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

We've developed a saying about our annual trips to the Sea of Cortez and Baja: If we didn't like it so much, we wouldn't keep going back. And this year - our 20th annual visit - was no exception. Of course, no two trips are ever the same and there are always things unplanned, both good and not-so-good. But you learn to deal with things and roll with the flow.

Our group this year consisted of a number of veterans of the trip and a few newbies. The veterans included Audrey & Marlow Anderson, Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Dave Cooley, Betsy Suttle, Marilyn Lawrence, Kathryn Traweek, Susan Oder, Linda Gorman, and myself. The newbies (for this trip) were Robert Morgan, Lisette Lieberman, Tabby Stone & Linda Takvorian, and Denise Levien-Lawrence.

We flew down on a Delta non-stop which was terrific. The only downside was that because it's a commuter-size jet, there's not a lot of overhead storage and they made a number of us check our bigger carry-ons at the door of the plane. But at least the bags were handed back to us as soon as we disembarked in La Paz. We had the clearest weather I've ever experienced on these flights to La Paz so we had spectacular views of Los Angeles, Catalina, San Diego, the Coronados, Ensenda, and other highlights as we winged our way south.

We discovered something new upon landing. No more Red Light/Green Light, at least not in La Paz. If you're flown into Mexico before, you know that at Customs, you push a button on a stoplight (literally). A green light means you go through and a red light means they open each of your bags. In 20 years of doing this trip, I've never once gotten a red light. So each year I wonder if my luck will hold out. This year, even though the stoplight is still there, they weren't using it. You now put all your bags (including carry-on) through a large x-ray machine, hand in your customs form, and off you go. I didn't see them open a single bag of the 50+ passengers from our flight.

We were met at the La Paz airport by longtime Baja Expeditions Divemaster (and good friend) Kevin White, who arranged for bags and people to be quickly transported to the Don Jose, our home for the coming week.

I thought the boat looked great. Last year, there was a hurricane two weeks before we arrived and there were problems that needed to be fixed. That's all been taken care of. Much of the top deck has been rebuilt, some creaky railings have been replaced by solid low walls, two wetsuit hanging bars have been installed along the side of the upper deck, and much of the upper area of the boat have been repainted.

They also reconfigured two of the middle rooms on the main deck so that these rooms, which used to have four single bunks, now have a lower double bunk, a lower very small single bunk (at four-and-a-half feet long too small for a person but great for storage), and two upper singles. There's a wooden ladder to let you get into the upper bunks. It takes a little finagling to figure out where to put hands and legs to make it all work but you'll quickly adapt to it.

All the rooms are air-conditioned (but they only fire up the air at night and turn it off in the morning) and there are drawers and small closets in each. The only exception to that is the upper port stateroom, which lacks drawers so storage space there is a bit limited. The showers and heads (three each) are shared, which didn’t present any problems during our trip.

The Don Jose is certainly not an Aggressor-style boat. I usually describe it as “charming” and I mean that in a very good way. It’s very comfortable, well-built, rides well (even is a swell), is sturdy, and gets the job done. Nothing fancy, but that's not really needed to ply these waters.

One of the things that makes these trips such a joy is not only the diving (which I'll get to in a minute) but the crew on board the Don Jose. Captain Jose, pangeros Luis & Felix, and engineer Hernan have been on the boat for as long as I can remember. And there's a definite comfort level that we all have with each other that enhances our trip. They know us very well and we know them well and we're all very happy to see each other. There's a good-natured teasing and joking that goes on all week and we're just all happy to spend time together. That overall feeling makes for a great trip no matter what the diving might bring.

The two "new" guys are Benny and Juan Carlos who handle the kitchen duties. Juan Carlos is the chef, Benny is the sous chef and assistant, and they outdid themselves this year. We were always big fans of the previous cooks, Roberto and Enrique, and last year - Juan Carlos' first with us - was OK but not spectacular. Not so this year. The food was fabulous and any hopes of losing weight quickly went out the window. Breakfasts were generally fairly simple meals but lunches always started with hot soup followed by hearty fare, and dinners were equally tasty and nicely-presented. With the exception of one meal, all the food is served to you so you simply sit down and the food magically appears before you. On Thursday night, there was a shrimp dish that could have been served in any 5-star restaurant. (And wait until we tell you about the beach party dinner . . .)

