BAJA - OCTOBER, 2009
(Sea of Cortez - La Paz, Mexico)

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

Maybe I should change our name to "Storm Seekers" or at least "Storm Dodgers". But before I give you the wrong impression, I'll have to state that this was once against a great trip down to the Sea of Cortez and La Paz. (But I yearn for the good old days when weather wasn't an issue that affected the trips.) And we even had a “National Geographic Moment.” More on that later.

This year the weather culprit was Tropical Storm Patricia, which started forming about two days before we were to leave. Although the projected track of the storm wasn't going to bring the center anywhere near La Paz (it would glance off Cabo and the head due west in to the Pacific), people in La Paz were keeping a close eye on this one as it was expected that the wind and rain from the storm would hit La Paz.

One benefit of all of this was that it was nice and (relatively) cool in La Paz when we arrived on Sunday, October 11. Normally, temperatures of 90+ are the norm but when we landed, it was a pleasant low-80s without too much humidity. And that made our traditional Sunday-evening dinner at Rancho Viejo (we sit outside) very pleasant. But the storm also gave us something we've never seen before in La Paz: rain.

We always sleep on the Don Jose Sunday night and then depart the dock early Monday morning once the crew arrives. I got up in the middle of the night and thought I heard a strange sound outside my stateroom. "Is that . . . dripping . . . I hear???" I thought to myself, "Nah, can't be. This is La Paz. It's a desert!!!" So imagine my surprise when I opened my door and discovered that not only was I hearing dripping but that it was pouring rain. Nothing like getting up to pee and then coming back having to towel off because you got soaking wet walking to the bathroom.

Although the rain continued through about 10AM Monday, it really didn't affect our diving too much. Any time you’re dealing with weather and diving your real concern is wind. (More on that in a bit.) Because we had a laptop with us and a mobile broadband connection, we were able to monitor the National Hurricane Center website (www.nhc.noaa.gov) to see what Patricia was doing.

One concern that Captain Jose Lozano had was that if things went to hell in a hand-basket, he'd rather be close to La Paz than at an offshore island seeking shelter. So that meant that the 80-mile run north to Las Animas looked iffy at best. On the other hand, moving north might have taken us further away from the storm track and the resultant wind. But you never really know and you try to make the best decisions with the information available that give you the most options in case you're wrong.

One of our divers asked after the trip if I was thinking of moving the trip out of October next year because of the storms. I'm still not sure if this is the "new normal" or if we've just had a strong of bad timing. When I first started coming down here in 1988, hurricanes in La Paz were simply unheard of. But there have certainly been more named storms this year (as I write this, the western coast of Mexico has just experienced its 18th named storm of the season) and eventually the odds catch up with you. So I think I'll give it one more year and see what 2010 brings and then re-evaluate after that.

This was our 22nd year coming down to dive the Don Jose and, as I'm fond of saying, we wouldn't keep coming back if we didn't like the experience. But much as I love the boat (I've always described it as "charming" and I mean that in a good way), it was showing a little wear and tear this year. Hopefully, many of these issues can be easily solved/fixed when they do their annual end-of-the-year haulout. And I plan to send a fairly detailed note down to them about some of the things I think need attention. But it's items like some paint here and there, new pads on the deck lounges, replacing fans in the staterooms, replacing the mattresses on the beds, adding mattress pads, and things like that could make the boat a bit better. A little TLC goes a long way.

The crew, as always, was excellent.

Captain Jose certainly knows his stuff and he and I have developed a good working relationship over the years. He likes to refer to me as "Diablo Gringo" and I call him "Diablo Grande". (In case you didn't know, "Diablo" is Spanish for "devil".) Somehow, it seems to work for us.

The rest of the crew is led by engineer Hernan and pangero Felix, both of whom we've known for years. Newbies included second pangero Napo, cook Tony, and galley assistant Luis. These guys spend the whole week doing whatever they can to meet whatever our needs might be. As one of our divers put it, "They make up for any deficiencies in the design of the boat through sheer manpower."

Our group this year consisted of some repeat travelers and some newbies to Baja. Veterans included Dave Cooley, Tamar Toister, Elisabeth Sykes, Linda Gorman, Keith Storey, Victor Douieb, Pat O'Brien, and me (Ken Kurtis). The first-timers with us were Abe Weitzberg, Linda Whitehead, Walt Crandall, Susan, Crandall, Kiff Crandall, and Stephane Strouk.

