- DECEMBER 5-9, 2019
We’ve just returned from exploring the reefs of Cabo Pulmo, located about halfway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, along the eastern side of Baja California, which is also the western side of the Sea of Cortez. We have a long history of diving the area with Baja Expeditions and the Don Jose (24 years of annual trips down there from 1988-2011). So when we learned 14 months ago that the Nautilus Gallant Lady (a newly-acquired ship for Nautilus Liveaboards) would be doing Cabo Pulmo trips, we jumped on the opportunity and reserved the entire boat (12 divers).
Our group this year consisted of Patti Wey, Audrey Anderson, Doug Schrepel & Laurie Clauss, Marilyn Lawrence, Shirley Parry, Glenn Suhd, David Mischel, Sharon Depriester, Tamar Toister, Mike Doran, and me (Ken Kurtis). I think everyone except Doug & Laurie had dove the Sea of Cortez before. But no one had dove Cabo Pulmo previously.
As I mentioned at the outset - and perhaps this is more of a Ken/group-leader thing - I was not thrilled with the logistics. One of the issues any non-Mexican company has in doing business in Mexico is dealing with all the permits and rules & regulations. So my assumption is that some of this relates to that either changing or just a frustration with dealing with the Mexican bureaucracy over time.
And to be fair, what I’m about to lay out has NOT been typical of my dealings with Nautilus over the years. They’re generally very efficient and on-the-ball. Not so much for this trip.
When we first booked this, it was pitched as an all -Cabo Pulmo trip with the Gallant Lady being permanently stationed in Cabo Pulmo. You’d fly into San Jose del Cabo (SJD), overnight there (there’s a big hotel adjacent to the airport), and they would pick you up for the 45-minute drive to the boat. You’d board shortly before Noon, get in half a day of diving right away, then four full dive days after that, get off the next morning early, and be bussed back to SJD for your flight home. It was a 6-day trip rather than a more standard 7 days, but I could live with that. On top of that, it was a Thursday-to-Tuesday trip, so on some levels - especially given the short flying time down to Cabo - it felt like an extended weekend trip rather than a full-blown foreign vacation. Also something I could live with.
But then a few months after I’d sent them a deposit and sold out the trip on my end, the starting point for the trip was switched to Cabo San Lucas where Nautilus is based - which certainly makes sense - but now meant we have to factor in van transfers from SJD down to Cabo San Lucas. Because of taxi union rules, they couldn’t pick us up at SJD so I’d need to foot the bill for the transfer. So instead of getting on the boat in Cabo Pulmo and diving, there would now be a 5-hour run to make the journey from Cabo San Lucas to Cabo Pulmo. No big deal if we leave early in the morning as we’d still get in afternoon dives.
A few months after that, they told me the boat would leave in the afternoon - because they had to offload the passengers from the previous trip in the morning and then reprovision the boat - and we’d leave shortly after 12 noon, have lunch on the boat, and would be able to make 2 dives along the way since we wouldn’t reach Cabo Pulmo until the evening. A month or two after that, they told me that we couldn’t do any diving on the way up, but we could do two “warm-up” dives around Cabo San Lucas through their local operation. (They bought what had been Amigos del Mar and renamed it See Creatures, based adjacent to Tesoro resort, their hotel of choice, and not too far from the dock where the Gallant Lady and the other Nautilus boats load and off-load.)
Shortly after that, I noticed their website now listed these trips as “Best of the Sea of Cortez,” with the local warm-up dives, lunch now at the restaurant located at Tesoro, and then the afternoon departure. But now, instead of doing four days in Cabo Pulmo, you motored up to the southern La Paz area, did three days of diving around there (Salvatierra, Suwannee, La Reina, Cerralvo, etc.), then came down on the fourth day to do a single full day in Cabo Pulmo, and then continued back down to Cabo San Lucas, offloading in the morning and then heading up by van transfer to SJD.
Once I saw that, I called them and explained that this was pitched to me and sold to my people as an all-Cabo Pulmo trip, not a La Paz trip with a smattering of Cabo Pulmo, and that I wanted to do all four days diving Cabo Pulmo. No problem they said, that’s what we’ll do. And they even offered to sweeten the pot, since there had been so many changes, by offering the Cabo San Lucas warm-up dives to go out to Gordo Banks, a deep open-ocean pinnacle off of Cabo San Lucas, rather than the local spots. It’s an advanced and very special dive, so much appreciated, I said.
