SEA OF CORTEZ - OCTOBER, 2006

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

It may seem like salesmanship to start off a report saying "This was one of our best Baja trips ever" but we're really not trying to pull a P.T. Barnum. We love coming down to this area of the world, we think the diving's terrific, we love the boat and the crew, and we could probably have lousy diving and still walk away with a good experience. But we really did have some special encounters this year which we will share with you momentarily.

One of the big changes this year is that getting to La Paz from Los Angeles has changed since AeroCalifornia is not yet flying again internationally. But this also worked in our favor because the AeroMexico flight was non-stop and left in the middle of the afternoon. It was also a smaller plane (an Embraer ERJ-145 - it's sort of the like a big personal jet) which meant somewhat limited overhead storage (but we found you could wedge bags under empty seats). But on a full flight, you might have to check larger carry-on bags at the gate.

A couple of the valuable AeroMexico lessons should be shared with you.

If you're flying from LAX, despite what they'll tell you on the phone, do NOT go to Terminal 5 to check in. Their check-in counter is actually at the north end of Terminal 6 (look for the AeroMexico sign as you pull up to the terminal) and then you walk back to Terminal 5 to go to the gate. The other thing we learned is that their planes (at least this one) are freeeeeezing!!!! We were all thankful that we'd packed sweatpants and sweatshirts in our carry-ons.

Also be aware that these planes have overhead storage, but it's a bit smaller than you're used to because the plane is smaller. (The seating configuration is a single window seat, the aisle, then two seats aisle/window.) There's not a lot of room under the seat either but we were able - since the plane was only half-full on the way down - to take our carry-ons and stick them under some of the empty seats so it all worked out. However, on the flight home, not only did we have to plead about carrying on things like camera bags, but about forty-five checked bags (including many of ours) didn't make it on to the flight due to weight problems. So there's an upside and a downside to all of this. (But on the positive side, I'd much rather be missing a bag on the way home than on the flight in.)

We were 14 strong this year: Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Lisa Mercier & Jay Lark, Jim & Diana Cooper, Ron Klaver & Diana Parks, Dave Cooley, Charlie Pincus, James Childress, Susan Oder, Tamar Toister, and trip leader and Reef Seekers co-owner Ken Kurtis (who's writing this report). About half the people were veterans of previous trips. Elisabeth held the record with her 8th trip with us on the Don Jose.

Speaking of which . . .

Much as we love the boat, it needs some work. Most of the problems were created by Hurricane John when it passed through La Paz in early September. During the storm (which generated waves that toppled the light beacon that sat on top of La Reina - check out the pictures for the photo), winds gusted through and under the second-deck canopy that shades the gear lockers. That in turn caused it to act like a sail, and it literally ripped out of the deck, taking railing and some of the deck support with it, and careened across the marina, barely missing some boats along the way. A temporary canopy has been constructed out of piping and plastic tarp, but this is something they're going to have to fix.

The boat could also use a new exterior paint job (purely cosmetic) but also probably needs to have the hull scrapped as even Jose (the captain) commented that the boat was running slower. But this is likely all things that can be accomplished during their scheduled haulout in December and although there's significant work to be done in a short period of time, we're sure they'll get the task accomplished.

The crew consisted of many old friends and some new ones too. Jose Lozano is still the captain, and the epitome of the type of man you want taking you around these waters. Even though I don't think he's ever been diving in his life, he knows where the good spots are, where the currents are, and even where the fish are likely to be.

Also back with us this year are panga drivers Luis & Felix, along with engineer Hernan. It's always a pleasure to see them again and share stories and laughter during the entire week. They're really like family to us. And we were also happy to once again see Benny, the chef's assistant

New to us this year was chef Juan Carlos. Although he normally did the kayaking trips, he's now ensconced on the Don Jose, replacing Enrique, who's now cooking on the Solmar. Juan Carlos did an admirable job with everything getting gobbled up at each meal. The food offerings, all with a very Mexican flair to them, were a bit simpler than in the past, but there were still many nice touches with garnishes and presentations, and one of the highlights was on Friday night, when we not only had a sumptuous buffet, but also got to choose from 11 different salsas, all of which Juan Carlos had created from scratch.