Both Benny and Juan Carlos do a fabulous job of keeping track of food preferences and needs. We had a couple of vegetarians on board, a few people who didn't really want fish, and someone (me) who doesn't like eggs or mushrooms. So anytime meals called for those things, the people who didn't want them were given something different. On mornings where they served eggs, they'd make me a cheese quesadilla. For those who didn't want fish, they got chicken. The vegetarians were equally taken care of. And on our final dinner on board, when there was a green bean dish and a mashed potato dish that both had mushrooms, which I don’t like. They almost forbade me to eat them and had prepared separate mushroom-less versions just for me. So they take really good care of us.

One thing no one can control is the weather. I had checked the forecasts preceding our trip and all looked good. And while we did have spectacular weather all week, the water conditions were not as spectacular as in the past. This was due mainly to north winds blowing (they usually don't start until November) and it mucks things up. In general throughout the week, we had waters temps that were in the mid-80s (usually around 86º), vis that was anywhere from 20-80’ (40-60 was the norm), and air temps that were around 90º. It was sunny the whole week but, as you'll see, the wind helped us discover some new treasures.

Our first stop was at Los Islotes, well-known for all the sea lions that hang out there. When we got there, the north wind had made much of the area undiveable. But we were still able to get in three dives over the course of the day and the sea lions were their usual gregarious selves. I've said over the years that the sea lion encounters at Los Islotes are probably the best you’ll find anywhere in the world and I still hold to that thought. But first, you have to make your way through the schooling Mackerel Scad.

The Scad, which started appearing a few years ago, are now as thick as I've ever seen them. They literally will block out the light when they pass over your head. There must be millions of them. There are certainly places you’ll go where there aren't any Scad, but then you'll run into the school a short distance away and it’ll be five minutes before you're clear of them. And it's fascinating to watch not only the ebb and flow of the fish but also to watch the predators that hunt them. Snappers, Jacks, and even sea lions will zip through the school trying to get a snack, and the fish open a hole when the attack is taking place and then close it up right after the predator goes by. Really interesting to see. And because the Scad stay mainly in the shallows - rarely deeper than 40 feet - you can literally watch the drama for as long as your air supply will last.

My favorite dive on this day was when I went to a little cave that we refer to as the Sea Lion Cave. The entrance is only about 10 feet deep and there are always juvie sea lions, usually with an adult female close by, who frolic in the cave. They don't always come out of the cave but if you plant yourself at the front of the opening, their curiosity will get the best of them and they’ll come to investigate you. And I hit the mother lode this time.

There must have been a dozen playful and curious juvies inside. They were fascinated by my external strobes, either because of the flash of light itself or the orange color. I spent about an hour perched inside with all of these sea lions had a field day with me (and I with them) and they would check me out, nip at my fins, gnaw on my strobes, pose for pictures, tug on my hand, and stuff like that. If you like pinnipeds, you've got to go here. The Sea Lion Cave offers a unique memorable encounter you’ll find nowhere else in the world.

At the end of day one, the north wind was still blowing, which knocked out Las Animas for Day 2. But there was another plan afoot. Jose, along with Baja Expeditions La Paz office manager Rafa Caballero, has decided that to celebrate our 20th annual trip here, our first night's dinner should be a beach party.

So the Don Jose pulled into a protected anchorage and we were amazed to see a large tent, chairs, barbeque, and coolers already set up for us on the beach. On top of that, Rafa has hired a woman singer (backed up with a guitar and rhythm) to serenade us during our meal. Juan Carlos came in to do the cooking and - despite the presence of mosquitoes, who at least had the good manners to leave us alone after the sun went down - we had an incredible feast on the beach, complete with a spectacular sunset, and a music show. (And we all marveled at how talented the singer was.) It put a wonderful cap on our first day.

Tuesday we decided to try something new. Rather than go back for the day at Los Islotes, we decided to visit the wreck of the Fang Ming. This is a ship that was seized about 5 years ago and deliberately sunk, along with two other boats, as an artificial reef along the west side of Espiritu Santo Island. We had visited one of the other wrecks two years ago and were less than impressed. So started the dive with a bit of skepticism. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

Simply put the Fang Ming has become a world-class must-see dive. If you are in La Paz and you do not dive the Fang Ming at least once, you've missed an incredible opportunity. I think it ranks up there with the Yongala in Australia.