But I still wasn’t nuts about the logistics of the trip. Too much stop-and-start for my taste. Fly into SJD, transfer to Cab San Lucas and a hotel. Stop. Do morning warm-up dives. Stop. Have lunch. Stop. Board boat and leave. Stop. Finally start the “real” diving in the morning of the second day, a full 48 hours after we’d started at LAX. I wasn’t really too keen on this plan but was sort of stuck with it.
To add insult to injury - and this was totally out of the control of Nautilus - there were threads on both ScubaBoard and Wetpixel indicating that divers with cameras, especially big cameras, were being targeted in the Cabo airport at Customs. Although foreigners are allowed to bring two cameras into Mexico for personal use (and my past experience was that they never cared how much stuff you brought in as long as it was for personal use), once they realized you were a diver, many people were being forced to open their bags. The Customs people were insisting that the housings counted as a separate camera and the diver would have to pay tax on that, to the tune of 16% of the retail value of the new housing. Some divers reported having to pay $500 or more. The other option was to forfeit your gear to the Customs people. Needless to say, many people on the boards are not happy about this and vowing not to go back to Mexico until this is resolved, as it seems to be a gross misinterpretation of the regulations and nothing more than a shakedown.
Nautilus has done what they could by not only alerting divers but also by creating a letter in Spanish that you can download and print which challenges the interpretation of the rules and points out that housing are not cameras but accessories to cameras and useless on their own, therefore exempt from the extra-camera tax. But you’re still at the mercy of the Customs folks. And there were numerous first-hand reports of people still be charged despite the counter-argument.
With all of that as prologue, I was looking forward to experiencing Cabo Pulmo diving but sort of dreading all the potential hassle and minutiae to get there. Because on top of all of this, we were flying in on four different flights from three different airports, all arriving within about 30 minutes of each other . . . assuming all the flights were on time.
Welcome to my world. I really do love the fact that so many of you are willing to travel with me around the world but getting everything in place for a fabulous trip is not always the piece of cake it might seem once the trip gets going. As they say with sausage, sometimes you don’t want to know how it was made.
Amazingly, we all arrived at SJD at the appropriate time on Wednesday, December 4. We cleared Immigration, gathered everyone in baggage claim, and then marched as a group - with some trepidation - to Customs. Here we were going to play “Red Light, Green light” where you hand in your form, push a button, and a green light means go through but a red light means they examine all of your bags.
The end result of this was that we all made it through without getting charged extra. But when I got to the front of the line, before I pushed the button, the Customs gal - in somewhat broken English - was definitely fishing around to see what kind of camera gear I had. She kept saying, “Big housing?” and I kept saying “One housed camera and GoPro.” Fortunately, I got the green light so it never escalated from there but I definitely got the impression that they were on the hunt.
Once you clear Customs you run through a gauntlet of time-share people, all eager to chat with you, and then go outside to the van pickup area. We used Cabo Transfers and I can’t say enough nice things about them. Really good communication pre-arrival with plenty of e-mail and text confirmations, had a sign with our name on it, nice, clean, new vans, drivers spoke pretty good English, and it was a pleasant and easy 45-minute drive down to Tesoro Resort in Cabo San Lucas, where we were going to overnight.
I also really liked the hotel, although the check-in was a little slower than I would have liked. It’s right on the edge of the very big Cabo harbor/marina, the rooms were roomy and nice, balconies gave us a great view of the water, there’s a good restaurant (where we had lunch the next day) as part of the resort, and dozens more restaurants to choose from within a short stroll around the marina boardwalk.
Breakfast was part of our room deal so that’s how we started Thursday and then we went over to See Creatures, which is in a corner of Tesoro, for the local pre-Gallant Lady dives. I had checked in with dive manager Jonathan the previous day when we arrived and when I mentioned Gordo Banks to him, he said, “Uh, no one told me about that.” Now he quickly followed that with, “But if that’s what you were promised, that’s what we’ll do.” However, as he and I discussed the practicality of it - Gordo Banks is roughly a 2-hour run from the marina and the predicted Thursday wind might have made it undiveable - we agreed it wasn’t a good idea and that we’d stick with two local dives relatively close to the Cabo marina.
