THE REVILLAGIGEDO ISLANDS (SOCORRO)
APRIL 6-15, 2008
here to see the pictures from this trip.)
To borrow (steal??) from Charles Dickens: It was the best
of dives, it was the worst of dives. Actually, the second half of that is
a vast overstatement. But it highlights that while we had a really good
trip, our journey down to the Revillagigedo Islands was not exactly what
we had hoped it would be.
First, some nomenclature. The group of islands is correctly known as the
Revillagigedo Islands. It’s comprised of San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca
Partida, and - much further out - Clarion. Because it’s almost
impossible for a gringo tongue to properly say “Revillagigedo,” it’s
very common to refer to the entire area as “Socorro” and that’s what
I intend to do throughout this report.
We spent nine days aboard the Nautilus Explorer, a 116’ x 27’
vessel that’s hatched an interesting business plan as the dive industry
goes. Rather than just working one area, they move around as the dive
season shifts and range from Alaska to Vancouver to Guadalupe to Socorro
to the Sea of Cortez and then back again. So if you like the operation -
and we did - you’ve got the option of not only diving with them again
but diving something you haven’t diven before. More on the vessel and
the crew in a minute.
We met the boat in Cabo San Lucas. The flight down from L.A. is an easy
two-and-a-half hour jaunt. Our group this year consisted of Susan
Beveridge, Mike Doran, John Morgan, Mark Stabb, Charlie Pincus, and
myself. We grabbed a cab ($15/person) from the San Jose del Cabo
International Airport for the short ride to the Posada Real Hotel, where
the Explorer maintains what they call a “hospitality room”.
When you hear “hospitality” you may think of drinks, snacks, and
perhaps a shower. In this case, it’s simply a large room where your bags
can be stored. The hotel’s very nice with a bar and restaurant so you
can certainly make yourself comfortable until the 5PM pickup time. And
right on time, lead DM Sten Johanson was there to shepherd us to the boat.
The Nautilus Explorer can carry up to 25 divers in 11 staterooms
and a 4-person “dorm” room. We had 23 on our trip plus a crew of nine.
It was a little snug at times and I’d rather see the boat carry 18-20
divers but the economics probably don’t dictate that.
Before we go any further, we want to heap some lavish praise on the crew,
especially the three DMs of Sten, Tricia Kelly, and Buzz Busby. Those
three really worked together as a team and were among the best DMs and
best-functioning team of DMs that we’ve run across. They were especially
helpful when one diver needed some special care because of conditions and
they were willing and able to rejigger the dive sked so that he could go
off with one them one-on-one between our group dives while at the same
time not causing anyone else to have to give up any dive time for that
On top of that, the bridge crew (Garry, Doug, and Bob) and the kitchen
crew (Shona, Sylvia, and Camila) were always helping out on the deck
either driving the skiffs (Garry, Doug, & Bob) or passing out water
before the dives and water and fruit afterwards (Camila & Sylvia). We
can’t say enough nice things about the crew and they alone are a very
good reason why we’d dive with the Nautilus again.
There are three classes of rooms on the boat. Nine of the staterooms are
their standard rooms, level with the waterline on the lower deck. Each
room has a double bed and a single bed (side-by-side rather than stacked
like on many boats) so the rooms are appropriate for a couple or two
singles. (Be aware that two of the rooms - A & B - only have a double
bed.) There’s a sink and storage cabinet between the two beds, good
storage under each of the beds, hooks on the walls for hanging things, and
a separate shower stall in one corner of the room (with a great shower
head and excellent water pressure - a rarity on liveaboards it seems) and
a toilet in the other corner.
Two rooms on the second deck are the Executive suites each with a
king-size double bed, the other amenities, and a small desk. On the lower
deck in the bow is the Dorm room, which is four single bunks with some
shared storage and a head. It’s very similar to the bunk areas on any
large California dive boat. This is also the area where the crew bunks (in
small staterooms) and there’s a second head that’s used by the crew.
On this trip, there was a $500 difference in the three room prices, $500
more for the Executive, and $500 less for the Dorm. There’s a similar
price differential on other length trips and you can decide what level of
comfort you’d like and what that’s worth to you..
The marine head toilets worked great but they did occasionally give off a
septic smell that could at times be rather noticeable. Each toilet area
had a can of air freshener and that certainly helped but occasionally the
smell wafted through the hall or the individual rooms (some rooms got it
stronger than others) and it would be nice if that could be corrected. Not
a deal-breaker by any means but certainly not optimal.
