(Sea of Cortez - La Paz, Mexico)

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

One of the “rules” of writing is that you always try to start off with some sort of a catchy line that will hook the reader into your story. So here are the ones I’ve been mulling over to get you to read about our trip down to the Sea of Cortez:

               • It was the best of dives; it was the worst of dives
               • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
               • May you live in interesting times
               • You SAID you wanted an adventure
               • Anyone can have a great time in GOOD conditions

This was not one of our more stellar Sea of Cortez trips. In fact, in the 21 years that we’ve been coming down here - strictly based on the conditions - this was probably one of the most difficult/disappointing. It was certainly through no fault of anyone on the trip. The culprit?? Norbert!!!

In case you didn’t follow it, Norbert was a Category 2 hurricane that developed in the Pacific a few days before we were to leave for La Paz. It came crashing ashore on the same day we were to leave from LAX, at about the time we were arriving at the airport. Alaska/Horizon Air canceled our flight.

Normally this wouldn’t seem like such a big deal (I mean, it WAS a hurricane after all) except that La Paz has become one of those places where you have to say you-can’t-get-there-from-here. Various airlines have adopted and abandoned the LAX-LAP route. Right now Alaska/Horizon has it but only flies on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. So when your Saturday flight gets canceled, the next option isn’t until Monday, and we already knew that that flight was full. And waiting until Wednesday to fly down didn’t seem to make any sense at all since we would have lost three of our dive days with no way to reschedule them.

Fortunately (and this goes back to the advantages of group travel with someone who knows what they’re doing), we had prepared for the eventuality that our flight would be canceled and had a backup flight from LAX to Cabo San Lucas in the wings. So we switched the entire group over to that flight, arranged for two vans to meet us in Cabo for the 3-hour drive back up to La Paz.

We also want to throw in kudos to the Alaska Group Desk who was terrific in dealing with us. Once we got to LAX, instead of having everyone wait in line to re-do the routing one-by-one, I simply placed one call to the Group Desk, told them who I was and what we needed, and they said, “We’ve got the seats blocked for you. Give us an hour to do all the paperwork. We’ll get working on it and call you back when we’re done so you can check in.” And 45 minutes later my cell phone rang and they said, “You’re all set for Cabo so you can go ahead and check in.”

One other nice surprise was seeing a familiar face in an Alaska Airlines jacket when we checked in. Former Reef Seekers staff and instructor Jerry del Rosario now works for Alaska in L.A. and helped to insure that we were well taken care of. So if you’re flying Alaska anytime soon, look for Jerry at LAX.

We got to La Paz around 10PM Saturday evening. (One final hurdle to overcome was that the transmission on one of the vans blew out just as we entered La Paz.) Except for some wet streets, everything looked normal. So far, so good. But while Norbert didn’t have much effect in La Paz itself (mostly rain, and not all that much), it wreaked havoc underwater. The biggest problems we had were that (1) there was still a lot of wind Monday & Tuesday which prevented us from moving around much, (2) the visibility was very low (generally around 30’) and somewhat green, and (3) the water temp dropped as much as 13º, from a balmy 87-89º the week before to a “chilly” 76-82º the entire week we were diving. So not exactly the primo conditions that we’ve come to expect each year when we journey down to this area of the world.

But I’ve got to hand it to our group of divers as they handled it all in stride. We were fifteen strong this year: Tony Mischel, Glenn Suhd, Liz Koskenmaki, Pat O’Brien, Susy Horwowitz, Dave Cooley, Ric Selber, Jason Bradley, Unes Nabipour, Reza Izhadi, Linda Gorman, Sue Krauth, Charlie Pincus, Laurie Kasper, and me (Ken Kurtis). About half the group were newbies to Baja and half had done the trip with me before.

We also had one diver who (painfully) learned the value of trip insurance as he had to cancel the night before we were to leave due to illness. Unfortunately, he did NOT have any insurance and so he had to eat the whole cost of the trip.

Trip insurance is generally fairly inexpensive, usually around 5% of the total cost of the trip. And it usually covers you for things other than not being able to go at all, such as trip delay, trip interruption, lost luggage, and stuff like that. We generally refer people to CSA Travel protection in San Diego but there are numerous companies that provide the coverage for reasonable rates. It’s definitely worth looking into for any trips you’ve got planned for the future.