So we loaded up into their local boat, Amigos I, and set off at 9:30 Thursday morning first for the Blowhole which was at best so-so. Maybe 30-foot viz, water temp around 78º, rocky with not a lot of fish (although I did spot a Whitetip Shark) but a lot of healthy red seafans on the rocks. After that, we motored down to Land’s End, got a good look at the Cabo Arch (a surface rock formation that’s their signature view), and then dove the area. This was a better dive, similar water conditions, much better fish life which included a small group of bright yellow Panamic Porkfish, and we also had a small school of Mobula Rays fly overhead. But all in all, while it filled time, missing these dives would not have been a calamity.
After heading back in for lunch at Tesoro (really good and Nautilus gives you a voucher so it doesn’t cost you anything), we finally boarded the Gallant Lady late Thursday afternoon. This is a boat that was acquired by Nautilus and then refurbished extensively, so everything’s relatively new. The boat is 116’ x 22’ with the forward 75% being the salon, staterooms, and galley, and the rear 25% being the multi-level dive deck.
The forward areas are all very nice. In the salon, there are two 6-person tables along the port side for meals (and work space when we weren’t eating) as well as a large sectional couch in the starboard salon side. The staterooms - two on the main deck between the salon & galley and four below - are all very nice and comfortable. The galley was compact but well-equipped and chef Tony produced amazing meals every time. Everyone was commenting on how good the food was at every meal (most are served family-style) and that Tony was producing some of the best liveaboard food many of us had ever had. Forward of the galley are crew quarters. So the front ¾ of the Gallant Lady is definitely top-notch.
The rear ¼, not so much.
One issue is that this part of the boat is really three separate levels so each is only about 10 feet deep. The upper of the three, coming right out of the salon, has a wetsuit hanging rack on the right, and a U-shaped camera table on the left. (You’ll see a picture of this on the SmugMug slide show.) We weren’t too nuts about the camera table because the shape makes it hard for more than two people to work at a time. And we were very fortunate that mine was the only “large” camera on the trip because one or two other DSLRs would have consumed all of the space. There’s a small shelf under the camera table with plastic baskets, each with two divers names, for masks, booties, hoods, and small stuff like that. And the floor below the camera table is occupied by large boxes that the boat uses to store various things they may need. So for those of us who also have additional ports, chargers, lens, second cameras, etc., that you might not leave out on the camera tables (mine live in a rollaboard bag), space was at a premium.
From this first level you walked down a few steps to the main dive deck area. Tanks were here with BCs and regs attached, mounted standing up and secured with a bungee cord, but at a height much higher than donning height, so that the couple of times we dove from the boat’s Zodiac (3 dives on Friday), putting on the BC/tank was a bit of a hassle because the shoulders were a little too high to easily slip into it.
One step down from this, about a foot above the water level, was a slightly larger active dive deck. The three dives we did from the boat launched from here. They run the nose of the Zodiac up on to the dive deck and then, while wearing your gear (no fins), your put your chest on the front of the Zodiac, sling a leg over, bring the other leg over, slide down the inflated Zodiac gunnel, and then put on your fins (hoping not to fall backwards off the Zodiac in the process). Those who had back issues got on without their tanks and were assisted gearing up once in the Zodiac.
I had a minor safety concern as the Zodiac accommodates six divers at a time (plus a DM and a Zodiac driver). Remember that we had 12 divers. Although they had two Zodiacs, they only ran one of them. That meant you could have a situation where you dropped off the first group, were back to the Gallant Lady getting the second group, and someone from the first group could surface needing help. The Zodiac either wouldn’t be nearby or would already be full of divers.
On the Socorro trips I’ve done with Nautilus, they’ve always made sure to have a Zodiac on-site near divers at all times. Usually they had two Zodiacs, with one on-site for divers while the second ran back to the boat. When the second came back, the first would go back to the boat. They used them like water taxis but always kept one Zodiac available for diver pickup.