One thing I liked a lot about the boat is that there was a good balance
between inside and outside areas. This is especially great for when the
boat’s in colder areas (like Vancouver or Alaska). It also made it easy
for us to escape the hot sun during the day. At the same time, if you
wanted to lay out, there were chairs set around the second deck as well as
a third-level sundeck.
But one thing I didn’t like about these areas is that they felt crowded.
It seems like they’ve put something into almost every square inch of
open space and that makes it feel cramped. There are 17 deck chairs on the
top deck (I counted) when 8-10 would be fine and the extras eat up space.
On the second deck (which already has a hot tub which consumes space),
their shark cage for their Guadalupe trips is stored and - again - eats up
The dive deck had it pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s big
enough to handle 23 divers plus the crew. Each diver has a dive station
where your tank/BC/reg are bungeed in, with a small cubicle below for
mask/snorkel/fins and small stuff. There are two excellent overhead
showers (great shower heads and great water pressure) but no communal head
on the deck. Not a big deal but it meant you always needed to go down to
your room to use the facilities, which meant stripping out of your wetsuit
if it was right after a dive.
On the minus side is that the dive deck slopes downward since it also
doubles as the cradle for their 30-foot aluminum skiff, which is hauled up
in place for the transit to and from Socorro. That also means that most of
the dive stations are inaccessible when the boat’s making the crossing
or running between islands. Once the skiff’s been set into the water
(they also use a rubber inflatable as a second tender/chase boat) you
needed to walk gingerly on the sloping deck because it can be slick when
wet. A couple of people slipped and fell while fully geared up. No
injuries, but again something to be aware of.
Just off the dive area on the main deck is the salon which is nicely set
up and can pretty much accommodate everyone. Large windows line each side
of the salon make it brightly lit during the day. Better still, each of
the windows has blinds so that if the sun is streaming in, you can drop
the blind and don’t go blind yourself. There are five comfy couches,
some bar stools, and a long table/shelf along one wall with
bar-stool-height chairs that’s perfect for setting up laptops to
download pictures and the like. Another nice touch in the salon is the
fact that there are many sets of binoculars in each windowsill. This was
great for when whales would show up or you wanted to take a peek at a bird
The dining area is just beyond the salon and easily seats everyone for
meals. It’s also got windows on each side which makes it nice and
bright. Unfortunately (and puzzlingly) it does NOT have blinds of each of
the windows so there are times - especially when dinner and sunset
coincided - that you get the sun right in your eyes. Blinds would be a
Speaking of dining, the food was first-rate. Shona the cook (assisted by
Sylvia and Camila) did a great job every day. There was an incredible
variety of food, always fresh fruit, all kinds of drinks and snacks, and
what have you. It’s was scary stepping back on the scale (+3 in my
case). Two touches that were always appreciated were the soups that
preceded each lunch and the home-baked cookies that followed.
Meals are served buffet-style and you simply take what you want. In some
cases where there were special dietary needs or you simply didn’t like
what was being offered (for instance, I don’t like eggs) they were
always happy to make up some alternative more to your liking. And when you
were done eating a hand magically came in and whisked away your plate.
Meals times were continental breakfast at 7AM before the first dive, full
hot breakfast at 10:30AM following the first dive, lunch at 1:30PM
following the second dive, a snack at 5PM following the third dive, and
dinner at 8PM once we wrapped up diving for the day. Coffee, tea, and
non-alcoholic drinks were always available. Beer, wine, and even mixed
drinks are available for an extra charge.
Generally, it was a 4-dive day, with the first dive at 8:45AM followed by
dives at 11:45AM, 3PM, and 6PM. The dives lasted 30-60 minutes (they ask
for a one-hour maximum bottom time) and that generally left about a 2-hour
surface interval which was more than adequate whether you were diving air
or nitrox (32%).
The very first day we started at 7:45AM but the crew had forgotten that
Mexico had just switched over to Daylight Savings Time the day our trip
started. So they were used to the old schedule and when we all first got
up (after a full day at sea) at 6:30AM, it was pitch black outside.
(Sunrise was at 7:15AM and sunset was around 7:30PM.). So we decided to
push everything back one hour from that point on and that worked out
Diving is done either from the skiffs (about 80% of the time) or from the
main boat. When using the main boat, you simply do a giant stride off the
back, do your dive, and come back up to a boarding ladder. Pretty simple.
For dives where we used the skiffs, the procedure was fairly
straightforward. All divers would gear up at their own pace. For those of
us who photo (and just about everyone on this trip had a camera of some
sort), you were responsible for putting your camera in the “to be loaded
on the boat” area. The back of the Nautilus sits almost level
with the water so the crew would pull the nose of the skiff literally up
on the back deck of the boat and you’d board.