Also new to us this year was divemaster Peter Schalkwijk. He's a native Mexican but with a Dutch father (hence the last name) and although we'd met him in the past, had never been diving with him. Peter was a wonderful addition this year, very knowledgeable about the area, very knowledgeable about marine life, did just about every dive with us, and was always happy to buddy up with someone or escort people to specific areas.

One great thing about this kind of a trip is that we structure it so that not everyone is diving in exactly the same place at the same time. Because we pull into an area (say, Los Islotes) and use the Don Jose as a mothership, we have numerous options of either diving from the boat or diving from the pangas, which essentially serve like water taxis all day. That means we can put a group of divers on spot A, another group on spot B, and yet another group on spot C, and then compare notes as to what was going on after each group has completed their dive. It's a great way to maximize the diving possibilities in the elusive hunt for underwater wildlife.

Overall, the conditions were pretty good. We had an overcast day on our first day out but it was sunny every day after that with air temps in the upper 80s and low 90s and the water temperature generally around 85ļ (with a couple of 82s and even an 80 - BRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!). Visibility ranged anywhere from 30 feet to well over 100 feet with the vis improving generally as we got further into the week, but almost always better in the mornings and falling off as the day wore on.

Currents weren't too bad and ranged anywhere from very strong to non-existent. But once you learn to use the bottom topography to shield you from the flow, you find that you can dive in very strong currents. And if the current is TOO strong, you simply drift with it, and have the pangas come pick you up at the end of your dive to bring you back to the boat. (Luis & Felix are fabulous at spotting divers on the surface.)

We had some exceptional dives this year that included enormous schools of fish as well as a few hammerheads, marlin, and even dolphin. The phrase we'd heard in recent weeks from other groups was that the fish life was exploding, and that certainly seemed an apt description as we encountered some schools of fish so big and thick that you couldn't see your buddy if he/she was more than a few feet away.

We started Monday morning at Los Islotes, which is well-known for having probably the friendliest and most inquisitive sea lion colony in the world. They certainly didn't disappoint. We were also able to locate Blue-Spotted Jawfish, watched a Panamic Moray Eel and a Grasby duke it out over territorial rights to a certain hole, and encountered large schools of Sergeant Majors, Creole Wrasse, and even Needlefish.

Islotes was also the first chance I had to use my Nikon D200 in my new Ikelite housing. The verdict is pretty simple: I LOVE SHOOTING WITH THIS CAMERA!!!!

You'll be the ultimate judge when you look at the images I'm posting along with this report but I found shooting with the D200 to be a fabulous step up over shooting with the Nikon D70 (which I also loved). The biggest and most noticeable change is the 2.5" LCD screen on the back of the D200. Not only does this make viewing your images easier, but the screen has much better resolution that on the D70 as well as a wider viewing angle so the picture doesn't get lighter or darker as you change your viewing angle.

Here's one important photo lesson I learned on this trip: Trust the histogram implicitly. The histogram is a graphical display that's superimposed over your displayed image and it shows the range of light, medium, and dark pixels in your shot. Simply put, it's tells you if you have a good exposure or not. If the graph is too far to the left, the picture's too dark and you need to open up your exposure. If the graph's too far to the right, then you need to close down a bit. The histogram is a really valuable tool to help you get exposures spot-on (especially when shooting with flashes in manual mode, as I do) and will rival even the best TTL systems.

The D200 also seems to focus faster than the D70, has a slightly better exposure system, and allows you to more easily access and change other functions (like ISO and focus area) to improve your shots. A lot of this is facilitated by the housing, which is my case was the new Ikelite D200 model which I loved as much as the camera. It's very similar to their D70 housing (which I also used) so it already had a familiar feel to it. My only concern going in was that the shutter release lies right alongside the knob to change aperture and I thought the latter might get in the way. But that didn't prove to be the case and once I got familiar with the controls, everything felt like second nature.

(I also will again publicly thank my sister Sue, who made both of these items a gift to me, the D200 for Christmas and the Ikelite housing for my birthday. Not only nice gifts from a nice sister, but they've also greatly improved the quality of what I can produce underwater. Thank you again, Susie.)

And while I'm in a thanking mode, I should also put in a word of thanks to Jim Kane of Nikon in El Segundo, who stepped in a week before the trip when I was having some issues that werenít getting resolved with both of my Nikon SB-105s. Jim replaced them with brand new units. Thank you, Jim, as well, as having flashes that fired properly and exposed evenly and consistently made shooting a hell of a lot easier than it had been in previous months.