As I said, a minor safety concern and I admittedly did not ask why the second one wasn’t being used as well, since we only did this one day. And we did have a non-emergency issue on one dive where the first group was dropped off a couple of hundred yards away and, as the Zodiac was almost back to pick up the second group, the first group all surfaced because they were in the too-deep water. The Zodiac had to go back out, towed them to shallower water, and then came back again to pick up the second group. Time-consuming (20 minutes) and not the end of the world, but I could again see a scenario where lack of an on-site Zodiac could prove problematic.
As I mentioned, this trip was intended to be all-Cabo Pulmo for the four full dive days (Friday-Monday). That created some logistical problems for Nautilus that I’ll get to in a moment. Unfortunately, the weather conspired against us on Friday as the winds were whipped up pretty good and out of the north which in the Sea of Cortez is known as “El Norte” and is the worst direction the wind can come from as it just blows straight down the entire Sea of Cortez with nothing to really stop it.
We were anchored in Los Frailes, which is just south of Cabo Pulmo, and is a relatively wind-sheltered area. So on Friday, since Cabo Pulmo was inaccessible to us, we dove some low-profile reefs within Los Frailes. The dives were nothing to write home about. 78º water temp, but fairly low visibility (less than 30’), and a mostly sandy bottom. A number of our divers were less-than-enthused about the site, also because the final dive started rather late in the afternoon, after 4PM, and with official sundown around 5:30PM (but the sun dipped below the mountains of Baja earlier than that), it was a fairly dark dive.
That being said, I thought we saw some cool stuff. (But then again, I can be happy diving in a mud puddle.) There was a huge school of Golden Snappers, and that’s notable because they’re not supposed to reside in the Sea of Cortez. (We saw them at other sites too.) I saw two Mobulas go overhead, we ran into a number of turtles, Latin Grunts, schooling Porkfish, Blue-and-Gold Snappers, Barberfish, some Cortez Rays, numerous Panamic Grasby, some quite out-and-about Octopuses, Graybar Grunts, and numerous Goatfish. So conditions weren’t great, but there was stuff to see as long as you looked.
The wind started dropping off Friday night and was predicted to continue dropping so it looked like we’d get in three full days of diving with the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. And that set up some logistical issues for both our divers and for Nautilus. So let me give you some background on the Park and the regulations that create these complications.
Cabo Pulmo was designated a National Marine Park (and Marine Protected Area, aka MPA) in 1995. It had been heavily targeted by fisherman, both sport and commercial, during the 1980s. But once the designation was made and fishing was stopped within the Park boundaries (roughly 150 square miles - about 21 miles long and 7 miles out to sea), many of the 226 documented species found within the Park (out of 800+ found overall in the Sea of Cortez) rebounded dramatically. In fact, a study roughly five years after the MPA was established showed a 400% increase in the biomass. That’s astounding.
There are strict - and I DO mean strict - regulations for diving within the Park and this is what creates issues for Nautilus.
For one thing, you can’t anchor within Park boundaries, and there’s no dock where Nautilus can tie up, so they have to remain in Los Frailes south of the Park boundary. Not a big deal, but obviously adds travel time to dive sites that can be many miles away.
All divers at all times when within the park, must dive with a guide. The limit is six divers per guide. And the ONLY people allowed to guide are those certified by the Park. Those are all DMs from the local Cabo Pulmo operators. Nautilus is in the process of trying to get their DMs certified to dive within the Park, but it hasn’t happened yet. So that means - and this is likely one reason on their “Best of the Sea of Cortez” trips they only do one day in Cabo Pulmo - Nautilus has to hire a local company to come out to the ship and pick everyone up and handle all the diving. And because you’re limited to 6 divers/guide, they have to have two boats come out to pick everyone up. All of that adds to their expense of diving with Cabo Pulmo.