Basically, the Fang Ming has become a fish magnet since it's the only structure on a flat sandy bottom. The ship sits upright in 75-feet of water and comes up as shallow (on the kingposts) as about 15 feet. You can dive it at almost any depth you want. And it has become the home to perhaps a million (or more) Anchovies who swarm above the deck, in the holds, and have generally taken over the wreck. That, in turn, has attracted numerous Amarillo Snappers, Green Jacks, and Skipjacks, who constantly hunt through the school trying to get a meal. In addition, Yellow-polyp Black Coral grows on hull, gray sponges (with Bluebanded Gobies inside) adorn the rudder, schools of grunts and goatfish ply the sand, Leopard Groupers patrol the edges of the wreck, and Cortez Wrasses flit about. It's simply a great dive.

On top of all of that, numerous holes have been cut in the wreck so you can explore its 300-foot length from the outside or from the inside. And even inside the wreck, you may be in for a surprise.

As we started our first dive, there was a lone sea lion hanging around our descent buoy. About 20 minutes later, after having explored the exterior, I entered the side of the ship through a cut hole. Imagine my surprise to find our sea lion buddy inside the hold. He was floating at the ceiling, sipping on the air pockets that get trapped inside the ship as divers explore. He was surrounded by the anchovies and seemed quite comfortable just hanging out there. Quite an unusual sight.

We had an interesting encounter on our second dive as well. I had my nose in the sand off the side of the wreck when I heard what sounded like an explosion. Then I heard it again, and again, and again. I looked up to see someone banging on the side of the wreck and motioning to me. Swimming up to him, I realized that it was none other than Kevin Rottner from the California Wreck Divers, also in La Paz but not part of our group, and he was signaling by banging on the wreck with a huge wrench he was carrying. How he knew it was me I haven’t asked him yet but we’ve both got another good story to tell now.

Wednesday morning found us pulling into Las Animas after a slightly bumpy ride to get there, and we anchored along the south wall, as that gave us protection from the still-blowing (but calmer) north wind and the chop and swell it was generating. I chose to start my dive at Seal Rock, knowing it would have very rough surface conditions, but hoping it would be easier underwater. Plus I wanted to look for (1) a juvy Clarion Angelfish I'd spotted last year, and (2) Hammerhead Sharks. (And I struck out on all counts.) But we did see huge schools of Goatfish, Garden Eels in the sand, Scissortail Damsels, fields of healthy sea fans, and plenty of King Angelfish.

We started as a group of five, myself with a buddy and three others as a second buddy team. We'd agreed beforehand that we didn't need to stay together as a large group but would stay together as a twosome and a threesome. So I wasn’t too concerned 15 minutes into the dive when I no longer could see the other three. My buddy and I finished up the dive at the intended pickup point at the attended time. Given the surface chop, we became a bit concerned when the other three weren't on the surface soon after us. We kept watch for about 10 minutes, discussing the possibilities of where they could be (there was also a current running) when we saw the second panga making a pick-up at the Pinnacles, a good quarter-to-half-mile away from Seal Rock. We went over there and it was our other three divers.

It seems that the current had carried them away from Seal Rock and although we had a general plan to circle the rock, they weren't sure exactly where they were and were having trouble re-locating the rock. They finally surfaced when our agreed-upon bottom time had expired. No one was the worse for wear and it underscores a couple of things about diving in general and diving Las Animas in particular.

For one, the incident illustrates how good Luis and Felix are as the panga drivers for the Don Jose. Luis was hanging out by the Pinnacles as he had dropped some divers off already and was going to wait in the area. Felix had waited up by Seal Rock. They're both very good at spotting bubbles and Luis had noticed the bubbles of the wayward threesome and was in position to pick them up when they surfaced.