Back to the diving.

Our second day we motored north to Las Animas, which is always one of my favorites spots. Given the remoteness of the area, I'd estimate it sees no more than 200-300 divers a year. And it's got a lot of great dives sites within a relatively small area.

Visibility wasn't so good when we got there, perhaps no more than 40 feet. Lack of a current probably played in to this because it improved a bit as the day wore on. But we were delighted to have a school of Big-Eyed Jacks literally block out the sun as they circled over our heads when we were diving the Pinnacles (on the east side of Animas). In fact, the water was so calm that the south end of the Pinnacles, where I usually find Barnacle Blennies and juvy Giant Hawkfish, was like a lake and presented some of the easiest and calmest shooting conditions I've ever had with these little guys (significant because you have to shoot them in less than 10 feet of water and the surge trying to drag you across barnacle-covered rocks is never a fun thing.)

We also had a great dive down the middle of the eastern wall with Jim & Diana, where we started in the middle of the island in a small cut in the rock that goes back into a cavern-like area, and then just drifted down to the SE corner of Animas. This was only exceeded by the night dive we did that night, also on the eastern wall but this time starting at the NE corner, when we saw hundreds of Tubastrea corals open for the evening, some huge Ocean Triggerfish tucked away into cracks, numerous eels (including a Slenderjaw Moray), an enormous Yellowtail Surgeonfish (rare for the area), and ended up with Needlefish on the surface who were zooming about trying to snatch a meal.

Wednesday morning we decided to try our luck at San Diegito, a small reef that barely breaks the surface a mile or two off San Diego island. Although this has been good to us in the past, it was so-so on this day. Vis was under 30 feet, and the water temperature dropped a few degrees as well. But we were able to find the cave/swim-through at the end of the reef and when we emerged we were inundated by a school of jacks who came at warp speed out of nowhere, zoomed on by about as fast as they could swim, and who just kept coming and coming and coming. To make the dive even more special, Jim Cooper found a large turtle who was nestled under a rocky ledge and who was quite content to sit still while we snapped pictures.

A second dive saw conditions stay the same so we decided to motor back to Animas (about eight miles away) while we had lunch. What a difference a day makes. We would encounter visibility that exceeded 100 feet and gave us the type of blue water that divers dream about.

But first, let's talk about the dolphins.

As we were gearing up to go in, a school of about a dozen or so were milling about, probably feeding (based on their movements) as we dropped anchor in the main cove. By the time I got in the panga to do my dive, the dolphins had moved a bit south of us, but still weren't too far away. So I asked Felix if he could take me out there and I'd attempt to see if I could snorkel with the pod.

They didn't let me get too close but they'd stay about 30-40 feet away (which was close enough to see them and vice versa) and would look me over. I had Felix run the panga by them to pick them up on the bow wake and then bring them by me but as soon as they sensed me in the water, they'd break off, as if to say, "We're dolphins!!! We're too smart to fall for that ruse!!!" I wasn't able to get off any shots but I was able to view them and could hear them echo-locating each time they came near me and that was pretty neat.

So Felix picked me up and took me over to Seal Rock where I was amazed at how much the conditions had improved just from the day before. And it got even more interesting on two counts.

The first was a rare animal sighting - that of a juvy Clarion Angelfish. Clarions donít normally range very far north into the Sea of Cortez so to see one this far north (Animas is about another 80 miles north of La Paz) was rare in and of itself. To see a juvenile, was even rarer. I was only able to snap one picture of the fish before it ducked away (and we couldnít find it again on a subsequent dive). And . . . GRRRRRR . . . the fish is out of focus, so I'm not posting it on our website. But the image is decent enough to confirm itís a Clarion and if anyone wants to see it, just e-mail me directly at kenkurtis@aol.com and Iíll be happy to forward it to you.

The other interesting thing on this dive was environmental. My plan was to circle the rock clockwise, starting down the west face, cruising across the northern shelf (where I hoped to maybe spot some hammerheads) and then work my way up the east side for the pickup.

