BAJA - October, 2011

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

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Yes, it’s plagiarized but it also aptly describes this trip because we had a dickens of a time at times.

This was our 24th year going down to La Paz to dive the Sea of Cortez with our friends from Baja Expeditions aboard the mighty Don Jose. We had a full load of fifteen divers this year, a good mix of newbies of repeaters. Those who had done the trip before included Pat O’Brien, Dave Cooley, Charlie Pincus, Audrey Anderson, Di Krall, Sophie Lappas, and me (Ken Kurtis). The newbies were Tony & Marilyn Dahle, Lisa Evans, Hillary Bien, Jill Gefen, Ric Aceves, and Mike & Sharol Carter.

The adventure - as many of you have read about already - started on the tarmac at LAX as we boarded our Horizon Air non-stop. It’s one of the smaller regional propjet planes and while it’s perfectly adequate for the 3-hour flight to La Paz, once in a while when we’ve taken it in the past they’ve not been able to fit all the bags on the plane. That’s especially an issue with this trip since not only are we on a boat and many miles off-shore, but Horizon only flies to La Paz from L.A. a couple of times a week, so if your bags get bumped to the “next flight” that could be two or three days away.

Thank goodness Audrey was looking out the window as they loaded baggage because she saw them closing the baggage door and noticed that there were still bags on the cart. Worst of all, she noticed that HER bag was one of them and she alerted me. And although it took a while (we delayed the plane an hour), we have to sing high praises for the Horizon crew and the ground baggage handlers because they listened to what our dilemma was, unloaded much of the baggage and reloaded it so that the wayward bags would all fly with us. Whew!!! (I literally sat on the steps leading into the plane during all of this so that there was no way they could close the door without us getting this resolved.)

Going through Mexican Customs is always fun because you play Red-Light-Green-Light. You simply push a button next to a traffic signal and if it lights green you go through but if it’s red, then they look through your bags.

This year, it didn’t matter what color you got. First they had everyone put their bag through an x-ray scanner and then you pushed the button. If got a red light, they searched your bags. And if you got a green light . . . they searched your bags. I asked one of the Customs guys why they were searching all the bags and he told me they were looking for drugs and weapons. So if you’re flying into Mexico anytime soon (I’m assuming this isn’t just happening in La Paz) be aware that the rules have changed a bit and they’ll likely have you open your bags.

One that was over with, we hopped into vans for the short ride to the Hotel Marina on the eastern side of La Paz. We’ve stayed at this place before and like it a lot. Plus they’ve got free Wi-Fi, always among my hallmarks of a god hotel. (We used the bed down at Los Arcos but that hotel is still closed due to a strike that’s now gone one for about three years.)

Even though we weren’t leaving on the Don Jose until Monday, we’d come in on Saturday to give us a day to search for Whale Sharks. The Whale Sharks first started appearing around La Paz in the mid-90s and we’ve had many memorable encounters over the years. But because the animals are generally close to La Paz, and they’re usually most active mid-day, coming all the way back in on the Don Jose would just take too long and you’d have to give up too much dive time. Plus, the Whale Sharks can be a crapshoot as we’ve had a few times when we simply couldn’t find any.

Not this year though. One thing that was a huge help to us was a spotter plane which not only can get a better view of the fish from a few hundred feet up (they’re in radio contact with the pangas that we’re in) but they can cover a lot more ground and point you to the right area.

Our encounters this year were fleeting and, in retrospect, a preview of the quality of fish encounters we’d have the rest of the trip. Last year, the Whale Sharks were generally on the surface feeding on plankton. This year, they were only occasionally at the surface and seemed to spend more time skimming the bottom (which was thankfully only 20 feet deep). But that meant that when one was spotted, you had to get in the water, start kicking, and really keep an eye on the animal. (Vis wasn’t as good as last year either - I’d estimate it at a hazy 15-20 feet.) And sometimes the way you’d find the animal, if you were one of the last ones in the water, was to see where the other kickers were and head that way.

Bear in mind also that this is all done on snorkel, not scuba. So you can definitely get everyone in the water quickly and get them out of the water quickly, and keep moving with the animals or move on to another one if the one you’re tracking disappears.