The dive also underscores why you need a dive plan and contingencies if the plan goes awry. The threesome had surfaced at the agreed-upon time and that's probably the biggest factor because we expected them on the surface at that time. They followed the bottom contour rather than just going out in to the blue and that was good too since it didn’t give them a deco obligation. (Bear in mind, we’re 80 miles away from the nearest chamber which is back in La Paz.) And they stayed together which was also good. So there are good lessons to walk away with from this but it also underscores the need to have respect for any dive, regardless of the conditions, and not to just assume things will be easy or go correctly.

The rest of the day was pleasantly uneventful with most divers staying out of the choppy areas for the rest of the day, and working primarily rhe south wall at Animas and the Pinnacles. There's plenty to see there including lots of Yellowtail Surgeonfish, eels, a swimthrough at the north end of the Pinnacles, baby Yellow Tangs, and plenty more.

This day also gave me my biggest personal frustration on the trip which can simply be summed up by saying it's rather hard to shoot digital pictures on the night dive when you've left your CF card (Compact Flash - not the other use of “CF” although it fits) sitting on the camera table. It's the equivalent of taking down a conventional camera and forgetting to load in the film. Doh!!!!

We spent a second day at Las Animas and also performed minor surgery on Marilyn Lawrence’s fins. It seems that the foot pockets had started cracking and would quickly become unusable if something wasn’t done. And it's amazing what kind of healing power Duck Tape can have in these circumstances. We carefully laid down strips to patch the cracks in the fin, and then reinforced everything with larger strips for support. Amazingly, the fins held out for the whole week and you can even see a picture of Marilyn and her magic fins in the pictures that accompany this report.

There’s plenty of good stuff to see at Las Animas. We had schooling Bigeye Trevally (which every refers to as jacks), plenty of Yellowtail Surgeonfish, Needlefish (including a bunch that were getting cleaned by Barberfish), swarms of Cortez Wrasses that group and suddenly dart upwards in a mating frenzy which climaxes with a POOF of sperm & eggs mixing together, plenty of Scissortail Damsels, numerous Cortez and King Angelfish, healthy sea fans and gorgonians, and plenty of other sealife too numerous to mention.

But what we didn’t see much of were Hammerhead Sharks.

Within our entire group of 16 divers, we had two shark encounters, once with a group of four off of the Pinnacles and then a solitary shark at Seal Rock. Other than that, zippo, nada, skunked. This is a marked change from the past

When I first started diving Baja in 1988, you could reliably expect to see Hammerheads at Las Animas and El Bajo. You had to go deep, generally around 100’ or more, but if you made enough dives and stayed long enough, they’d come around, in small groups or large aggregations. But you could pretty reliably count on Hammerhead encounters. Not so now.

I personally made five different dives over three days looking for the sharks. I dove areas where we’ve seen sharks in the past. In each case I spent 15-20 minutes at depths of 80-100’ (and with the visibility, I could see much deeper). But I was shut out.

My personal opinion is that the Hammerheads have been fished out. Shark fishing, sadly, is still legal in the Sea of Cortez and Hammerheads are especially prized for Shark Fin Soup. (And I’ll avoid my rant about what a barbaric practice this is.) Even while we were there, we ran into two fisherman who were going to set a small net in hopes of catching sharks.

The Scalloped Hammerhead is now listed by the World Conservation Union as “endangered”. Interestingly, the main diet for the sharks are mackerel, sardines, and herring. And what have we been seeing more and more of the past few years in Baja? Mackerel, sardines, and herring. And it certainly makes sense that as the shark population dwindles, their prey will multiply and thrive. So much as we marvel at the huge schools of baitfish we saw at Los Islotes and on the Fang Ming, what we may actually be seeing is affirmation of the demise of Hammerhead Sharks in the Sea of Cortez.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see. But if one of your goals is to spot Hammerheads, the Sea of Cortez may no longer be a solid choice. You might do better going to Cocos or the Galapagos. Or simply “settle” for all the other things that the place has to offer.

Our final full day of diving started out at El Bajo, the famous seamount (it’s actually three seamounts bunched closely together) about 10 miles east of Los Islotes. Normally, we make 2-3 dives here. Because of the depths involved - the top of the central mount is around 60 feet and it’s easy to drop down the sides and hit depths in excess of recreational diving depths - you’ve got to watch your bottom time and plan ahead in terms of surface interval and next dive to maximize your diving opportunities.

