MEXICO: THE SEA OF CORTEZ, BAJA CALIFORNIA
The undiscovered aquarium of the world
Season: Year-round diving
Water Temperature: 27-30°C/81-86°F in August-September, but as low as 18-21°C/64-70°F in January-February
Diving: Sharks, Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, Sealions, swim-throughs, caves
Snorkeling opportunities available (La Concha Beach Resort)
Re-breather friendly (La Concha Beach resort)
Willing to share option (Rocio del Mar)
Can be combined with Guadalupe Island, Socorro Islands
Non-diving activities include whale watching, exploration of the Baja Californian peninsula
Reaching down into the Pacific Ocean, the unspoilt peninsula of Baja California curls protectively around the Sea of Cortez. The wonderful secrets of Baja are as yet known to relatively few people. Baja is a land of deserts, ancient Spanish missions, remote beaches, superb seafood and long sun-filled days. The Sea of Cortez, studded with rugged islands surrounded by stunning, almost deserted white sand beaches, is one of the biologically richest bodies of water on our planet and has over 800 vertebrate species and 2,000 invertebrates. Here hammerhead sharks school in groups of up to 200 or even an amazing 2,000, colonies of sealions live undisturbed and Grey Whales come to mate, give birth and make their winter home. Few European divers have, as yet, had the opportunity to discover for themselves the amazing, unusual and adventurous diving that the Sea of Cortez has to offer. This unique destination provides excellent opportunities for those interested in marine wildlife, underwater photography or simply the chance to be amongst the first divers to explore a new destination.
Perched on the southeast edge of the district of Baja Sur, the small colonial town of La Paz with its tree-lined boulevards and friendly people offers divers direct access to the semi-tropical waters of the Sea of Cortez. Here you will find a town of glorious landscapes and numerous bars and restaurants serving good seafood or spicy Mexican dishes that can be washed down with excellent local beer and tequila-based cocktails. Splendidly clean and well cared for, La Paz’s rather ramshackle waterfront buildings are surrounded by palm trees and aloes. Scrub desert surrounds the town and in the distance tall mountain ranges form a sun-washed backdrop. From time to time the huge cacti, their ‘fingers’ pointing skywards, blossom with yellow and red flowers.
With the use of a hire car it is easy to explore the Pacific coast of Baja with its sleepy towns. For excellent restaurants and fabulous deserted beaches visit the small town of Todos Santos, usually visited only by Mexicans and more adventurous gringos. Between December and early April many Grey Whales gather at Magdalena Bay, to the north of La Paz, and you can have wonderful views of these huge creatures from local boats that take visitors right up to these surprisingly confiding leviathans (day excursions can be arranged by the Cortez Club: contact us for details).
El Bajo, known as ‘Hammerhead City’, is one of the world’s prime sites for observing schooling hammerhead sharks. Juveniles and mature males, up to 6 metres in length, school around the three sea mounts that make up the dive site and if you are lucky, and willing to go down to 40 metres or so if need be, you may see up to 200 or even more in the distance, whilst some large ‘guard’ individuals come much closer to check you out! Contrary to popular belief, these sharks offer no threat to divers. Every year a procession of other large pelagics occur here, including Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, whales, dolphins and Marlin, although of course you have to be lucky to be there at the right moment. The tops of the sea mounts are at a depth of 20-25 metres and it is here that divers have occasionally encountered the unusual sight of a knot of free-swimming Panamic Green Morays writhing like tangled spaghetti.
Passing dolphins, whales or Elephant Seals sometimes enhance the delightful diving at Los Islotes, a series of rocky outcrops just off the northern end of Isla Partida, but the star attraction here at this wonderful dive site is the colony of 200 California Sealions that make the islets their home. As one anchors the big bulls bellow out their warnings and the females bark anxiously, but once divers are in the water the attitude changes. The pups race around the visitors, turning somersaults, blowing bubbles in one’s face, tugging at one’s fins or nibbling gently at one’s outstretched fingers, delighted to have found themselves some new and amusing playmates, although the adults are much more wary. Huge schools of Pacific Flatiron Herrings and Green Jacks are a feature here and you may find yourself in a vortex of Mexican Barracudas, while down on the rocky bottom Pacific Seahorses lurk amongst the gorgonians. A host of Eastern Pacific endemic fish can be found, including big Cortez Angelfish, Barberfish and bulbous Mexican Hogfish.
