BAJA - October, 2010
Those of you who are longtime readers will remember that our weather luck hasn't been so great the last few years in the Sea of Cortez. When we first started going down in 1988, you could count on good weather and flat seas. My joke used to be that you could put a marble in the middle of the boat and it wouldn't move the entire trip. That's how smooth the seas were.
But it seems that the weather patterns in Baja, whether it's global warming or just bad luck, have changed over the years to the point where we even have had to literally dodge hurricanes over the past few years.
Not this year though. We had an absolutely perfect weather week with highs in the low 90s and lows in the low 70s, little wind, and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets each and every day. No matter what you see (or don't see) underwater, good topside weather will always make the overall experience that much more enjoyable.
We had a very small group this year. In fact, it's the second-smallest group I've ever taken down there and we came within an inch of having to cancel the trip due to a lack of signups. (Fortunately, Baja Expeditions was able to find a couple of other folks so the trip could run.) I ended up with four plus me: Marlow & Audrey Anderson (who have done the trip many times with me before), their friend Pam McInturff, and Dave Cooley (also a veteran of these trips). We were joined on board by Todd Miller, Nick Price, and Rafael (didn't get his last name), as well as Divemaster Joel Ibarra. So, including Joel, there were a grand total of 9 divers on the boat, instead of the usual 17. That was also nice.
Speaking of the boat, I had a number of complaints last year about the Don Jose. Not so this year. I'd had some very productive discussion with Baja Expeditions owner Tim Means over the winter and they addressed the concerns raised last year. The boat now has new pillows and sheets on all the beds, new mattresses, new fans, some new storage areas in the upper rooms, two new HDTVs in the galley, and an expanded camera table that's better suited to holding big cameras. They even repainted the insides of the pangas as well.
I also complained last year that I thought we lost time because we either started late or didn't make moves while we were eating and stuff like that. Not at all the case this year. Captain Jose Lozano went out of his way to make sure we got an early start every day and we were always anchored up on our first site of the day before we'd finished breakfast. That made for a much more relaxed dive schedule and there was no feeling of having to hurry to squeeze in all the dives.
The crew of the Don Jose, as always, took excellent care of us. I've already mentioned Jose. Hernan Parra is the engineer and second-in-command, Felix and Napo ran the pangas, we had a new cook in the person of Josefat (who did a really nice job), and the galley assistant was again Luis (who made some fabulous cakes and soups over the course of the week). And we sing high praises of our divemaster, Joel.
One thing that's out of everyone's control is the airline schedule to get to La Paz. In the "good old days," you not only had service in and out every day of the week, but you had three airlines running flights from LAX. Not anymore.
Currently, there's only one airline (Alaska/Horizon) running flights directly from Los Angeles into La Paz and they only do it three days a week. Even that's a bit problematic since the flights down have always been on Sundays, and the Don Jose's sked is to leave Monday morning and return Saturday at noon. But this year, Horizon changed the flight from Sunday to Saturday. We had the option of flying on Sunday into Cabo and then enduring a three-hour bus ride up to La Paz but that just didn't sound too appealing.
So we chose to fly into La Paz (non-stop) on Saturday which gave us the opportunity to do some diving on Sunday (also through Baja Expeditions) and go look for Whale Sharks.
This is not always a good option on the Don Jose because the Whale Sharks are found right outside of La Paz Harbor, usually around midday and in very shallow water. So if you're on the Don Jose, it means either delaying your departure Monday morning, or coming back in from one of the outer islands later in the week, and basically losing diving time to hunt for Whale Sharks. (It's a sand bottom and low vis so if you don't find Whale Sharks, there are no other dive options.) Not a great plan IMHO.
So we set up a separate half-day dive for Sunday. We were picked up at our hotel around 10AM, went to a panga-sized boat (with a shade cover) and spent midday Sunday hunting for the world's biggest fish.
We had done this type of thing twice before and struck out. So my joke was that I guaranteed that we'd be searching for Whale Sharks. Finding them was another matter, but I guaranteed that we'd search. And for the first two hours, it looked like we might be skunked again (although we did have a small pod of dolphins hang with us and put on a really great show of leaping and jumping). But then the magical words of "I think we've got one in front of us" rang in my ears.
Kudos to DM Joel for spotting the first one. What they're doing in this area (known as Mogote) is feeding on plankton in the water. That's part of the reason the vis is generally low and also part of the reason late-morning/early-afternoon is best, because that's when the plankton are likely near the surface. The Whale Sharks swim a foot or so deep, lift their heads up and open their mouths, gulping in gallons and gallons of water, and straining out the plankton. (It always amazes me that creatures this big can subsist on creatures so small.)