There are numerous rules for diving Cabo Pulmo. They
We were planning on four dives each day within the Park for each of our two groups. Given the travel time from Gallant Lady to each site - at least 10 minutes, sometimes as much as 30-40 minutes - the plan was for the local pangas (fast & covered) to pick us up by 7:30AM, we’d go off and do two dives, back to Gallant Lady before lunch, then off again around 1PM for two more dives. Nautilus would load two tanks/diver, snacks, and drinks for the first two dives, then refill tanks during lunch (as well as give our local DM and captain lunch as well), reload the pangas for the afternoon dives, and then unload at the end of the day, refill tanks, and be ready to repeat the next day. And don’t forget, we had to do this as two groups, so a fair amounting of schlepping and loading/unloading for the Gallant Lady crew.
Because the park restricts the number of boats on a site at once as well as the maximum divers per day per site, our two boats never went to the same site at the same time. This had an advantage as we could compare notes and know either where to go or not go subsequently.
So each part of the dive day started with finding out what sites were available by checking in via radio with Park HQ. They divide the sites into “popular” and “not popular” ones. The “popular” sites can only be dove on the hour. Miss your slot, too bad. Back of the line. The “not popular” ones (maybe they should start calling them “less popular” because they weren’t bad) you could dive every 20 minutes, so either at X:00, X:20, or X:40. For each two-tank foray, we dove one “popular” and one “not popular” site so things evened out. We didn’t have any issues with this and it certainly seemed fair. We never ran into other groups underwater nor did we have to wait for a group to clear out and finish their dive before we could start ours. (An advantage of the 50-minute time limit is the previous group should have cleared the area by the time your top-of-the-hour dive time arrives.) And quite frankly, especially on Saturday and Sunday when it was still a little rough, we rarely saw other boats, let alone had to compete with them. (On Monday it was flat calm and there were others out, but even with that, no more than 6-8 other boats.)
Water temps were very consistent at 77-78º on most of our gauges with no perceptible thermoclines. I dove in a 3mm with a 3mm hood. Some people dove in 5mm suits, and one person dove in just a t-shirt. Visibility ranged from 30-60 feet and was mostly in the 40-50 range. There were what I thought were mild currents every now and then but some of our divers felt they were stronger than mild. Since we dove in two groups and I always dove with my group (the Sharks - the other group was the Mantas), I will speak specifically to what we saw but both groups seemed to have the same general experience.
I first have to confess to two misconceptions about Cabo Pulmo. I was under the impression that it was a true coral reef since they mention coral in a lot of their descriptions. But the corals are mainly the typical low-profile corals you find around La Paz, Las Animas, and other Sea of Cortez sites, not corals in the sense of Caribbean or Indo-Pacific corals.
The other misconception dealt with big pelagics like Manta Rays, Hammerheads, and Whale Sharks. They are at best seasonal and occasional, so we didn’t see any of them on this trip. Disappointing, but not a deal-breaker and certainly a result of me not fully doing my homework. (But we did have Humpback Whales so that was a bonus.)
Our first dive was on a “not popular” site called El Cien and the first thing we saw when we reached the bottom were five Bull Sharks just meandering about throughout the entire dive. That made it pretty “popular” with our group. There was also a huge school (you’re going to see me say “huge” or “large” school a lot because Cabo Pulmo is known for massive schools of fish) of Graybar Grunts.
But our second dive was probably the best dive of the trip for me and that was at El Bajo. Not only is that a “popular” site but probably one of their most popular. All I can say is . . . Wow!!! We all agreed that THIS is what the Sea of Cortez must have looked like when Steinbeck and Cousteau were rhapsodizing about it. One of the divers in our group said he could tell it was a good site just by watching me because I kept turning around and turning around since there were so many things to shoot.
We started out by dropping into a cloud of fish in the middle of which was a Golden Grouper (a Leopard grouper in gold coloration). There was a very slight current running south so you just got neutrally buoyant and allowed the current to gently take you on a tour of the site. We passed through clouds of Amarillo Snappers, then some more Leopard Groupers being followed by King Angels. That blended into Porkfish which blended into another school of Amarillos. Then came the Blue-and-Gold Snappers, followed by the Balloonfish, followed by a large Blunthead Triggerfish, then a couple of hundred Goatfish, then some Guineafowl Puffers in color combos I’ve never seen before (no, I wasn’t narc’d), some more Amarillo Snappers in their red phase, Chubs, Parrotfish, and we ended with a cloud of (10,000???) Scissortail Damselfish darting about snatching morsels that drifted on by. Pretty cool dive.