What complicates the best-laid plans is a current. And what REALLY complicates plans is a rip-roaring current. And that’s what we found once we’d dropped anchor. From my dive log: “Monster current would be an understatement. Almost undiveable. More like a survival dive. Got down (we were dropped ahead of the anchor line and drifted back) and found a place to hold on. I came back early because I was low on air. Lots of work.”

Half the boat decided to let others be the guinea pigs and see what was what and that was a good choice. Once down on the reef, you either ducked in behind rocky ledges to get out of the current or found a spot where you could hold on for dear life. I got out my Reef Hook (with my Hector Hook modification from Palau) but was still buffeted around. And before unhooking, I wanted to make sure I had a good read on where the anchor line was because if you got downstream, it would be almost impossible to get back to it.

Additionally, it just wasn’t a very good dive. The current was bringing a lot of particulate with it so the vis was not the 100’+ we normally get at El Bajo but more like 50’ or so. And there didn’t seem to be as many fish there as there normally are. I attributed this to the fish struggling with the current the same as we were and they were all simply hidden in the reef and tucked away.

Because of the conditions, we decided to bail on El Bajo after the one dive. It was simply too rough and no fun. Before we left, a day-boat from another operation pulled in and started dropping their divers in the water. We watched them struggle as they pulled themselves hand-over-hand to their anchor line.

While all this was going on, another small private boat pulled in and we were perplexed when raucous cheers and applause erupted from this boat, which was sitting right in front of the Don Jose. We couldn’t possibility imagine that these guys were cheering the difficulties of the divers on the other boat. It was perplexing until one of our divers confessed that she and two others were standing up on the second deck of our boat, decided they’d play “Girls Gone Wild in Baja,” and flashed their ta-tas to the appreciative men. Never a dull moment on our trips.

On our ride back to Los Islotes we were very pleased to find a large school of dolphins. We diverted and spent a good half hour with the pod (no diving - just observing from the boat) while the dolphins jumped, tail-slapped, rode our bow wake, and just generally seemed to be having the times of their lives (as dolphins are wont to do).

We spent the afternoon and evening diving Islotes and could now explore the entire island. I had a chance to go hunt one of my favorite photo targets, the Blue-Spotted Jawfish and even found some nuptial males out of their holes trying to attract a female.

And an amazing thing happened at the end of one of these dives. Luis was in the panga picking us up. I handed up my camera while everyone else got in. I then handed up my BC/reg/tank and as I was about to kick up and over the side of the panga, I noticed something floating under the bow of the boat. At first I thought it was a small piece of wood so imagine my surprise when I stuck my head under water and found . . . an adult female sea lion plastered to the bottom of our panga.

She was sort of “hiding” there and Luis said she’d been there for a while. She gave me one of those looks that said “Oooops!!! You caught me!!” But she also let me pet her belly and her chin. She tired of the game after a few minutes and took off. Very cool experience and certainly unusual.

We also had an amazing thing happen as we started our night dive at the east end of Islotes. It was dusk as we descended, engulfed by the school of Scads. As we made our way through them, we realized that they were on the move. Settling in to the bottom at about 40 feet, we could look up and see them silhouetted against the dimly-lit sky and they were simply flying back and forth. First they’d zoom as one to our left and out of sight, and then a few minutes later, come flying back into view and zoom off to the right. This continued for a good ten minutes or so and really made for a fun start to the night dive, which was then capped by the finish when we surfaced to see the spectacular Baja nighttime sky, made even more so by the absence of the moon. Nothing like finishing a dive and saying, “Is that the panga over there under the Milky Way?”

Saturday’s always a short day for diving and we opted to go back to the Fang Ming. It did not disappoint. Vis wasn’t quite as good as before - maybe 20-30 feet - but the baitfish were there, the predators were hunting, and I even managed to find a female Orangethroat Pikeblenny in the sand just off the wreck.

You’d think that after 20 years we’d get bored with this place but that’s simply not the case. Even though the water conditions weren’t as good as we’ve had in the past, this year once again gives us new stories to tell and new encounters to continually replay in our minds. We look forward to going back next year (October 12-19, 2008) and hope our next 20 years with Baja Expeditions and the Don Jose will be as memorable as our first twenty.

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