We think we had four different animals that we swam with over the course of about two hours. And that’s not two hours solid, but on and off. Sometimes, you’d only get the animal for 10-15 seconds, and sometimes we’d be able to keep up with them for 2-3 minutes. As I said earlier, I think the best word is to describe the view is “fleeting.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not exhilarating. These guys were probably 15-20 feet long and I’d estimate one at 25 feet or a little more. In other words, the length of the animal exceed the visibility and it’s rather impressive when you realize you can’t see the entire fish at one time.

When our leviathan encounter was done, we headed back over to the Don Jose and hunkered down. I have liked this boat since the first time I set foot on it in 1988. It’s certainly not fancy by any stretch of the imagination but it gets the job done. I use the word “charming” and I mean that in a good way. We had 10 of us on the main deck (in 4 rooms) and 5 of us on the upper deck (in 3 rooms) and that works out well.

Plus, once we get going, the back area of the main deck serves as the dive deck and your tank/BC/reg live down there the whole trip. The upper deck has gear cubicles - one for each diver - and the rest of your gear lives there between dives, plus there’s an area to hang up your wetsuit or lycra so they can dry between dives. (I usually left mine in my cubicle because it’s so hot in La Paz, it was nice to put on something wet.)

But the key phrase in that previous paragraph is “once we get going”.

The general schedule for these trip sis that you leave the dock Monday morning sometime around 8AM. You then dive every day through Friday, and then do a half-day (2 dives) on Saturday, returning to the dock around Noon. Because our flight home was going to be Saturday afternoon (the only weekend day Horizon flies), we’d already decided that we weren’t scuba-ing on Saturday (part of the reason we do the Whale Shark hunt prior to the diving) but might snorkel.

I didn’t think too much of it when we were sitting down to breakfast at 8AM but we didn’t seem to be close to leaving. But when it got to be 8:45 and we were still sitting there, I asked our DM Joel (same guy we had last year - we like him a lot) what was going on. That’s when we heard the dreaded words “There’s a problem with the port papers and the Captain of the Port isn’t letting us leave.”

Now we’ve had these issues occasionally in the past and been asked to show passports or something like that. They can get a little picky down there and the stereotype of some low-level bureaucrat given a uniform and deciding to flex his muscle sometimes fits. But this time it was different because it wasn’t just that there was a “problem” with the port papers. It turned out that the Baja Expeditions employee who was supposed to do this simply didn’t do it (and I’m told she’s been fired because of this). That complicated things tremendously,.

Because even though we were told by Carlos Means, son of Baja Expeditions owner Tim Means (who was not in town), that it shouldn’t be more than an hour and we were “almost” there, the reality is that it took all day to get this resolved and we didn’t leave port until 5:20PM. And even though we got in one close-in dive as the sun was setting, the carelessness of the La Paz Baja expeditions staff (their home office is in San Diego so it’s two different staffs) basically screwed us out of our first day. Not good.

What is very upsetting about this in hindsight - and I’ve had a very long serious talk with Tim Means about this including getting a refund to everyone for services not rendered - aside from the fact that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, if they’d been a bit more forthright with me (and themselves), we could have made arrangements for pangas to take everyone out on local dives (Salvatierra, Suwannee Reef) while they sorted things out. It wouldn’t have been the same as diving from the Don Jose, but it would have been a hell of a lot preferable to sitting around in the stifling heat of La Paz, not diving, and being repeatedly disappointed at being told we’d be leaving soon yet remaining tied to the dock.

So Tuesday became our first full day of diving and we spent the entire day at Los Islotes, the fabled sea lion colony and home to some of the most friendly and inquisitive sea lions you’ll ever find. There probably wasn’t a single dive where you didn’t have at least a few sea lion encounters, and frequently you were mobbed.

But while the sea lions were plentiful, I thought the fish were not. Over-fishing has always been a problem in the Sea of Cortez and in the last three or four years, I’ve been very encouraged to see that the huge schools of Scissortail Damselfish, small Creolefish, barracuda, and the like, were making a comeback. But this year there seemed to be a sharp decline in the sheer numbers of fish we saw, and it held true everywhere we went.

Now that didn’t mean that you didn’t see schools and weren’t surrounded by fish. But it wasn’t consistent. For instance, on the central mount of El Bajo, there are usually schools and small and medium fish hovering over the entire seamount, bobbing and weaving in the current and gobbling plankton.

