SOCORRO (aka Revillagigedos) - MARCH 12-20, 2022

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

I guess that since everyone experienced one of the most memorable dives of their lives – an incredible, amazing, fabulous wild dolphin encounter that the dolphin initiated – you’d have to call this a “good” trip. More on that in a moment.

This was our fourth trip overall to Socorro, more correctly known (and mangled by the Gringo tongue) as the Revillagigedos islands, for some fabulous big animal diving. Socorro is best known as being a great place to interact with giant manta rays and where you can see dozens and dozens of sharks up close and personal. Big animals were what we hoped for and big animals were certainly what we got. (Although there were plenty of smaller critters to satisfy our taste as well.) As in January 2021, we did this trip on the Nautilus Under Sea.

Getting to Cabo (SJD) is pretty easy as there are numerous non-stops. In fact, our group of 13 came in on seven different flights on five different airlines departing from four different airports. Our divers consisted of Audrey & Marlow Anderson, Susan Bangasser, Erin O’Neill, Kurt Tetzlaff, Sharon Depriester, Glenn Suhd, Steve Lathrop, Jay Wilson, Rik Aceves, Brad Jacks, Patti Wey and me (Ken Kurtis). We also “adopted” Monika Slowikowski who had booked directly through Nautilus Liveaboards.

We discovered a delightful new (for us) hotel along the way as we had to overnight in Cabo San Lucas before getting on the boat. The Nautilus dive shop, See Creatures, had moved out of the Tesoro Resort (where we stayed before and which we liked), and moved a few blocks up the street. So Tesoro was no longer a convenient choice. We found Siesta Suites Hotel, which is located about a block and a half from See Creatures, and really enjoyed our stay there. It’s a small hotel with about 20 rooms, but convenient, comfortable, has a nice second floor terrace area with a bar, and is also adjacent to a really good restaurant (Salvatore’s). The hotel is owned by Nancy & Alex Darquea, originally from San Diego, and they couldn’t have been more accommodating for our needs as a group, including driving our gear over to See Creatures in their mini-van on departure day. Dive trip or not, if you’re spending time in Cabo, give them a look.

These Socorro trips are billed by Nautilus (and others) as 9-day trips which is slightly misleading since on Day 1 you don’t board the boat until the evening and on Day 9 you get off around 8:30AM. It takes a full day (Day 2) to get to Socorro, which is roughly 250 miles SSW of Cabo, so your diving occurs on days 3-7, with Day 8 being a full day at sea to get back.

We didn’t depart on time Saturday evening as there was a mechanical issue with a winch that’s critical for raising and lowering the Zodiacs that are used as dive tenders. The crew worked feverishly on it all evening to no avail so we spent that night in the harbor (which meant for a nice, calm sleep). They had to re-machine a part and got that done early Sunday morning so we left around 10AM, fourteen hours later than we should have, but it didn’t cost us any diving so no harm, no foul.

The other issue hanging over this trip was COVID and specifically the protocols we’d have to follow on the boat. Last year, Nautilus was very forward-thinking with their protocols which included masks in common area, eating in shifts, social distancing as much as possible, and the obvious hand-washing and sanitizing throughout the day.

Pre-trip, Nautilus still requires a negative COVID test within seven days of departure and they also have a medical professional administer a COVID test to everyone – including crew – the afternoon of departure. So they are trying to insure, as much as possible, that everyone is negative and COVID germs aren’t coming along as an unwanted guest.

When we arrived at the boat, all masked up, we assembled in the salon for the initial welcome and briefing by captain Beto (who I’d sailed with three times before in Cocos and Guadalupe). The first thing he said was that with COVID declining, everyone vaccinated, and everyone having tested negative, they were willing to suspend the mask mandate for those comfortable doing so. You’ve never seen 14 masks come off more quickly. We ended up running this as a fairly “normal” trip in terms of eating together and being mask-less, but the crew still maintained a regular routine of disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the trip. Beto said ours was the second trip where they’d done this and, other than two of us getting colds (truly not COVID – we tested again on-board), no one got sick and everyone mentioned how much more enjoyable the trip was without having to mask up most of the time.