First out would be the inflatable, so the first 6-8 divers (plus one DM -
you’re not required to stay with them but there were always two of the
three DMs diving) would load into the inflatable by straddling it and then
pulling your trail leg up and over, sitting on the side. Once the divers
were in, the cameras were passed out, and then the inflatable left for the
dive area. A simple backroll out of the inflatable got you in the water.
For the aluminum skiff (the “tinny”), they’d put the nose right up
against the back of the boat so this one - especially if there was any
kind of a swell - had to be timed right with well-placed step from the
deck of the Nautilus to the nose of the tinny. But the crew was
there to help and all went smoothly.
The tinny has two long benches, one down each side, where you sit. There’s
even a slightly recessed channel for your tank. One thing to remember
about the tinny is that it’s good to sit down quickly and slide along
bench to the back because every now and then you hear someone say “Bump!!!”
as the nose of the tinny is about to bang into the deck of the Nautilus
and the collision can at times send a standing diver flying.
The tinny was okay but there were two things I didn’t like about it. One
is that it should be wider (which I realize is impossible at this point in
time). You sit on the bench opposite another diver and the space between
the two of you where your feet go is about as wide as your fins are long.
Again, not a deal breaker but not as good as it could be.
The other thing I found a little uncomfortable (which could be modified)
was the entry. There are four entry points, one at each corner fore and
aft. But the tinny has a fairly high freeboard and it makes it a little
difficult to either get your tank over the side and backroll, or to get
your knee on the gunnel (as I do) and do a front roll. This could be
solved be simply cutting a section out and lowering side of the boat at
these four spots. In my opinion, it would make the entry easier and
Once the dive is over, whichever skiff is closer does the pickup. For the
inflatable, hand up cameras, hand up weights, take off tank/BC/reg and
hand it up, and then vault up (many times with the inflatable driver
assisting) and flop into the boat like a flailing flounder. It would seem
to me that this could be improved and made easier as well with the
addition of a small folding ladder (the Okeanos Aggressor uses one on
their skiffs). Degree-of-difficulty of getting into the inflatable was
something many divers commented on.
For a pickup by the tinny, it was hand up cameras, take off your fins,
climb up the ladder in the back, slide down the bench. Most people seemed
to prefer this method though either worked fine.
And you didn’t have to wait until a skiff was full for a ride back to
the boat. The Nautilus has excellent communications as all skiff
members carry radios so they get a head count as they go along. but also
making sure there’s at least one skiff at the dive site. Then the other
can run divers back to the main boat. They shuttle back and forth like
this until everyone was picked up.
Overall, the diving ranged from fair to outstanding but was not as
consistently outstanding as we had hoped (through no fault of the Nautilus).
Given that Socorro is 250 miles SSW of Cabo, it takes 24 hours to get
there. So our 9-day trip was actually 6 days of diving and a day of
transit getting there and a little over a day of transit (we were further
south and west) to get back. We got in 23 dives and a night snorkel over
the course of the trip. Water temps ranged from 69º-72º. (I wore a 5mm
with a lycra hood which was perfect for me. Others wore anywhere from a
full 7mm to a 3mm with and without hoods.) Daytime air temps were very
pleasant, usually in the mid-70s to low-80s. Visibility was something
else. It ranged anywhere from 30 feet to upwards of 150 feet. And that
seems part of the “problem” with our trip.
I don’t care where you dive but this is always true: Weather is an iffy
thing. You can get good days in the off season and bad days in the good
season. Our trip was the last one for the season for the Nautilus
and although the weather was generally good, the water conditions weren’t
optimal, and that affected where we could dive and what we could see.
A good example of this was The Boiler at San Benedicto, one of the “signature”
Socorro dives and one of the places where you would routinely expect
phenomenal Manta Ray encounters that would include Mantas hovering over
you waiting/demanding to be petted on the belly.
The good news was that when we first jumped in from the back of the boat,
the vis was around 150 feet and there was a Manta and a Dolphin right
beneath us. The bad news was that the swell was running 3-4 feet making
timing the entry critical. Once underwater, it wasn’t a problem and we
were rewarded with one our most spectacular dives of the trip with the
highlight (for me at least) being a group of seven dolphins coming in
close and checking out the divers, echo-locating and squeaking, cavorting
in the water, circling us, swimming out, and then coming back for more.
Really amazing and enchanting.