This year, they were there, but in significant numbers only at the northern end of the central mount. The rest of the seamount was somewhat deserted, especially compared to previous years, with occasional fish here and there.

I don’t think this is due to over-fishing but is likely due to thermal conditions. I’m also hopeful that this is a short-term problem. The Sea of Cortez is a very rich sea and very resilient so I’m convinced it can quickly bounce back. Because the culprit would appear to be the very warm water temperatures that are either driving fish deeper, or reducing food supply, or simply driving fish away.

While we normally get water temps (and granted, dive computers aren’t the most accurate thermometers) that range from 80-84 - and a bit cooler than that below the thermocline which is usually around 80-100 feet - this year the water temps were running 4-6 degrees higher and the thermocline was much deeper. And while that may not sound significant to you, it has a much magnified effect in the marine world.

One dive I always love doing at Islotes is right in front of the tunnel that runs through the right side of the island. There, at a depth of about 60 feet, where the rock meets the sand, you generally find a field of Blue-Spotted Jawfish in their burrows. It seemed to me this year that there were more than usual. They’re about the size of your index finger and they generally sit with just the top of their head and their mouth sticking out of their burrow. The nice thing is that once you find one you can find more because they usually dig in communities and the burrows are spaced about three feet apart. So find one, look three feet away, and you’ll generally be able to locate another burrow.

Patience is key here because they can be quite shy. I had hoped to see some nuptial males displaying their colors for the females but no such luck. And I didn’t have the same luck I had in Bonaire in observing brooding males with the eggs in their mouth. But I did find a couple of fish that got comfortable enough with me that they went about to tending to their burrow renovation which involved dropping down, coming up with a mouthful or shells/debris/gravel and . . . spitting it out. Repeat as necessary. (You can see some of this on the Picture Page for this trip as well as in the Smugmug slide show.)

We’ve also been successful at Islotes in finding the larger jawfish known as the Giant Jawfish. These can be found in the rubble area 60-70 feet deep that parallels Islotes. These guys are about the size of your forearm and their heads are roughly the size of a closed fist. We managed to find two or three of them over the course of our dives.

One thing I wanted to do this year was get back up to Las Animas, another 40 miles or so north of Islotes. We used to go their quite regularly but haven’t been since 2007 mainly because something happened up their that seemed to wipe out much of the fish and fauna and Jose Lozano (captain of the Don Jose) said it wasn’t any good anymore. But I thought this year might be the time to go up and take a peek and - especially because of our Monday travails - felt it would be a nice treat for everyone.

So Wednesday saw us pulling into Las Animas around 8AM. From the surface, it looked the same, with sea lions lounging on the rocks to the SW, the Pinnacles jutting out to the east, and Seal Rock sitting just off the northern end of Animas. We anchored on the east side between the main island and the Pinnacles. Because Animas has been a hammerhead spot in the past, over the course of the day, I dove the four main hammerhead spots - NE corner of the Pinnacles, SE seamount of the main island, north side of Seal Rock, and the SW seamount of the main island.

We had great conditions with visibility exceeding 100 feet at times. And I think for those who had never dove Animas before, it still represented very good diving. But those of us who had been there before saw that the sealife, while still enjoyable, was a shadow of it’s former self. And we didn’t see any hammerheads. Well, I take that back. Ric Aceves dove Seal Rock with me and he’s fairly certain that perhaps he might possibly have maybe seen one hammerhead in the distance. But that’s as good as it got.

But there was still plenty of cool stuff to see. One of my favorites (and they’re tough to shoot - which is part of the challenge) is looking for juvenile Giant Hawkfish in the shallows at the south end of the Pinnacles during the safety stop. They’re tiny - 1-2 inches long - and colorful - red/white/black - but they don’t hold still for very long as they skitter around the barnacle-covered rocks. So you get to try to shoot a moving target while the surge bounces you around the shallows while you try to find focus with your camera.

And all over Animas we were seeing schools of Needlefish. They’re long and skinny and silver and they tend to hang near the surface. We also saw some huge schools of Barberfish, which looked to me to be cleaning stations (so there should have been Hammerheads somewhere) as well as Guineafowl Puffers, inquisitive sea lions, and more. So it’s not like Animas was devoid of life, it’s just that it wasn’t as good as it used to be.