As I dropped, I was amazed/impressed/pleased to see that the vis had cleared up remarkably and that we easily had 100'+. Once again, the water is that mystical shade of blue that ever diver dreams about. But what was really interesting is that as I made my way across the north face, the vis dropped as I progressed, so that by the time I made my turn to go down the eastern side, the vis was easily cut in half and there was noticeable particulate in the water. I assume this was from a current that was running up along the eastern side of the island (reports were that the vis on the Pinnacles - also on the eastern side of Animas - was not so good) but it was very interesting and unusual to basically be at the spot where it was changing and see what a dramatic difference moving a hundred yards in either direction can make.

We wrapped up the day by staying on the western side of the island and diving around the same sea lion haulout rock that marks the SW corner of the anchorage, where we not only continued to enjoy the clean water but also found a huge vertical crevice in the reef that I remember seeing on previous nights dives and fund that it contained a Panamic Moray Eel which was probably 5-6 feet long about as thick as my leg AND, much further back, an enormous lobster that could probably feed a family of four.

We left Animas just before sunset and motored south so that we could start Thursday morning at one of the signature dives in the Sea of Cortez, El Bajo, an underwater plateau about 10 miles east of Los Islotes, and which rises from the deep sea to a depth of about 60 feet.

El Bajo is comprised of three main seamounts and many smaller pinnacles. The Don Jose usually anchors on the middle mount and then you're left to explore any of the three mounts. As this is one of the places where large-animal encounters are frequent, itís a crapshoot as to which mount you choose to dive first. I havenít been having much luck the past few years but figured my luck was bound to change this year, so my group decided to dive the south mount, since there had been some hammerhead sightings there the previous week. And the visibility was phenomenal - easily 100-150 feet so we could see all around us. If there were any hammerheads in the vicinity, we were sure to spot them.

But not everything always goes as hoped. As the Grail Knight said in the closing sequence of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade about the guy working for the Nazis who was trying to figure out which cup was the Holy Grail, "He has chosen . . . poorly."

We got skunked again. And, of course, we came back to a boat that was raving about the sighting of THREE hammerheads and TWO marlin, all within the first five minutes or so of their dive between the middle and the northern mount. Well, what are you going to do? But that doesn't mean El Bajo isn't an interesting dive. Far from it.

This year it was once again - especially on the middle mount - swarming with life. Charlie Pincus and I had a fabulous dive. As I wrote in my dive log: "The fish life is amazing. Dozens of King Angels and Yellowtail Surgeons are surrounded by thousands of Scissortails. All the fish are pulsing in and out and defining the rhythm of the reef against the gorgeous blue background of the kind of water that we all dream about. The amount of fish is just amazing and more than makes up for not seeing the hammers and the marlin."

Because of the depths, we only spend the morning at El Bajo, then scoot over to Los Islotes to wrap up the day and do a night dive. Although I didnít dive El Bajito (a smaller shallow mount just west of Islotes) the divers who went there said the joint was jumping. And I got to play with some juvy sea lions that hang in a small shallow cavern as well as was surrounded by a large school of needlefish.

Our night dive didnít turn out quite as planned due to a rather rude (in our opinion) group who we shared the site with. Due to a current, we were somewhat limited in what we felt comfortable doing for the night dive. The plan was to start on the back side of the tunnel that runs through the big rock on the eastern side of Islotes, pop out the front, and then let the current move us back to wards the Don Jose. So far, so good.

But this other group decided to start on the front of the tunnel. No big deal but one of the etiquette rules - especially if you're the group leader - is to place nice with other divers in the same area. Not these guys. Not only were they are armed with lights that were rather blinding (which they insisted on continually waving to and fro - think of the scene in ET where they're searching through the woods and all you see are the flashlight beams) but they paid no attention to other divers and literally pushed our people out of the way (or knocked them into rocks) as they bulled their way through. And if that wasn't bad enough, once they went through the tunnel . . . they turned around and came back through again. Of course, it was impossible for them to "sneak" up behind us because not only did their lights give them away, but they were all working so hard and breathing so hard (Darth Vader immediately came to mind) that you could hear them coming. It really took a lot of the pleasure out of the night dive. Their boats were unmarked so we don't know where they were from.