It's also worth noting that the animals we encounter here are typically juveniles. Now, that's still a pretty big fish as they're generally 15-20 feet long. (A full-grown Whale Shark can reach 40 feet, about the length of a city bus.)
The trick is, even with your adrenaline pumping, to get in the water as “gently” as you can, kick over to where the animal is feeding, and then maintain pace with it, all the while not colliding with it. Not always an easy task and especially not with multiple divers in the water. but we seemed to manage to muddle through and, for those of us with cameras, it was click-click-click-click as the great fish came into view.
Overall, we had about an hour of on-again/off-again viewing. Sometimes the fish would simply outswim us, sometimes it would dive, and once we actually had two Whale Sharks so the group got split up. But you go as long as you can and then the panga comes back and picks you up, you get on board, and you start the process all over again.
And times flies. On our first encounter, I would have sworn we were in the water with the animal for close to 20 minutes. But when I looked at the time-stamps on the 84 shots I squeezed off, only 7 minutes had actually passed. Amazing.
It's really breathtaking to be in the company of these creatures, especially when you notice not only how gracefully they move through the water, but also when you note the remoras that have attached themselves to the Sharks, or the juvy Golden Trevallies that seemingly lead them around the area. And the really nice thing about all of this is that La Paz is one of just a handful of places in the world where you can reliably hope to find Whale Sharks. So it was a great way to start off our trip and we took our experience with the Whale Sharks as a good omen of things to come.
Monday morning we pushed off shortly after sunrise and headed out for the Fang Ming, a Chinese freighter that sits upright in the sand at about 60 feet. It had been sunk almost a decade ago and makes for a nice first dive. As we descended, there were still plenty of baitfish, mainly around the bow area, though not nearly as many as we were finding in 2007 when the sheer number of fish obscured your view of the wreck. But there's still plenty going on here.
One highlight came courtesy of DM Joel, who had previously located a Staghorn Coral Hermit Crab, which I'd never seen before. (Pictures are on the Picture Page.) The coral itself is unusual looking in and of itself but seeing two beady little eyes and antennae sticking out from under the coral just made it weirder still.
The wreck's a very good dive and we also found a large Pananmic Horse Conch (sort of like a Triton's Trumpet) just off the port side in the sand, numerous eels, plenty of scorpionfish, Cortez Angels all over the place, Green Jacks and Skipjacks hitting the baitball, plus various groupers and snappers that made the wreck home. We did a single dive.
Then it was on to Los Islotes, which we would actually visit three different times this trip (Monday, Tuesday, and Friday afternoons). Islotes is best known for its amazing sea lion colony, home to probably the friendliest and most inquisitive sea lions in the world. But in the last few years, it's also undergone a tremendous population explosion in the resident fish. Islotes was always a fairly good dive but now it's an excellent-to-phenomenal dive.
As just one example, there's a school of resident barracuda off the eastern end of the island. On Monday, they were perhaps a few dozen strong. On Tuesday, they were a couple of hundred strong. And by Friday, they were a couple of thousand strong.
Additionally, you can find large schools of Sergeant Majors, Gold-Bronze Chubs, Goatfish, Leopard Groupers, Blue-and-Gold Snappers, and many more at the western end of the island. We also found a couple of seahorses, numerous Blue-Spotted Jawfish, a Giant Jawfish, some small Barnacle Blennies, and more of the "usual" critters.
But the best had to be the sea lion encounter I had on Friday. I had gone off on my own to explore the rubble field under the boat, looking for Giant Jawfish. After about half an hour, I decided I'd head up into the shallows and find some sea lions. As I reached the slope up to the shallow area (about 40 feet deep), I saw a brown blur out of the corner of my eye and very quickly felt a tug on my elbow. It was a young adult female sea lion, and she seemed playful, laying down in the sand right next to me.
So I reached over and gave her belly a scratch. She seemed OK with that so I scratched some more and she rolled over so I could get her back. Plus she let me grab a flipper here and there, and then she'd twist her head and give me a nibble on the shoulder, elbow, or fin. Occasionally, she'd shoot to the surface for a breath of air but she'd come right back down to me and we'd start all over again. This was VERY cool and went on for almost 25 minutes. In that time, she managed to drag over two more of her buddies (one was a young male) and they were all surrounding me, playing with each other, barking at each other underwater, and we were all just generally having a good time. Really neat and one of the things that to me, makes diving so special, when these wild animals choose to accept you as one of their own.