But this was all tempered by the difficulty of getting back on to the
boat. During the 45 minutes that we were under, the swell had picked up
noticeably to where some were easily over 6 feet. And that made getting
back on the boat tricky and almost dangerous, requiring directions from
the crew and well-timed kicks from the divers. The boat was pitching
enough that when the back end went down (remember that sloped dive deck??)
the water ran halfway up. Everyone made it back safely and without
incident but the conditions were such that we abandoned our original plan
of spending a full day at The Boiler and headed back to a more sheltered
spot that had lower vis and less big-animal potential.
Unfortunately, for the first four days, we had not-so-great water
conditions (mainly vis). Although we had scattered sightings (and some
very good ones at that) of Hammerheads and Manta Rays, we didn’t get the
repeated close-in blue-water-background encounters that we had hoped for
and which Socorro is supposed to be known for.
But I’m a big believer in the when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade
school of thought and there was still plenty to see. It just wasn’t the
big stuff. In fact, I’m willing to bet that when most people come to
Socorro, they can easily get so mesmerized by the big stuff that they don’t
even think about looking for smaller stuff. So I’d like to think that
one thing I accomplished on this trip (and don’t worry - there are some
Big Animal encounters coming up) is assembling a top-flight collection of
Socorro close-up and macro photography.
One animal on my wanna-see list was a Clarion Angelfish. And I got very
excited when I descended on the very first dive to find THREE of them
waiting for us an the anchor. Of course, I soon learned that hoping to see
Clarions at Socorro is sort of like hoping to see Garibaldi at Catalina.
It’s more like if you DON’T see them, you need to get your eyes
checked. But they’re really pretty, they really DO resemble Garibaldi,
and even the juvies look like juvy Garibaldi in terms of coloring.
We also saw a lot of eels, mostly Panamics, but also some Jewels and
Zebras. There were Mexican Hogfish with us on every dive (almost like you
had your own personal Hogfish assigned to you) and there were many schools
of Chubs, some of who were bright yellow. There were many Leather Bass
(including juvies) and thousands and thousands of Redtailed Triggers.
That was another one on my must-see (and must-photo) list. It turns out
that the ones with the red tails (and yellow dorsal and anal fins) are the
males, and the ones with the orange tails (and red dorsal and anal fins)
are the females. And they were everywhere.
Another highlight was seeing the Clarion Damselfish. Although you might
think they’re related to Clarion Angelfish, the coloration is totally
different between the two. I couldn’t find them at first. But finally I
encountered one and realized what I was looking for. And then, once I knew
what to look for (they farm patches of algae), they were in many places.
They have sort of a dusky front with a bright yellow ring around their eye
that has a small blue spec on it. About two-thirds of the way back, the
dusky fades and blends in to a very pale lavender, with rear dorsal and
caudal fins that are rimmed in yellow. It’s a really pretty fish and
once you know to look for the algae, it’s easy to find the fish.
One unique experience we had at Socorro Island was a night snorkel with
Silky Sharks. They’re attracted to the flying fish that are attracted to
the lights of the boat. It seems the flying fish (like they do in SoCal)
will end up launching themselves into the side of the boat, knock
themselves out, and the sharks grab an easy meal.
We actually didn’t see that many flying fish, but we had plenty of
sharks. You stay right behind the boat and use the line for the tinny sort
of and a line of demarcation. (The sharks don’t know this, BTW, and
frequently come inside the line.) Jimmy Buffet was playing in my head: “Fins
to the left, fins to the right, and you’re the only bait around.”
Thank goodness for the flying fish. It’s actually a pretty
high-intensity experience. There were definitely a couple of delighted
screams from divers through their snorkels, and I had one Silky swim
literally between my legs.
So there were definitely fish to be seen. I don’t think you’d ever
consider Socorro to be a “fishy” place overall. There are fish here,
but at first glance, the place appears non-fishy. It’s not Palau or
Indonesia (or even the Sea of Cortez). You just have to work a little bit
to find them and see what you’re seeing that’s different than what you
We planned to spend two days at San Benedicto and two days at Socorro. We
were able to do that but the winds, which generally were blowing 15-20mph
much of the days, chopped up the water, stirred up some currents, and
lowered the vis. But it also gave us reason to look for exploratory spots.
On our second day at Socorro Island, we had two so-so dives at Punta Tosca
(preceded by an incredible Humpback Whale show on the surface) so Sten
suggested that we try a new spot he’d had his eye on and it was actually
quite interesting. (We threatened to name it “Sten’s Folly” if it
was lousy but that didn’t come to pass.)
But the highlight of the trip was the final two days and being able to
spend them at Roca Partida. Many people said that’s what really “saved”
the trip for them.