Thursday morning we moved south and started the day at a small pinnacle (known as a “bajo”) outside of San Franciscito that we’d dove on previous trips. It’s a double pinnacle that’s covered with a hard red-and-white gorgonian and is usually fairly well-populated by fish. And it would give me two of my most “exciting” moments of this trip.

The first was at the end of my first dive on this bajo. I was the last one in (so the last one coming back) and while I was doing my safety stop hanging under the prop of the boat, I happened to glance down at the reef about 80 feet below me. I could see a tank attached to a BC and at first glance it looked like a diver lying prone on the reef, maybe taking pictures or watching something intently. I continued to watch and was growing a little concerned because I didn’t see the tank/BC appear to move at all. But even more alarming was that I realized that I wasn’t seeing any bubbles coming up.

I looked at my pressure gauge (plenty) and - fearing that this was a diver passed out on the bottom - decided I’d better zip on down there. As I got about halfway down, I could see that there was no diver wearing the gear but that it was a tank/BC/reg lying on the bottom. As I got closer I could see a Skinny Dipper attached to the SPG hose, so I knew it was one of two divers on board. And once I reached the gear, I knew exactly whose it was and that was Sophie’s.

There was plenty of air in the tank and because we were right under the stern on the boat (remember, I started all of this from the prop of the boat), I thought I knew what had happened. Sophie always took her tank off and handed it up before she re-boarded the boat (bad back) so I figured they must have dropped it. And since her computer wasn’t in deco, it probably had just happened. So I put some air in the BC, used that as a lift bag, did another 5-minute safety stop for me, and brought the gear to the surface asking, “Anyone looking for this?”

As I got back on the Don Jose, that’s when my second “exciting” moment of the trip started.

Joel came up tome as I was taking my gear off and said, “You need to come over her. Audrey may be having a problem.” Uh-oh.

Audrey was standing along the starboard side of the boat and had a concerned/pained look on her face. “What’s going on?” I asked. “My whole right side is really tender and even painful to the touch,” she replied. My first thought was skin bends, a relatively mild form of decompression sickness, but DCS nonetheless.

I asked to see her side because sometimes with skin bends there’s a rash present. While I didn’t see a rash I did see what looked like bruised or mottled skin in the affected area. Audrey said the pain started about 10-15 minutes after she surfaced but had stayed on her right side. She didn’t have any tingling or numbness, no joint pain, no other muscle pains, and no other apparent neurological problems.

But she did exhibit what we sometimes jokingly refer to as the #1 symptom of the bends: Denial. “I can’t be bent,” she said a number of times throughout the day, “I’m a good diver. And my computer wasn’t in deco.”

Good divers can get bent. Bad divers get bent. And both good and bad divers sometimes do things that should get them bent (rapid ascent, pushing computer limits, blowing off safety stops, etc.) but they don’t get bent.

And just because you computer’s not “bent” doesn’t mean that you can’t be bent (or vice-versa). Don’t lose sight of the fact that computers are simply mathematical models that may or may not pertain to your particular body physiology. And you might take five different computers on the same dive and come up with five different decompression profiles so which is the correct one?

Getting the bends isn’t a crime or a sin. It’s something that needs to be dealt with to prevent it from getting worse and REALLY becoming problem. And when we tell you, whether it’s a local trip or a foreign trip, that if after a dive you’re feeling SOMETHING UNUSUAL FOR YOU . . . then you need to let us know. In Audrey’s case, she did the exact right thing once she realized there was a problem.

We put Audurey on oxygen and I ordered the boat to pull anchor and head back towards La Paz. Skin bends sometimes resolves with oxygen alone but I needed to get close enough to La Paz to get within cell phone range so we could contact the D.A.N. emergency line and get some advice and perspective on what was going on. And if need be, there was a chamber in La Paz (as well as one in Cabo) so that if Audrey did need to be treated, we could get her in as quickly as possibly. (Unlike in the U.S., you can’t count on a helicopter to come get you so the usual course of action is to head back to port.)

The short version is that we kept Audrey on oxygen, her symptoms resolved, D.A.N. agreed with our skin bends suspicion, and no chamber treatment was required. It was recommended that she stay out of the water for at least 48 hours (which meant no more diving on the trip) and that she’d be OK to fly after that but we should watch for any recurrence of symptoms during the flight.