Tuesday we headed out to El Bajo, and that posed some difficulty for me as I had picked up some sort of a cold or URI (probably before I left LA) and it was starting to rear it's ugly head. More to the point, it was rearing it's scratchy throat, running nose, coughing, and congestion. And much as I like El Bajo, I was thinking, "Given my coughing and hacking, it may not be the best plan to be fighting that 100 feet underwater." So I ended up sitting out the entire day.
I have taught for years that "You never get hurt on a dive you don't make." And when I give my "Why Divers Die" talk, one of the things I discuss is the idea of reverse-engineering your dive. If something were to go wrong, where would people be pointing a finger and say, "What was he thinking?" And if I 'm going to get injured or die on a dive I'd much rather have it be for something heroic ("He tried to save her") rather than something stupid ("He knew he was sick and dove anyhow") so I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Besides, it did me good to nap frequently throughout the day while everyone else dove. And it turned out I didn't miss anything that day as we got skunked on hammerheads although the fish life around El Bajo was still abundant and vibrant.
Wednesday we decided to dive La Reina and I felt much better and was able to dive. (Never underestimate the power of Mucinex DM and Luden's Cough Drops, with a little side of Sudefed.) We started at a spot we dove last year which we called the La Reina Bajito, a high spot about a mile west of La Reina itself that offers an interesting landscape to explore. We did one dive there and then it was off to La Reina proper.
La Reina is really just a small rocky outcropping with a small navigation light on top of it, all which sits a few miles north of Cerralvo Island. Years ago, we used to find Manta Rays here with regularity, but no longer. (Not sure if they were fished out or just moved on.) But the big attraction at La Reina now is an enormous school of Bigeye Scad. And when I saw enormous, I mean so-thick-they-block-out-sunlight enormous. There's no way to estimate the size of the schools but I'm sure "millions" is somewhere in the ballpark.
Sitting there watching the school move is fascinating. Just the idea that that many animals can somehow communicate and move almost as one, is mesmerizing. On top of that, there's a lot of activity going on around the school as predators eager for a meal cooperate and make repeated runs through the school trying to get a snack. There was a large school (50-60 strong) of big Pacific Crevalle Jacks making attempts, along with groups of Skipjacks & Golden Trevallies. These are all very fast fish and they would work to move the school around and then, in a burst of speed, run straight into the school which would split and then reform. This occurred over and over and over again.
And while the Scad may be the main attraction, they're certainly not the only thing going on at La Reina. There's a small colony of sea lions who will also occasionally make a run through the school. You've got plenty of scorpionfish, grunts, snappers, goatfish, and others moving around the area. But the best for me was seeing a group of Surgeonfish because it validated an observation I made last year.
There are two species of Baja Surgeonfish that look very similar. The Yellowtail Surgeonfish has a yellow tail, white "scalpels" at the base of the tail, gray body, two vertical black stripes through the head and numerous black spots (almost polka dots) all over the body.
The Razor Surgeonfish also has a yellow tail, also has white "scalpels" at the base of the tail, a gray body, two vertical black stripes through the head and but has almost no spots on the body except for a few around the base of the tail.
The Razor is not supposed to live in the Sea of Cortez but I spotted one last year at El Bajo. So I was delighted this year to find numerous individuals cavorting with the Yellowtails at the south end of La Reina. Granted it's limited evidence, but it would seem that they do, in fact, exist in the Sea of Cortez next to their similarly-colored cousins.
Normally we try to spend at least one day at Las Animas, which is about 80 mikles north of La Paz. We chose not to this year. A few years ago, and no one knows what happened, something changed at Animas. Whether a trawler went through, or it was from hurricane damage, no one knows. But Animas, which had been thriving with fish, now has become a wasteland. I'm sure it will come back some day soon as one of the great features about the Sea of Cortez is that it's very resilient. But Jose advised us that it was still rather barren and - while he was more than happy to take us up there - he recommended against it.
So we chose to instead do something a little different and for Thursday, decided to dive Swannee Reef in the morning and the Salvatierra in the afternoon and evening. And that was a great decision on a number of levels.
At Swannee, there's an enormous school of Spottail Grunts that gets cleaned by Barberfish every morning. The Barberfish go around and give the Grunts a "kiss" on the lips. It's really fun to watch. Plus there are schools of barracuda, hundred of pufferfish, a field of Garden Eels, and all other kinds of reef creatures.
But this year we got a special treat as Joel said he'd spotted some Signal Blennies on a previous trip and was pretty sure he could find them again, which he did. The blennies live in abandoned barnacle holes and sit with their head sticking out. But if they see another blenny they come out of the hole a little bit and quickly flash their enormous colorful dorsal fin, thereby "signaling" the other blenny. Sometimes it’s territorial, sometimes it’s related to mating.