Roca Partida is a very small rock - no more than 100 feet long and maybe
30 feet wide - that juts out of the Pacific Ocean. It’s actually the “plug”
for a dormant volcano who cone sits abut 250 feet below the surface. But
Roca Partida lies 80 miles WSW of Socorro Island and there’s literally
nothing else around. It’s isolation makes it an oasis for the aquatic
life. But if you get there and you can’t dive, your only choice is to
turn around for the 8-hour run back to Socorro Island. Fortunately, that
didn’t happen to us.
In fact, the crew told us it was some of the best conditions they saw at
Roca. The swells our first day were maybe 2-3 feet, and even less the
second day. Visibility ranged from 100-150 feet. Water temp was around
72º. And the place was populated by Mantas, Hammerheads, Galapagos,
Silvertips, Whitetips, a gazillion fish and even a Humpback Whale who sang
to us for two days.
Your buoyancy at Roca had better be good. Pretty much all around the rock,
it’s a sheer drop to that 250-foot bottom. And when we saw “sheer,”
we mean about a 180º vertical slope with almost no ledges or outcropping
to hang on to or stop you. So watch your depth and the air in your BC
We had great dives at Roca. The first day the choices were, “Should I go
to the north end for the sharks or the south end for the mantas?” And in
the middle of the east side were the things I became fascinated with which
were referred to as the Whitetip Shark “balconies,” small indentations
in the rock wall where Whitetips would pile in on top of each other -
sometimes a dozen or more at a time - and rest. Even when they were
disturbed (by . . . say . . . an over-eager but well-meaning photographer)
they’d flee the balcony, swim around for a while and then return to the
same spot. Pretty cool.
Perhaps best of all was the Humpback Whale encounter. (Not me
Throughout the trip, we were seeing Humpbacks all the time. You’d see
them blowing in the distance (that’s when those binoculars came in
handy), sometimes tail-slapping the water, fluking, and occasionally
We’d hear the whales too, almost on every dive. Sometimes it would sound
like two whales calling out to each other and sometimes it would sound
like only a single whale. But, especially if you held your breath, you
could really hear the distinctive high-pitched “whoop-whoop-whoop” of
their call, frequently followed by a much lower-frequency “woooo-woooo-wooo”.
We got our best visual show at Socorro Island when perhaps as many as a
dozen of them swam towards the boat, approaching to within 100 feet,
turned around at the bow, and headed back out, finally diving just shy of
where the tinny was setting a mooring line.
Later that day, when we were diving the new spot, I was coming around the
west end of the big rock when I could hear a whale quite loudly. I really
thought he was close by. And, like Ahab obsessed with Moby Dick, I became
obsessed with my Humpback and was convinced he wasn’t too far away. So I
kicked out in to the blue, hoping to find my Moby just on the other side
of the visibility. But it was not to be.
When we got to Roca, we could once again hear a whale nearby. Once again,
I become obsessed with finding that whale. I just KNEW he wasn’t too far
away. So once again, I kicked out in to the blue (and taking a compass
reading so I could find my way back to the rock). And as I kicked, it
seemed to me like the whale sounds were getting louder. For all I know, I
stopped 100 feet shy of where he was. But I never saw him.
Bob, the boat’s engineer, was more fortunate.
Shortly after we got back, Bob went out for a dive in the same area. He
knew of our experience and he too heard the whale sounds. But his luck was
better. He kicked towards where he thought the whale sound was coming from
and in a few minutes, came upon a 30 foot calf who was making all the
commotion. Bob stared in awe and drifted for the rest of his dive with the
whale (no camera, of course), popping up just south of Roca but within
sight of the Nautilus. But the picture in his head is probably
better than anything he could have taken with a camera.
It’s not like lack-of-whale lessened our opinion of Roca. As I said in
my dive log: You know you’re being spoiled when your biggest complaint
about a dive day is, “I couldn’t find the whale.”
This was not the Socorro trip we’d hoped for. That does not by any
stretch of the imagination mean that it wasn’t good. How could you
possibly complain about a trip where you had multiple sightings of Mantas
(and I did get to go belly-to-belly with one), five different species of
sharks, numerous small critters, animals you had seen before, conditions
that were occasionally phenomenal, and you know you’re in a dive area
that doesn’t get visited by too many people. How can you NOT savor that
Will we go back? Most likely. Would we do it with Nautilus again?
Absolutely. And maybe next time, we’ll not only get the magical Manta
encounters Socorro is known for, but maybe next time I’LL be the one who
has the whale encounter that right now exists only in my hopes and dreams.