But we made up for all of that Friday with some phenomenal dives at La Reina, a site just north of the island of Cerralvo. La Reina is a little speck of rock and, because it sits near the shipping lanes, it's marked with a metal tower that has a light on top of it. At least, that was the case until Hurricane John roared through. Supposedly, the winds generated a series of enormous waves (someone said 35 feet but I don't think that's possible) that toppled the tower like it was made of tin. So now it just lays on it's side, almost touching the water, usually with a sea gull or brown booby perched on top.

Fortunately, the diving has not suffered the same fate as the tower.

One of the attractions at La Reina in the past few years has been a very large school of Scad (a small mackerel) that blanket the reef. Diving with them is really amazing. A few years earlier, this was also the spot where we would regularly spot mantas. So I decided that, rather than join the main group looking for the schooling scad, I'd make my first dive (with Diana Parks) and head a bit north just to make sure there were no mantas plying the area.

Diana and I jumped in and started making our way across a rubble field at a depth of about 85 feet. (The visibility was really good, too, probably close to 80 feet or even more.) As I recalled, once across this field, you then came to a series of ridges and valleys where the mantas would cruise. And sure enough, in a few minutes, we can upon a hazy apparition in front of us that appeared to be a large mountainous ridge line of the reef.

Except . . . it moved. And the moved again. And as we got closer, we saw that what we were seeing in the distance was NOT part of the reef, but absolutely without question the largest single school of fish that anyone could ever expect to see in one place. We had hit the Mother Lode of Schooling Scad.

The fish were packed in tightly and pulsed as one. The extended from a foot or so off the bottom at 85 feet upward for a good 40 feet or so. And as far as we could look to our left, and as far as we could look to our right, the school continued. And we have no idea how far across it was because they were thick enough that they literally blocked out light. And even as we swam into the school and the school closed ranks behind us, we never hit the other side.

Remember that scene in Jaws where Roy Scheider first sees the shark and utters, "We're gonna need a bigger boat"? Well, the first thing I thought of was, "I'm gonna need a wider lens." (And I was already equipped with an 18mm one.) There was simply no way to adequately shot the entire school to give you any idea of it enormity.

And while Diana and I hit the big school, others found schools of scad all over the reef. And we even had a final dive that day where we all dove together as one big group and sat in a cut in the reef while the scad streamed on by us left and right. There were plenty of other things to see at La Reina (like Moorish Idols and frolicking sea lions) but the scad make it a truly amazing and must-do dive if youíre down in that area.

Our final morning of diving was spent at Suwannee Reef, a shallow area not too far from La Paz and once where we get some large schools of goatfish, Spottail Grunts, and others, all being cleaned in the early-morning hours by Barberfish and Mexican Hogfish. (And there are hundreds of Garden Eels too.) While the number of fish is not nearly of the magnitude of La Reina, itís still pretty impressive and the fish are a bit more spread out, a lot less frantic, and much more attuned to having divers in their midst. It's also neat to watch the Goatfish signal theyíre ready to be cleaned a they assume the traditional head-down position, but also turn a shade of crimson to let the cleaners know they're ready to be groomed. And to cap all of this off, this also marked the occasion of Diana Cooperís 300th dive, which we commemorated photographically underwater.

After that, it was time to pack up and motor back to La Paz. We checked into Los Arcos, wandered around town a bit, enjoyed our traditional post-trip meal at La Paz Lapa, wandered around a bit more (La Paz on a Saturday night is very much like American Graffiti with lots of cruising going on and all the restaurants playing music while everyone has a good time), and then settled in for our noon flight back to LA.

It was a great trip except for the ending. Our AeroMexico flight was full and, due to weight restrictions, they didn't/couldn't load all the bags. Although they told us this in La Paz (and promised the bags would be delivered to us the next day) it turned out that out of about 60 people on board, they only took perhaps half the luggage. Just about everyone on the flight didnít get at least one bag and many people didnít get either of their bags. In talking with some of the US Customs people in LA about this, they let us know that this is a frequent occurrence with some of the AeroMexico flights on these smaller planes. So be aware.

But other than that, a good time was had by all. We got in up to 23 dives over the course of the week (I actually did 25 because I squeezed in two extra ones) and saw some sights that will live in our minds for a long time. And we're eagerly looking forward to going back next year, which will mark the 20th Anniversary of Reef Seekers diving the Sea of Cortez (October 7-14). Wanna come along and be part of the fun?


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