We found two of them in two separate rocks and sure enough, they were going at it. The biggest problem is taking a photo at the right moment when they’ve got the dorsal flared out because they don't keep it exposed for more than a second or so, and they’re sometimes moving all around, so you’ve got to be at the right angle at the right time. Fortunately, I was and you can see the results on the Picture Page. We did two dives at Swannee and then moved over to the Salvatierra.
Although you can sometimes get strong currents on the wreck because it’s exposed in the middle of the La Paz Harbor channel, we hit it on a great day with no current and - for the Salvatierra - relatively good vis of 30-40 feet. And the wreck was COVERED with fish.
There must have been a million or more baitfish hovering in groups all over the wreck. This in turn attracted some of the larger predators like we’d seen at other locations and it all made for a very exciting dive. On top of that, there’s just tons of good stuff to see on the Salvatierra. There’s yellow-polyp black coral all over the place, which in turn means you’ve got a good shot at finding Long-nosed Hawkfish.
And as you circle the wreck, there are definitely different areas that attract different groups of fish. the Angels all seem to hang out towards the bow, while there’s a large school of Graybar Grunts that calls the stern home. Goatfish are off working the sand with their barbels, and a gaggle of Glass Sweepers has made a discarded boiler off of the stern their hangout.
But the best find of all came towards the end of the dive when Joel got me and took me to . . . a frogfish!!! It was actually spotted by Todd Miller and Joel made sure everyone else in the group got a glimpse as well. Frogfish are hard to spot in and of themselves but this is VERY unusual find as I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone spotting a frogfish around La Paz.
Another treat we got with the Salvatierra was the opportunity to do a night dive on it, something I’d never done before. I broached the idea with Jose who said it was OK with him and so, after the sun had set, we slid into the water again.
What was most striking was that the baitfish, who at times almost obscured the wreck, were nowhere to be seen. I have no idea where they went. I doubt seriously they went to another reef because there’s really nothing else in the area. My assumption is that they tucked inside the wreck but that’s an awful lot of fish to squeeze into a relatively limited area. But they sure were gone.
Also gone was the frogfish and we extensively scoured the area (they generally don’t move too far) and no one could find him. Maybe he and the baitfish went to a party or something but he had also fled the place. Nonetheless, it was an interesting dive.
Friday was going to our last full day of diving and we wanted to go back to El Bajo (especially now that I could dive it and because no had seen hammerheads on Tuesday). We couldn’t have picked a better day. It was nice and clam going out, we had a gorgeous sunrise, and we were the only boat out there when we dropped the hook at 7:30AM. All good omens.
El Bajo is comprised of three large seamount. The hammerheads have usually been seen lately either between the middle and northern mount, or on the NE side of the northern mount. And because I haven't exactly had great luck the past few years, I was determined to maximize my opportunities. But my experience here will also underscore how much of diving involves being in the right place at the right time.
On the first dive, Joel said he was going down with everyone on the center mount and I thought that's where they were going to stay. So I opted to be dropped on the north mount and would work my way back down. Effectively, I was working from the north to the middle, and they were working from the middle north. They saw about a dozen hammerheads and the sharks stayed in their general vicinity for about 10 minutes. I saw zero.
On the second dive, I went down the line to the center mount and hit the same area where Joel’s group had been before. Joel came down about 10 minutes after me and essentially worked the same area I had. I saw zero. They had a fleeting glimpse of five.
For the third dive, I told Joel I was sticking to him like glue. So - of course - I saw zero but this time Joel shared my pain as he also saw zero.
But the whole experience underscores the fickle nature of diving. It really IS a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or turning your head in the right direction at the exact moment as something swims by. With our Whale Sharks, it took us quite a while to zero in on where they were but there were many factors that could have played against us.
So the point of all of this is simply to say: Never give up. I’ve often referred to diving as the greatest scavenger hunt in the world. You never know what you're going to find and whatever you see now, go back to the same spot thirty minutes later and it'll be different.
Because we were flying Saturday afternoon, we opted not to do the traditional end-of-trip Saturday morning dives. But the others on the boat decided they wanted to take one more pass at Whale Sharks and we managed to get lucky again. Not as good or as extensive an encounter as we'd had a week earlier, but Whale Sharks nonetheless.
We had an excellent trip this year. It's all a combination of what we see, the attitude of the crew of the Don Jose, the weather, and other intangibles. We’ve been doing this trip for 23 years and I keep telling people that I wouldn't go back if it wasn’t worthwhile. The Sea of Cortez offers some incredible diving experiences for divers of all skill levels. We will definitely be going back again next year (I've already confirmed the dates - October 2-9, 2011) and maybe you'd like to think about joining us.