As she and I have discussed this further post-trip, a big factor in all of this seems to be dehydration. Even though Audrey’s computer (Oceanic Proplus2) showed that she shouldn’t have been bent, it doesn’t know how well hydrated she was. In Audrey’s case, she was fairly severely dehydrated. (We actually had her medically evaluated for that, and treated with IVs, once we got back to La Paz.) That’s probably what pushed her over the edge because when you’re dehydrated, your blood loses some volume is simply not able to off-gas as much as the computer model is predicting.

It’s easy to tell what your hydration level is. It may sound gross to some, but just keep an eye on the color of your urine. “Copious & clear” are the hallmarks. Ideally, you should be drinking enough fluids (preferably water but if not water preferably non-caffeinated drinks) so that you’re peeing a lot and it’s relatively clear. If your urine starts to get dark, then you need to drink more water.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea - even on local dives or single dives - to drink a glass of water a few minutes prior to the start of the dive. And drink some water after you’re done with the dive as well. There’s nothing wrong with drinking too much water. You’ll just pee or even sweat it out anyhow. But don’t drink enough water, and you could find yourself in a predicament similar to Audrey’s. And I’m sure she’d be the first to tell you that she wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

The other thing that may have factored in is that Audrey tends to dive what would probably be considered “aggressive” profiles. In other words, she likes to get as much time as her computer will allow. In fact, she had switched from a Cobra to the Proplus because she felt the Cobra wasn’t giving her enough time underwater. But, as I said previously, computer are based on mathematical models that may or may not fit your particular body physiology. And the bottom line is that ANY time you spend more time in the water, you accumulate more excess nitrogen, and may be increasing the chances of a unpredicted bends hit. So you need to decide what your comfort level is and where you want to draw the line.

The other thing I noticed when looking at Audrey’s profiles is that while she was doing safety stops after each dive, she was generally only doing 3-minutes and no more. Personally, especially on trips where I know we’re far off shore, I tend to do 5-10 minute safety stops. I’d much rather spend a few extra minutes in the water on a safety stop than a few extra hours in a chamber wishing I‘d done a longer safety stop. I can’t say with 100% certainty that a longer safety stop would have helped Audrey avoid this problem, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt or made the situation worse.

The bends is the ultimate pass/fail test. You’re either not bent, or you’re bent. And if you’re not bent, we don’t really know by how much (10 seconds??? 10 minutes???) and the only time you know if you passed or failed the bends test is when you fail and by then, it’s too late to avoid it. All the more reason to build as much caution into your diving as you possibly can.

And complicating all of this (and just FYI, Audrey’s given me permission to discuss all these problems in this public setting) is that she’s on blood pressure medication and she may not have been taking it as regularly as she should have. But the medication is also a diuretic, which further exacerbates the dehydration issue.

And to further complicate things, the doctor in La Paz pointed out that her dosage was based on living in Colorado at 5,000 feet, not at being in La Paz at sea level. In the same way that (hopefully) you’ve heard before that medications can wear off more quickly than normal when you’re diving, the same principle holds true for dosage levels. They may be different when you have big altitude changes as well as you should check with your doctor to see if diving over the course of a week will have any effect on your dosage levels and whether or not they should be adjusted.

So many lessons coming out of one dive . . .

Because of all the excitement, it meant we were now close enough to Las Paz that we decided to dive the wreck of the Salvatierra. The viz was terrible (10-20 feet at best) but there were plenty of fish. Some Barberfish had set up a cleaning station right in the middle of the wreck and there were as pair of Milkfish that were constantly circling in getting cleaned.

On top of that, I saw a Balloonist (pufferfish) that was already puffed up. Now I swear to you (the pictures are on the Picture Page & Smugmug) that I did not puff him up myself but he was that way when I came upon him. I have no idea what freaked him out but I can also assure you it wasn’t one of our other divers because I was the only one in the water at the time. But it was really was fascinating watching him in his puffed-up state and then even more interesting as he calmed down and his spines folded back into his body.