Normally this trip runs as a Sunday-Sunday affair, with an afternoon arrival in La Paz, sleeping on the boat Sunday night, and then a 7AM Monday morning departure. This is all followed by 5½ days of diving, returning to port Saturday at noon, Saturday night in the Hotel Los Arcos, and a Sunday flight back to Los Angeles.

Because of the flight schedules (and having nothing to do with Norbert), this year we had to make this a Saturday-Saturday trip which meant giving up the half day of diving on the ending Saturday since we’d be flying that same day. But this also gave us the opportunity to schedule a half-day trip for the beginning Sunday and that mean we had an opportunity to stay close to La Paz and search for the Whale Sharks that sometimes lurk this time of year just outside the La Paz Harbor. (The fact we got skunked is irrelevant. It was still a pleasant day out on the water.)

And don’t get me wrong - we still had a nice time the entire week. The weather was generally pleasant with sunny days and clear nights (the full moon rising over Isla Espiritu Santo was gorgeous) and the one good thing about being in the area following the hurricane was that the daytime temps were rather comfortable and weren’t blisteringly hot. In fact, it was cool enough during the day (and with the wind felt even a little cooler) that I wore sweatpants between dives.

The wind was our biggest enemy. On Monday, we had hoped to start at the wreck of the Fang Ming but it was simply too rough and choppy. And we couldn’t get out to Los Islotes so instead spent the day diving at Ensenada Grande. On Tuesday, it was still windy and choppy and we still couldn’t get to Islotes so we doubled back to do a dive on the Fang Ming, followed by a dive at Isla Ballena, and then two dives around Candelera Island. On Wednesday, we finally were able to limp out to Los Islotes and enjoyed really great conditions in the morning. But after the lunch the current switched , the vis dropped, the water temperature dropped, and we were back where we started (but at least at Islotes).

On Thursday we decided to give El Bajo a shot and pulled in there to find a slight swell running and a current raging so strong that you could barely pull yourself down the anchor line. We decided to do only one dive there, generally fearful of losing sight of the anchor line and being swept away by the current on our safety stop. So it was back to Islotes where the conditions were so-so and where the wind picked up throughout the afternoon to the point that we had to cancel the night dive.

Our last hope was Friday when we were going to try for a new bajo (seamount) at La Reina and then dive La Reina itself, home to a large school of Flatiron Scad. Alas, La Reina was very choppy and had a major current rolling when we pulled in so we headed further south to Carpintero, a small island just off of Cerralvo where we did two dives, the first of which was in ANOTHER screaming current. We were able to get back up to La Reina in the afternoon and - despite marginal conditions (green water, low vis, mild current, what else was new???) - managed to get in two dives there.

So this was not exactly the trip where you are coming back raving about how great everything was, ready to plunk down your deposit to reserve your spot for next year. One of our divers summed it up quite well by saying, “I got a teaser look at what the diving here can be like.”

Now, all that being said, we still did manage to have a lovely week, despite the conditions.

When I was running radio stations, I used to have a General Manager whose favorite saying was “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Much as it used to grate on me when he said it, he was right. And in this case, you could choose to either bitch and moan about conditions (which no one did) or make the best possible dive you could under the conditions presented to you (which is what everyone did).

We had some amazing sea lion encounters once we made it to Los Islotes, home to what has to be the friendliest sea lion colony in the world. They seem to simply love it when the humans show up. I’m sure they think of us as nothing but their neoprene-clad playthings and they treat us accordingly. And don’t forget that with Norbert passing through, they were cooped up on the rocks and deprived of human companionship for a couple of days. So they were really interested in us.

We had one dive around the East End of Islotes where we ran into an adult female who swam up to me and put her chin in the palm of my hand. She did this over and over again and stayed with us for the last ten minutes of our dive, following us all the way to the surface and the panga that was there to pick us up.