We settled into a fairly standard daily schedule. By Mexican government regulation in Socorro, dives are limited to 60 minutes max, they limit the number of boats diving any given site at one time, and night diving is not permitted. This is similar to the rules they’ve established for Cabo Pulmo. Nautilus strives to do four dives each day. The exception is the day we have to check in with the Mexican Navy on Socorro proper which costs us a dive, but which gets made up with the world-famous “Silky Snorkel” where you go in post-dinner (exception to the no-night-diving rule) and can snorkel amongst the 6-10 Silky Sharks that tend to gather at the back of the boat, attracted by the lights that attract small fish for them to go after.

So the general sked each day was continental breakfast at 6:30AM, Dive 1 around 7:30AM, hot breakfast at 9AM, Dive 2 at 10:30AM, lunch at Noon, Dive 3 at 2PM, an afternoon snack, and Dive 4 by 5PM, with dinner around 7:30PM. It made for a nice, well-paced day.

Speaking of the food, it was fabulous. Don’t come on these trips and expect to lose weight. Our chef was Tony (who had cooked for us on three previous Nautilus trips) and he’s a whiz in the kitchen. A nice touch when you first go into your room is that there’s a menu for all the meals on the entire trip, so you’ll know what to expect each day. Breakfast were pretty much the same each morning (choice of eggs, pancakes, fruit, etc.) but the main course for lunches included pizza, Thai, stir-fry, burgers, fish, and a deli tray. (Not all of those each day but one entrée each day over the course of the trip.) And dinners were roast beef, do-it-yourself tacos, chicken, salmon, beef skewers, and steaks (which were cooked perfectly). Kudos to Tony.

Also kudos to the gallery assistant/hostess Kat who baked fresh cookies for us every day, was always wandering around the deck with pre- and post-dive drinks (gotta stay hydrated), and was always quite eager to get whatever anyone needed to eat or drink. She was quite attentive and really worked her tail off each day with a smile on her face at all times.

We dove in two groups, having nothing to do with COVID protocols, just for the fact that diving as a group of 6 and a group of 8 in two Zodiacs makes it easier than loading 14 people into one inflatable. We alternated which group got to go first each day so things were equitable. When it was time to dive, they’d run the nose of the Zodiac up onto the back deck of the boat, you’d hand your fins over, then vault over the side of the inflatable like an old-school high-jumper, slide down the side, and you were good to go. When everyone was loaded in, the Zodiac would slide off the deck, you’d put your fins on, and off we’d go. Runs to the dive sites were generally five minutes or less. Once on-site, everyone back-rolled simultaneously and off we went. At least one of the inflatables always stayed on site so that whenever you came up, there was a boat nearby.

And what fabulous things we saw. Let me start with some of the smaller guys, who sometimes tend to get overlooked.

Two of my favorite fish to see and shoot are Clarion Angelfish and Redtail Triggerfish. Clarion are prolific at Socorro and generally not found too far north of there. They’re very similar to our Garibaldi but they have a green-ish face to go along with the bright orange body. The juvies are bright orange with brilliant blue stripes and margin, both of which they lose as they get older.

The Redtails have an intricate hatch pattern all over their body and small blue horizontal lines under their eyes. They’re gorgeous fish. It’s easy to tell the males and females apart (once you know what to look for) because the males have a red tail – hence the name – and the females have a yellow/orange tail. On top of that, the males have a small dot in the middle of each hatch on their body which the females lack. A lot of times you can see a male and female together which I presume is some sort of a mating ritual. You’ll sometimes also see a couple of males competing for the attention of a female. And when the animals get cleaned, whether male or female, they go into a head-up-tail-down position and turn very pale so the cleaners can see what needs attention. I just love watching these guys.

You can see pix of these fish along with other smaller fish that inhabit Socorro in the Smugmug slide show.