One of the things I've always liked about diving the Don Jose is the freedom of the schedule. We spend the evenings in a sheltered area so that means you always get a good night's sleep, especially once they turn the AC on in the rooms. They start motoring to the first dive site shortly after sunup, you have breakfast on the way and you're -hopefully - anchored around 9AM. That leaves ample time for two morning dives, lunch around 1PM, two afternoon dives and then we leave the dive site at 6PM or so for that night's anchorage. (On the two nights we do a night dive, we depart shortly after 8PM and then have dinner on the way.)

And while we'll sort of encourage people to go dive and remind them of where we are in the day, you really can dive your own schedule. All we generally ask is that you're back on time for the meals.

So we set out in the rain Monday morning with our first destination as the Fang Ming. When we first dove this wreck in 2007, we were dazzled by the amount of fish life on it. Because there's nothing else structure-wise nearby, the wreck - a 200-foot long freighter which sits bolt upright on the sand at a depth of about 70 feet - acts as a fish magnet. When we dove it in 2008, the vis was lousy so we were looking forward to what we'd find this year.

It definitely wasn't as good as 2007, when the fish we so thick you sometimes couldn't see the wreck and predators worked the outside of the schools. This year, there was maybe one-quarter the number of fish that we found two years ago. That makes it still nice, but not spectacular. One guess is that the warmer water (we consistently registered water temps around 85º) may have actually driven some of the fish away. But it's still a nice dive and we were very happy to discover two large Finespotted Jawfish along the port side of the wreck in the sand off the stern.

Then it was up to Los Islotes. Where I got mugged. But it was a good kind of a mugging.

On our first dive at Islotes, Dive master Peter Schalkwijk said he'd found a seahorse. He gave me the general location as we started out for the second dive. I told my group I'd roll off the panga first and would immediately start down to see if I could find the seahorse. They could take their time descending and simply come join me.

So I'm down about 35 feet, with my nose to the bottom, checking cracks and sea fans for Hippocampus, when I feel a slight slap to my head. I assumed it was one of my “playful” dive buddies. Then there was another gentle slap. “Dammit” I thought, "quit messing around." As I started to turn my head to my left to see who it was, I felt an arm around my shoulder.

So imagine my surprise when I finished turning my head and found myself literally nose-to-nose with an adult female sea lion. It wasn't an arm that was wrapped around my shoulder, it was her pectoral flipper. The head slaps I'd gotten were from her. This was WAAAAAY cool.

She rolled over on her belly and I gave her a scratch. Then she shifted to my right side and I gently grabbed her left pectoral flipper, which seemed OK with here. She hung for a little bit and then gave me a look that I interpreted as "I need to go up and take a breath" so I let go and off she went. I could see her take a snort of air at the surface and as she headed back down towards me, my four human dive buddies showed up. The sea lion made one pass of the group and then she was off to see who else there was to play with.

Sometimes I wonder who's watching whom in these encounters.

Usually on Tuesday we run about 60 miles further north and hit Las Animas. But this year, Tuesday was the first day we’d have to reckon with Patricia. Jose was not too nuts about running north for fear we'd be too exposed. I felt it would be a good thing as we'd be putting an additional 60 miles between us and the storm, which was expected to glance off of Cabo. But Jose wanted to stay close to La Paz so if things REALLY went downhill, we had plenty of options. That mean that we had to improvise a bit but made two really good choices.

We started the morning off at Suwannee, a shallow reef (I never got deeper than 40 feet) off the southern end of Espiritu Santo Island that we normally do as our final dives on Saturday. One of the great features of this reef is the enormous congregation ("school" just doesn't seem to do the numbers justice) of Spottailed Grunts who linger around the reef. In the early-morning hours, they all line up facing into whatever current is present and present themselves to the resident Barberfish for a mini-cleaning, which comes in the form of a quick peck on the lips.

It's really fun to watch, sort of like a fish version of Speed Dating. You've got all of these grunts hanging out (I have no idea of the number but if you said 100,000 I wouldn't dispute it) and the poor over-worked Barberfish darting all around kissing as many as possible in as short a period of time. This is behavior that's observed year after year, so if you go to La Paz and dive this site, you can see (and photograph) this too.

There's also usually a resident group of sea lions that hang around Suwannee and they were here this year as well. They're frequently on the east end of the reef, hanging together at the surface in a "raft", with their pectoral fins sticking up out of the water to thermoregulate.

Most times when you try to approach a raft, the sea lions will scatter as you get close. But in the Sea of Cortez, the sea lions take the title of "Friendliest Sea Lions in the World" quite seriously and I was delighted to find that I could not only closely approach the raft, but could almost merge in with them without disturbing their rest. At worst, I got a glance from the resident bull that said, “Too much trouble to chase him away.” Loads of fun. After two dives at Suwannee, we made a short move during lunch and anchored over the wreck of the Salvatierra.