Another time, we parked ourselves inside what’s come to be called the Sea Lion Cave (it’s only about 8 feet deep and goes back about 30 feet and almost always has a bunch of playful juvies in it) where I was mugged. My goal was to settle in on the left side of the cave (it’s only about 10 feet wide at this point) and have our divers settle on the right side and take pictures of them interacting with the inquisitive sea lions. But it seems like the pinnipeds had other plans for me.

As I settled in, one sea lion came down and sat right in front of me and slightly left and began gnawing on my strobe. While that was going on, a second one settled in behind me and began pulling on my fin. Then a third one slipped in from my right and took hold (gently, but with teeth) of my right elbow and began tugging. And while all of this was happening the fourth one (I’m sure he was the ringleader) came down from above, clamped his mouth around my head, and tried to pull my lycra hood completely off. I screamed through my reg, “Hey!!!! That’s my head . . . and my hood!!!” I swear I heard the sea lions laughing as they swam away . . . and then came back to mug me two or three more times.

(And for those of you reading this who aren’t divers, the whole thing is really a lot of fun. No injuries, no blood drawn, I’ve still got all my gear and my appendages, and I got some great photos.)

One thing that impressed me greatly this year was the proliferation of the Spottail Grunts. They were EVERYWHERE and generally in large schools. We saw them on the Fang Ming, at Isla Ballena, at Carpintero, at Ensenda Grande, at Islotes, etc., etc. Although I don’t know if they’d qualify as what would generally be termed an “indicator” species (whose numbers “indicate” the health of a reef/ecosystem), the fact that they’re in so many places and in such great numbers has to be a good sign.

We didn’t spot any of the big pelagics this year (Hammerheads, Manta Rays, Marlin) but we weren’t really at any of the normal places to find them like Las Animas of El Bajo (since our single dive there was confined to the Middle Mount and holding on for dear life). But we certainly saw all of the “usual” creatures which included tons of Scorpionfish, dozens of eels (Panamic, Garden, Zebra, Jewel, and Starry), numerous King Angels, schooling Scissortails and Goatfish, Cortez Rainbow Wrasses flitting around the reefs, gangs of Sergeant Majors, numerous nudibranchs, Blue-Spotted Jawfish (including males who were displaying), Barnacle Blennies and a whole lot more.

One of the more interesting things we saw - and we saw it a couple of times - involved what we presume to be mating behavior amongst the Pufferfish. We would find a bunch of them all piled one of top of the other, many times in a crevice, and nipping away at each other. The presumption is that it was the males doing the nipping, trying to get the attention of the female, and chasing away other suitors. Really interesting to see. On our lone night dive, there were about a dozen of them all piled into one little crevice.

As has been the case for the last few years (and as I mentioned earlier), there’s an enormous school of Flatiron Scad at La Reina and they were still there in force. Even though the vis was low and we couldn’t really see the whole school - which probably numbers in the tens and tens of thousands - it’s still a very impressive thing when a school of fish is passing over your head and they are so thick and so tightly packed together that they literally turn your day dive into a night dive because they block out all natural light that’s filtering down. Pretty amazing. And another sign of a healthy ecosystem.

So while the water conditions were less than optimal, La Paz and the surrounding waters are still fascinating places to explore. Our trip really underscored the fact that you can still have really great dives in less-than-great conditions. It just means you look a little more closely at things and it may also mean that - because you have to work harder to see the critters - you actually find things that you might overlook in better conditions with better vis.

We also want to point out what a joy it is to spend a week with the crew of the Don Jose. They always take exceptionally good care of us and this week was no different. It really is like going to visit old friends for us and - even though there were two new crew members this year - it still always feels like home.

The boat is really comfortable and well laid out. Nothing fancy but wonderfully functional. The only sticking point is the small camera table which was really put to the test this year as there were at least four of us with very large rigs and double strobes, plus two or three video cameras. But it all worked out, especially when you remember that between meals, we convert the dining salon tables into camera work/assembly areas so there’s actually not only an amazing amount of room, but even plenty of plugs (we’d brought a couple of power strips) and space for dozens of chargers.

So it wasn’t the trip we’d hoped for but that certainly doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable. And we’ll definitely be going back again next year. Right now, those dates are set for October 11-18, 2009. And what are the odds of getting snake bitten again??????

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