Our final dive day was Friday and the plan was for two dives at El Bajo, the famous seamount 10 miles east of Los Islotes, and then we’d finish up the trip at Islotes. Although El Bajo has been a fairly reliable hammerhead spot in the past, we got skunked here as well. And the viz was terrific - easily 100+ feet - so if they were around we should have seen them. In fact, I dropped down from the stern of the boat to a depth of 85 feet and kicked straight ahead to the central mount. I could see bottom - easily over 150 feet - below me the whole time and I never once saw a hammerhead silhouette during the five minutes or so it took me to get to the reef.

Like the other spots we visited, Bajo had fish but just not as many as we’d experienced on previous trips. For instance, the central mount is usually covered with fish hovering above it in the current, trying to pick off whatever might drift by. There were fish this time, but they were mainly at the northern end of the mount. And like other places, just not as many as we usually see. And once again - and this would definitely apply to the hammerheads - the warmer water is likely the culprit or at least a major factor.

So we had two pleasant if unspectacular dives a El Bajo, pulled anchor, and had lunch as we headed back to Los Islotes. And that’s where we got our final surprise of the trip.

Because Los Islotes and the neighboring Espiritu Santo Island are part of the Mexican National Park system, for the last few years you’re required to purchase an annual pass (US$35) to dive these waters. No problem. What we didn’t know is that the boat is ALSO required to have an annual permit and the one for the Don Jose had expired.

This became an issue on Friday (and wasn’t on Tuesday) because the Park Ranger was present in her boat and presumably would be checking things out. So Jose was reluctant to anchor at Islotes because, although the ranger had let him off the hook in the past, he felt time was running out on her graciousness. So we had to choose a spot just outside the Park boundaries and while we were doing that dive (which was fairly interesting actually), she left for home and we were able to complete the day (and the diving portion of the trip) at Islotes.

And that was nice too because I did a dive with Lisa Evans where we started at the west end of Islotes where there are a couple of coves where the sea lions hang out. Lisa and I started our dive in the first one and ha pretty good sea lion encounters, but nothing spectacular. However, the second cove was a different story.

As we came around that corner, we saw one female adult making a beeline to the bottom. She came to rest on a big flat rock that seemed to be the favorite scratching rock for the area. We watched as she and then a couple of other sea lions came down and scratched their itch. All the while, they kept an eye on Lisa and me and every now and then they’d shoot by on a close pass.

After a few minutes, I stuck my hand out in the well-known human-to-sea-lion signal of come-teethe-on-my-hand-so-we-can-be-friends. When they’re playing with each other, sea lions are always gently nipping and biting each other and if you want to interact with them, that’s the way the game is played.

So this one adult took up the cause and pretty soon she was nibbling on my hand, I was grabbing her lower jaw, she would grab my elbow in her mouth, I’d tug on her flipper, and a grand old time was being had by both of us.

Once Lisa convinced herself that I hadn’t totally lost my mind and wasn’t about to become the star of a “Sea Lion Bites Man” headline, she also stuck her hand out and pretty soon we had sea lions all around us nipping and playing and it was a wondrous time.

We weren’t going to dive Saturday morning so instead went back to the Whale Shark area to see if we could spot any from the big boat. But it was rather breezy in the morning and there was a northerthly swell so the surface was very choppy and if there were any Whale Sharks there, they would have been almost impossible to spot. Plus the water looked even murkier than the previous week.

When we arrived back at the dock at noon, Baja Expeditions owner Tim Means was there to greet us, having flown in from San Diego. He and I had a long talk about everything on the drive to the airport and Tim assured me that people were getting fired for this and that he would make restitution for the services not rendered. I truly believe he meant what he said and I will expect him to follow through. I told him I understood the business problems that he and every other dive operator (including me) face but that doesn’t mean we can tolerate the types of things that happened to us on this trip.

So overall, it wasn’t the type of trip we normally get. The fish were not as plentiful as usual, the hammerheads were absent (save for Ric’s maybe/possibly sighting), and the administrative issues were avoidable and unnecessary.

I do believe the Sea of Cortez will recover. I do believe that Baja Expeditions will get their act together (I will be staying on top of them to do so if they’d like to continue to have send business their way) and I believe that when we write this trip report next year, for our 25th Anniversary Sea of Cortez Adventure, you will be reading about a much different and better experience all around than what we had this year.

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