There's an interesting connection between the two: Suwannee is the reason Salvatierra is on the bottom. It seems that in June of 1976, the Salvatierra was coming across the channel at night and ran into Suwannee Rock (which gives the reef its name) and sank. Although salvage attempts were started, on September 30, 1976, Hurricane Liza roared through La Paz and further damaged the Salvatierra, ending any hopes of salvage and moving it to where she sits today, on a sandy bottom about 60 feet deep and fairly well-trashed over the years.

But this year I had two of the best dives I've ever had on the Salvatierra. For one thing, it's the first time I can recall that I ever dove it with no current. And for another thing, the visibility - for the Salvatierra - was pretty good, around 40 feet or so. One of the problems of sitting in the channel is that the wreck is frequently exposed to strong currents and lousy vis. So it was nice to see that this wasn't the case.

On both of our dives, we started down our buoy line near the bow of the wreck and circumnavigated in a counter-clockwise direction. There's plenty of stuff to see both big and small. I found a Longnose Hawkfish right off the bat, along with Jewel Morays, yellow-polyp Black Coral (all over the wreck), and even a solitary Panamic Porkfish.

I think my favorite spot was at the stern where a field of Garden Eels were sticking their necks out into the current, a school of Graybar Grunts hung out around the props, and a collection of goatfish hovered over the sand, some turning crimson trying to attract a cleaner fish to service them.

The biggest stern surprise this year was that there was also a very large school of small silvery fish, no more than an inch or two long, identity still unknown. They're not in any of my books but appear to be some sort of mackerel or maybe even juvy grunts. There were thousands and thousands of them, moving and pulsing as one around the back of the boat, while other fish zipped by the edges of their school. As the afternoon ended, we finished with the Salvatierra and moved.

Patricia was due to hit Cabo that night and we expected to feel some of the effects of that with wind and rain. But you never know with these things. And one of the problems with this type of a situation (and the same applies with ANY trip where weather's affecting what you can and can't do) is that what the captain wants to do and what you as the trip leader wants to do may not always been in sync. But he’s got the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the passengers, the crew, and the vessel, and that's a trump card that you can't beat. So we spent Tuesday night at a well-sheltered bay not far from the Salvatierra, but on the La Paz side of the channel. And we did get some wind and rain overnight, but not very much at all.

We awoke Wednesday to a gorgeous day of clearing skies and rainbows but, until we showed him the computer images of the storm moving away from Baja, Jose wasn't convinced that it was all behind us. He was going to suggest that we start our day diving at a small islet at the mouth of the anchorage but then, around 8:30AM, said he’d be willing to try to the channel crossing to go to better dive sites.

While this was good news, it’s also a long move so it meant that we wouldn't be on-site anywhere until around 11AM, which essentially meant losing at least one morning dive. And making efficient use of your time is always something that as a dive trip leader I try to be cognizant of and is sometimes the hardest thing to get across to those running the boat. On this particular trip, my preference is to always be at our morning dive site by 9AM so we can get in two dives. If we're going to move to a second site, I like to start the move during lunch so we have ample time for two (or even three) afternoon dives.

So one issue we had on Wednesday was that we wasted a significant amount of time in the morning and then - instead of moving while we were having lunch - we didn't move the boat until well after we finished lunch which ate into the afternoon dive time. As one diver said, "How come THEY take their sweet time getting us to the next site and then WE have to hurry up so we can get back on schedule?" A fair comment and sometimes things are simply not the way we’d like them.

All that being said, we had some nice dives even though we had to hit spots on the western side of Espiritu Santo (because we couldn’t get all the way to Islotes) that we don't normally frequent. We did a single dive at Bayena, a large rock about 2/3 of the way up the island, and then did two afternoon dives and a dusk/night dive at Punta Tintorera, which is the northernmost cove on the island.

At Bayena we saw some really great sea fan fields off the western end of the island and even found a couple of Cortez Conch. Punta Tintorera also had a healthy sea fan population but the thing that really got me excited was on our second dive on the north wall of the cove (away from the point) where we discovered enormous schools of grunts - Spottails, Latin, and a few others - mixed in with what I think are Golden Snappers. The latter is significant because, according to Paul Humann’s "Reef Fish ID" book for the area, that species is supposed to be absent from the Gulf of California.

To me, whether I‘m right or wrong about this particular sighting, this is one of the cool things about diving. There's always something to be discovered and the more you know about a particular region, fish, etc., the more likely it is that you can be the person to find what no one else has yet seen or realized.