Socorro is probably best-known for being a place where you can reliably see mantas, which we saw on just about every dive. These include both reef (Manta alfredi) and oceanic (Manta birostris) mantas. Reef mantas are slightly smaller, generally with 9-15 foot wingspans, while oceanic are larger, with a 12-20 foot wingspan. Bottom line: They’re both pretty big when they’re gliding over you. And we saw them in both in both chevron (white and black) and black (mostly or even all-black) variations. The way all mantas worldwide are ID’d is through their belly spots so when you’re photographing mantas, you try to get underneath the animal at some point.

If you’ve ever seen pictures of mantas hovering over diver bubbles while divers reached up and petted the belly of the manta, chances are that was at the Socorro islands. (To be clear, the islands are San Benedicto, Socorro, and Roca Partida. There’s also Clipperton but it’s another 600 miles further south so too far to visit on this trip.) Most of the time the intimate manta interactions happened at The Boiler at San Benedicto but that behavior – touching the mantas – is no longer allowed. However, that doesn’t mean the mantas aren’t still interactive and inquisitive.

In 2021, we tallied 18 different mantas. This year, we recorded 16 different mantas over the first four dive days. Due to my cold (and an inability to clear my ears & sinuses), I didn’t dive at all on day 5 when we were at The Boiler for two dives and The Canyon for two more, and mantas were spotted at both. So the mantas seen on those dives may have added to our overall tally. We cross-referenced the mantas we saw this year with the ones we saw last year and only found one from the 2021 group that we also spotted this year.

Another thing we noticed this year compared to 2021 is that almost all of the mantas we saw seemed to have more remoras on them (large ones to boot) than the ones last year did. A number of the mantas also had three or four Black Jacks hanging with them and I don’t recall seeing that last year either. I have no explanation for why this was. On top of that, many of the mantas are coming in to the various cleaning stations, which means that the Clarion Angelfish and others who do the cleaning are then swimming up to service the manta. And all of this – remoras, jacks, angelfish – means it’s hard to get a “clean” belly ID shot without one of the fish blocking some of the key ID features.

As I mentioned, we saw mantas on just about every dive. Sometimes just one, but many times there were multiple mantas. And they usually were willing to engage with our divers, frequently making passes at the group, and then circling around and coming back in for another peek. As I’ve said many times, they seem as curious about us as we are about them. (Or maybe they’re just hoping to get a now-prohibited belly rub.)

Socorro is also a place where you can reliably see sharks. Not just one or two but dozens and dozens over the course of a dive. It’s safe to say that we saw sharks on every dive too. And not just a single species. Especially at Cabo Pearce, which is a major cleaning station, we saw Whitetips, Scalloped Hammerheads, Galapagos, Silvertips, and Silkies, all on a single dive. The sharks were generally more skittish than the mantas but, if you settled down and didn’t move around too much, as well as tried to breathe calmly, they wouldn’t spook and would even make some close passes. Plus you could see them eyeing you as they glided by.

I love diving Roca Partida for the massive numbers of Whitetip sharks that live there and pile in, one on top of the other, at a spot know as “the shark balconies,” where there are a number of flat ledges. And while the sharks were there this year, there didn’t seem to be as numerous as in years past. In fact, Roca Partida overall seemed a bit quieter than usual. Even Beto said, “Roca hasn’t been Roca this season.”

Cabo Pearce was a different story – maybe even MORE active than in years past – and that’s where we were treated to a special shark sighting: Señor Big as the Mexicans would say, more commonly known as a Whale Shark. This sighting also underscores the value of occasionally remembering to look out into the blue.

I was about 60 feet deep along the wall shooting a Bicolor Parrotfish, a pretty common reef fish, when I glanced seaward. I spotted a shadow off in the distance, coming down the wall, maybe 20 feet higher than I was, and knew right away what it was. It was far enough away that I could see the path it was taking and was able to position myself so that the Whale Shark was going to glide right over the top of me.

