvenile Creolefish darting around, along with scorpionfish, more Longnose hawkfish, and bunches of eels. Because of the depths we only did two dives here but there were really a treat.

The rest of the day was spent at Bajito (small seamount) Lobera and La Lobera itself. By spending 15 minutes on my belly in the sand and breathing as slowly and quietly as I could . . . maybe there’s something those rebreathers after all . . . I was able to coax some of the garden eels partially out of their holes for some shots (thanks goodness for a long lens!!!). Plus we found a bunch of nesting Ocean triggers but were amazed when they really didn’t defend their nests upon close approach.

Thursday, we decided we’d try to go back to Las Animas. Although still somewhat choppy, the seas had subsided (and would quiet down even more throughout the day) and we had some great dives. Probably the best was our first dive at Seal Rock. My dive log notes read: "Started with a Blue-spotted jawfish wondering who we were. Then a Diamond ray swam right up to me and almost put his nose into my hand. Great vis, easily 100’ . . ."

We had three more lovely dives throughout the day, including The Pinnacles, and though we didn’t see any sharks (or any other large pelagics) we were impressed by the numbers of fish, more than we’d seen two days earlier, swarming about. There were schooling jacks (Bigeye and Green), pulsing swarms of Scissortail damsels, turtles, morays, parrots, chub, and lots of spawning, especially among the Cortez wrasses, who were getting it on (so to speak) every chance they got. You would see a ball of them (dozens of fish) dancing around each other and then, all of a sudden, they’d all dart upwards and you’d see a small "poof" of white in the water, which was the combined sperm and eggs being released and left to drift with the currents.

We were also able to squeeze in a night dive inside the cove here, and that’s always a treat. On the small side, we found a pair of mated Arrow crabs, one of who could be seen carrying eggs. There was still more spawning going on (sea cucumbers and flower urchins) and my group found a crevice in the rocks that not only had an enormous Panamic moray a few feet back, but also had four lobsters behind him, and they were in front of a fifth lobster that has to be the biggest crustacean I’ve ever seen. My guess would be that he was three feet from his eye stalks to the tip of his tail. Very impressive all around.

Friday represented our last full day of diving (Saturday is only a half-day 2-dive day), and we decided that the lack of mantas meant La Reina could be sacrificed and headed instead for El Bajo, La Paz’s famous seamount and also a good hammerhead location.

The short version of this is pretty simple: we got skunked. We made three dives on El Bajo, two over the north mount which is generally where you spot the hammers. Actually Kevin and Unes spotted four sharks on our second dive but, though Barb and I were with them, we were just far enough back that we didn’t see them due to vis. These were the only sightings anyone had the entire trip. But that didn’t mean people didn’t find plenty to see on El Bajo.

When you’re not looking for sharks, most of the diving centers on the central or main mount. Schooling jacks, morays in every available crevice, garden eels in the sand, parrots patrolling the edges of the reef, Scissortail damsels, and just about every other reef fish swarm over the area. Even without sharks, it’s always a stunning dive.

Friday afternoon, we finished up back at Islotes with our "rivers" of fish, sea lions, and other critters, and also did a night dive here.

Saturday morning we opted to head for another new spot (for us at least) called Suwannee Reef. It’s a very shallow reef with the high spot hitting 6’ and the deepest area not much more than 40’ or so. What a delight!!! There were scads of scads, groups of goatfish, garden eels galore, and thousands of Spot-tail grunts. The grunts proved to be the most interesting because, especially on the first dive at 8AM, there were all getting cleaned by Barberfish. And we watched in amazement as each Barberfish would very carefully move through the school, and go up to each and every grunt, face it head-on, and give it a little peck on the lips to clean the parasites. Some grunts opened their mouths but most just held still. How this behavior developed and how each fish knows what to do still amazes me every time I see something like this.

We pulled back into La Paz shortly after noon on Saturday having done 24 dives, shot lots of film (or - in this digital age - filled up a lot of disk space) and seen things that will leave all of us with a lot of great memories.

The Sea of Cortez remains one of our favorite places to dive and it’s a place, especially for those of you who live near the west coast, that you should put on your list of places to visit. As we said earlier, we’ve always had a great experience with the Don Jose and Baja Expeditions and plan to go back again next year at the same time. And who knows, maybe next year will be the no-hurricane-plenty-of-hammerheads story. But only time will tell.


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