For instance Punta Tintorera doesn't get dived that often. But when it does, I'm certain divers have seen these grunts before. But if you don't know what it is you're looking at, and you don't have any understanding of what the population distribution should be, then you won't realize that you may have just stumbled on something very special.

It's like a friend of mine who, on his very first certification dive (also in the Sea of Cortez), was doing all of his first dive mask-clearing and reg retrieval skills when a Whale Shark swam by. The instructor motioned for him to stop and they swam with the giant for a while. But my friend at that time had no idea how unique the encounter was. So his reaction at the end of the dive was, "That was nice. Pretty big fish. What other skills do I need to do?"

Because of the feeling that we wasted some time on Wednesday, I wanted to make sure that Thursday was a primo day for us. DM Peter and I had already discussed the idea of going out to El Bajo and both of us thought conditions would allow that. I got up before dawn to see what weather and sea looked like and it seemed good to me. And I knew Jose was getting up early and, sure enough, he fired up the engines around 7:30. So I went in to the wheelhouse to say good morning and he said, “Islotes?" I said, "No, Bajo." He said, "No, Islotes. Bajo too rough." I said, "Bajo. We have to at least try. If it's too rough, we'll turn around and come back but we have to make the effort.” He was not happy about this but agreed to make way past Islotes and try for El Bajo.

Now this is where, when you’re booking trips, it can pay to go with a group and with someone who has a relationship with the dive operation. There's no doubt in my mind that if this was a boat of individuals and it was solely up to Jose, they simply would have gone straight to Islotes without attempting Bajo. But because I've got a 22-year relationship with him, he'll listen. It may not always work out right, but at least we can say we tried. And in this case, we did make it to Bajo, which was a little rougher than I'd thought it would be but not as bad as Jose had thought it would be.

And while the surface conditions were a little bouncy, underwater it was fine with little or no current and about 80 foot vis. But one thing I noticed upon descent (and Peter had mentioned this to me earlier): Where were all the fish?

Normally when you descend on El Bajo's central mount, the place is teeming with fish. Maybe it's due to the lack of current or maybe it's due to the warmer water they've been getting this year, but there were probably one-third the number of fish (Scissortail Damsels, yellowtail Surgeons, Creolefish, King Angels, etc.) that we normally see surrounding the central mount. Even the famed “Moray Condos” at the north end of the mount, where you can generally find moray holes with two or three eels per hole, resembled the U.S. housing market with lots of vacancies and many single-occupancy holes.

But . . . we did manage to see a Hammerhead. (Hallelujah!!!) And it goes to underscore that, with a lot of things underwater, luck plays into what you see and what you miss.

Our dive plan was to go down the anchor line and then head north, through the center of the middle seamount, up to the Moray Condos. At that point, we'd continue north across a sand channel, and come upon some more rocks that mark the start of the north seamount. We'd go a little further north and then hang a right (east) and drift back down parallel to the middle mount as the few Hammerhead sightings they've had recently have been have been along the northeastern and eastern side of the center seamount.

We were halfway into the dive, about 100 feet deep, and I had just turned around to signal everyone that that we'd be turning right. I turned back, looked out into the blue and . . . there he was, about 20 feet deeper than we were and just inside the edge of visibility. I could definitely see the sweeping tail and could just make out the hammer head. I turned back and motioned to everyone and pointed at where he was. It turns out that Tamar Toister, who was very close to me saw it. But Linda Gorman and Elisabeth Sykes, who were maybe fifteen feet further back, only saw blue and couldn't tell what I was pointing at. And then he was gone. That's the way it goes sometimes.

We did a second (hammer-less) dive at Bajo and then headed back to Islotes where we planned to do two afternoon dives plus a night dive. This is where we got the "National Geographic Moment" I referred to at the beginning of this tome. Here's how I wrote it in my logbook notes:

This is a good example of taking a lemon and turning it into lemonade. The original plan . . . go to the sea lion cave and shoot everyone playing with the sea lions. But I didn’t seat my lens properly and it wouldn’t shoot. So I waved goodbye to everyone and kicked all the way back to the boat (200 yards) and re-seated the camera. Got a ride back over (all took about 20 minutes) and started again.

No one at the SL cave. Not unexpected. What WAS unexpected was the aggressive female sitting at the front guarding the entrance. You made a move towards her, she charged you and blew bubbles. OK, not gonna do the cave. So I shot baitfish and meandered down the reef. Thought I’d look again for Peter’s seahorse from the previous day.