Cabo Pulmo is frequently cited as an example of what happens when you not only designate something as an MPA but really make sure it’s enforced. Because at Cabo Pulmo, not only do the numbers of fish increase, but the sizes of the fish are pretty much the maximum for each species. So you get lots of fish, they live a long time, and they grow to their maximum size. And when there are too many fish of a certain species inside the MPA, then they start to roam and go outside the MPA. This is known as “spillover” and it’s a reason that MPAs should be considered not as anti-fishing areas, but actually areas that enhance fishing that occurs just outside the limits of the MPA. I don’t have the exact numbers, but a huge percentage of record-size fish worldwide - well over 50% - are caught near MPA boundaries. So creating and protecting MPAs not only creates a healthy marine environment, but a productive one too.
Other sites we dove included El Islote, La Esperaza, the Vencedor wreck, El Cantil, Los Morros, Casitas, Pedregal, and the Sea Lion Spot. (That’s really what it’s called.) And that’s also where we heard a magical sound: Humpback Whales “singing.” It’s usually a male and even though I “went blue,” I couldn’t find him. He could have been miles away. But you can clearly hear - and sometimes even feel - the sound in the water.
The Vencedor wreck was one we were really looking forward to because that’s where you supposedly got a lot of Bull Sharks. We only had one, but it was a spectacular dive nonetheless due to the amazing number of fish that hung out in the area. The wreck itself is pretty spread out and not much more than rubble but fish are flying all around it. In addition to other species we’ve already mentioned, we had a fly-by from a large school of Bigeye Scad and also a nice-sized group of Pacific Spadefish, another species that’s should be uncommon yet here they were. And we started the dive dropping into a sandy area that was festooned with Garden Eels which was fun. We didn’t have the greatest conditions visibility-wise (greenish water, as you’ll see on the video) but a nice dive nonetheless.
The most spectacular school we saw were the Bigeye Jack (more correctly, Bigeye Trevalley) at Los Morros. This school is so extensive it ought to be a university. I estimate there were 100,000 fish there and that might be an undercount. There are so many fish that when they swim overhead, they literally block out the sun. Boats are prohibited from dropping divers into the midst of them and must drop divers a short distance away from the edge of the school. But again . . . WOW!!! . . . as you will see from the video. Truly a tornado of fish. Plus there are other fish around too: Surgeonfishes, Spanish Hogfish, Milkfish (also supposedly rare for the Sea of Cortez but plentiful here), and the other usual suspects.
We finished our last dive Monday afternoon and, after dinner, motored south five hours to Cabo San Lucas, got off the boat Tuesday morning, killed some more time at See Creatures and Tesoro, and then had Cabo Transfers take us back to SJD for our flights home. Easy-peasy going through Immigration and Security on the way out of Cabo. Also very quick through Immigration and Customs when we got to LAX and even the new LAX-it system wasn’t as horrible as I’d feared, although it did add about 15-20 minutes to my ride home compared to jumping into a cab at the curb and you’re gone.
As to this trip, I always judge these by asking whether or not I’d want to go again. On this one, I think you have to break it up a bit.
Would I like to go back and dive Cabo Pulmo again? Absolutely. Maybe a different time of the year to get warmer water and some of the pelagics that might stroll through but it’s definitely worth doing again, even with all the restrictions in place. (Although I’m not sure how fond I am of going through the camera issues at SJD again.)
Would I do this from the Nautilus Gallant Lady again? Probably. I think some of the issues I have with the dive deck layout may be solvable and that’s something I’ll discuss with Mike Lever, owner of Nautilus.
Would I do this specific itinerary again? No. I really didn’t like the way this bridged a weekend (makes it slightly harder for me to market since some people can’t do vacation time over a split weekend) and I didn’t like that it was six days instead of seven. Mike and I have already discussed some of this and I’m hopeful he can alter the way this trip is run and make it into a Sunday-Saturday thing which would add a dive day, have it be a more traditional “week,” and hopefully not increase his cost of running the vessel.
But overall, a good experience and good memories despite my complaints, and that’s what these trips are all about.