As I was formulating this story in my head, I estimate that the time from when I spotted the Whale Shark to when it passed on by me was about a minute. This also underscores the old adage about luck, which defines luck as “preparation meets opportunity.” I knew my lenses, I knew my camera settings, I knew the general behavior of the animal, and I had time and was able to put myself in a position to squeeze off some acceptable shots.

As the Whale Shark, which I’d estimate at 30 feet long, passed over me, it also underscored how these animals – the largest fish in the world – are swimming ecosystems. As best I can tell from the pictures, there were upwards of 30-40 remoras attached to the Whale Shark and 8-10 Black Jacks swimming along. The Whale Shark doesn’t benefit from the presence of any of these hitchhikers but they don’t hurt the animal either. The assumption is that they’re hanging out either using the Whale Shark as camouflage or hoping to make a meal out of his scraps. Sort of like seeing the President of the United States go by, surrounded by his entourage and Secret Service detail. Way cool.

But that wasn’t the coolest thing that happened to us to this trip. That designation is left for our dolphin encounter. And this experience also illustrates how an absolutely forgettable dive can turn into a memorable one in an instant.

We were diving at Punta Tosca on the west side of Socorro Island. In 2021, this was the site where we had three mantas hang with us for about 45 minutes so it certainly had potential. But it didn’t live up to it on this dive. You know it’s not an exciting dive when the highlight is watching Goatfish root through the sand with their barbels. In fact, only 30 minutes into the dive, I was ready to give up and head towards the surface.

Now as luck would have it, my Group 1 was rounding a corner from one direction and Group 2 was coming at us from the opposite direction. So all of our divers were in generally the same spot. I signaled to my buddy that I was going to go up and starting ascending. I happened to glance towards the bottom to see what others were doing, and I noticed something odd. In fact, it looked like there was a dead dolphin, lying on its back, on the bottom.

“How sad,” I thought. I knew the dolphin was deep, around 90 feet, so I glanced at my air (around 1100 psi) and my available no-deco time (9 minutes) and decided to head back down and investigate. But on my way down . . . I thought I saw the “dead” dolphin move just slightly. “Maybe just the surge,” I thought to myself. But when I settled down next to him at 93 feet to see what was what, I swear he opened his eye, glanced at me, and then quickly shut his eye again.

This dolphin wasn’t dead, he was faking it!!!

And once there were three or four of us on the bottom, guess who opened his eyes – and I swear it seems like he smirked as well – and started swimming around??? The “dead” dolphin was not only quite alive but was also apparently a prankster, faking his death to lure the divers to come down to see him.

What followed was a most magical seven minutes. All the other divers saw what was happening and they all came over to take a look. We’d also moved somewhat shallower now (60 feet) so there was less of a concern about bottom time. The dolphin was quite calm and swam at a normal speed from diver to diver, looking at everyone and giving everyone a chance to look at him. He was nibbling on fins, getting in diver’s faces, allowing some people to actually touch him, and just generally interacting with everyone in the group. At one point, he even rocketed to the surface, leapt out of the water, and then came straight back down to us and resumed his interactions. It was absolutely a lifetime highlight dive for every single person on the dive. (Sadly, two of our divers skipped this dive and were on the boat.) But this experience also underscores how quickly a dive can go from why-am-I-wasting-my-time to I-will talk-about-this-forever in an instant.

And for two of our divers and one of the guides, there was one more highlight to come. Because as they went up to their safety stop under their Zodiac, separated from the other divers by maybe 50 yards, the dive guide suddenly and excited pointed behind where they were looking. And when the two divers turned around, they were graced with the sight of a female Humpback Whale and her calf, along with a male escort, calmly and silently making their way past the safety stop trio. Take about a topper!!!

So will we go back to Socorro again? You betcha!!! Will it be with Nautilus? Absolutely!!! Should you have this on your list of places to go? Without a doubt!!! Should you go with Reef Seekers? (You do see the pattern here, don’t you?) No question about it.

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