Couldn’t find him but caught up with my harem. Shot Tamar and Linda Gorman trying to caress an eel. Thought I’d go out to the rubble field and look for Giant Jawfish so waved goodbye to the ladies, hung a left for deeper water, and started searching.

10 minutes later, I happened to glance behind me and - much to my surprise - I had four remoras in tow. Don’t know why but there they were. So we all continued onward, me not paying them much attention.

Another ten minutes passed and Tamar gave a toot on her horn and signaled me that she and Linda Whitehead were going up. No problem. I showed them - via hand signal - “boat” and then pointed ahead and up at a 45º angle to show them where the boat was. They signaled OK. I went on my merry way, assuming Elisabeth and Linda Gorman would continue following.

Imagine my surprise a few minutes later to realize that Linda G., Elisabeth, and Linda W. were all gone . . . but Tamar was still stuck to my side. Not sure what happened. So Tamar and I continued forward.

I was thinking we were approaching the boat (I could hear the generators running) at a depth of about 60 feet when I spied a shadow up ahead. I was pretty sure it was the shadow of the boat so I moved towards it because what I’ll generally do is get under the shadow, then look up to the surface to make sure it’s our boat, and ascend.

This is where this becomes a National Geographic Moment.

The shadow wasn’t a boat. It was fish, specifically Big-Eye Scad. But the fish were so numerous and so thick that they literally blocked out the sun. Very impressive.

And as we moved towards the school and they swarmed all around (maybe a million strong????), we realized that there was ALSO an enormous school (multiple thousands??) of Mexican Barracuda surrounding the Scad. It was hard to tell if they were herding them or hunting them but both schools were quite active, moving to and fro.

And every now and then you hear a “BANG!!” and a “WHOOSH” and the panicked Scad school would dart all over that place. That’s when the real action began as the Black Skipjacks & Giant Trevallies struck at the school trying to get a meal. On top of all of that, there were Rainbow Runners making their way on through with the Barracuda falling into a line behind each individual Runner. Really amazing.

We watched, mesmerized, as the balance of nature played out before us. And it would get dark every now and then as the schools would surround us, swim over our heads, and then move on, only to come back moments later. It was impossible to accurately estimate the number of fish involved but it had to be in the hundreds of thousands.

And although it seemed like we were there for an hour, a check of the time stamps on my photos says it was slightly less than ten minutes. But this is exactly the type of dive that "makes" a trip. It's a memory that will live forever and a story I’ll be telling for quite some time.

When we got back to the boat, I excitedly told everyone they HAD to go see this as this was a rare opportunity and they should avail themselves of it. Most listened.

After a short surface interval, Tamar and I went back down for a second look and - once again from hearing other people’s tales - we were in the right/best spot. Same experience as before but this time (according to my camera time-stamp) we were down for 31 minutes observing the spectacle, which ended on our safety stop with a young male sea lion playfully buzzing by to give us the once-over. THIS is what diving’s all about.

Our final full day of diving was Friday and we were able to motor out to La Reina, a small spit of a rock north of Cerralvo. It's totally unprotected and we were still feeling some aftereffects of swell, most likely from Patricia, but we were able to spend the morning at La Reina, which is well-known for its huge school of Scads. Like at Islotes, Skipjacks and Trevallies were making runs through the school. We were actually able to park ourselves in a narrow channel that turned out to be the main highway for the attacks so we saw plenty of the action as things once again went "WHOOSH" and "BANG" in the water and Scads, Skipjacks, and Trevallies all came flying past us at high speeds..

For the afternoon we moved maybe a mile to a "new" seamount they've only recently started diving that's called the La Reina Bajo. The schooling scads aren't there but it's a really healthy reef with a lot of orange sea fans and interesting cracks and crevices to explore at depths ranging from 45-80 feet.

Saturday morning we had time for two dives but didn't want to go back to Salvatierra or Suwannee because they were still exposed to the same swell that we sat in at La Reina. So we instead chose the protection of the area by the Fang Ming and dove that again, visiting the two Jawfish we'd seen earlier in the week and discovering a third previously-unknown Finespotted Jawfish up by the bow, just off of the anchor line. (If you go look for him, there's a pipe sitting up in the sand maybe two feet away that points right towards him.) The conditions were pretty much the same as six days earlier but it was a pleasant dive nonetheless.

So we had a good trip. One of the guys summed it up nicely by saying, "The dives were pleasant and there was something new to see on each one." It may not have been the picture-perfect trip weather-wise and vis-wise that we've grown accustomed to but it was good enough that we're already booked to go back October 10-17, 2010. Wanna join us????


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