It was the dramatic Isla Cerralvo that prompted Jacques Cousteau’s now famous remark “The Sea of Cortez is the world’s aquarium due to the vast amount of fish to be found there.” A series of jagged rocks extends over a mile to the north of the island and it is here that large pelagics regularly cruise by and vast waves of fearless fish, having seen few divers, show no fear or shyness.
The offshore rock of La Reina , to the north of Isla Cerralvo, is a favoured site for Manta Rays between July-October. The mantas that visit this isolated but scenically rather unprepossessing dive site seem to be fascinated by divers and often deliberately approach them, coming close enough to be gently stroked. It is an amazing feeling to swim alongside one of these huge behemoths, up to 4 metres across, and watch that small eye watching you back! If you are lucky you can somersault with the mantas as they feed, curling their cephalic fins downwards and inwards as they do so. La Reina also attracts huge schools of Green Jacks, so numerous they almost blot out the light after one swims inside the school, becoming surrounded by a grey-green wall and a mass of fishy eyes! Another attraction here is the Giant Hawkfish, a species that, at 50 centimetres in length, completely dwarfs its smaller cousins.
With a backdrop of the Gigante mountains, Ballandra Bay provides a stunning mooring place for small boats. This is by far the most beautiful and most photographed of all the many bays in the area and provides superb shallow diving or snorkeling as it is inhabited by many thousands of the smaller fish and crustaceans that inhabit the remarkable Sea of Cortez.
At The Light one can dive the wreck of the Salvatierra, which sank on the rocks before they were marked. The wreck of this huge car ferry is much flattened by the effects of storms, but double truck tyres still protrude from the mass of tangled plates and the ship’s propellers are still intact. Fish life is dense, with large schools of snappers, King Angelfish and Mexican Goatfish, while Jewel Morays hide in crannies in the wreck and Long-nosed Hawkfish lurk amongst the coral growths. Here one can catch a ride on the current which carries divers across the shelf beyond the wreck, occasionally at speeds of up to 7 knots.
At Whale Island, an excellent shallow dive suitable for all levels of diver, explore fascinating small caves and crevices (one of which has a subterranean air space allowing the diver to pop up for a breath of air at 10 metres!) populated by free swimming moray eels, Angel Sharks and a healthy fish population. Whale Island also offers divers yet another opportunity to spot the occasional passing Whale Shark or some dolphins.
Advanced divers will thoroughly enjoy the more challenging diving to be found at The Trench. It is here that a shallow shelf breaks the sheer drop down into one of the world’s deepest trenches. Excellent opportunities exist for observing passing pelagics cruising in the deep blue abyss. Just around the corner from the Cortez Club, Roco Lobo is an easy and splendid dive where seals are often found resting. There is good fish life to be found and the added delight of occasional large Diamond Stingrays and Bull’s Eye Rays.
At the warmest time of year (August-October) the rich plankton in La Paz Bay regularly attracts Whale Sharks. Of course the occurrence of these leviathans is unpredictable, but if one or more are in residence it is possible to have dramatic encounters with these huge fish, some of which are 8-10 metres long! There is nothing quite like the adrenalin surge as that huge dorsal fin approaches the dive boat and you jump in (on snorkel): as the bubbles clear a huge, seemingly truck-sized head, enormous mouth and two tiny eyes are coming straight at you and then the animal turns and glides by, all pale spots and bars, until, with a swish of that huge tail, it vanishes into the murk!
The Sea of Cortez offers great diving, but it is important to note that, as the sea is situated quite far north of the Equator and is strongly influenced by the adjacent Pacific Ocean, water temperatures from December to March are distinctly cool compared with more typical coral reef locations, dropping as low as 18-21°C during January and February. Water temperatures only reach typical very warm coral sea temperatures (25-30°C) in the period July-October.
Half way between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, the East Cape encompasses the southeastern corner of the Baja peninsula. This area, with its walls, ledges and reef systems, attracts not only the larger pelagic species such as Whale Sharks and hammerheads, but also an amazing selection of reef life inhabiting the narrow passages and deep crevices formed by the rocky underwater terrain. Those exploring the Sea of Cortez on Solmar V will also get the chance to explore this interesting area.
Gorda Banks, located 8 kilometres off the coast of Punta Gorda, is a huge seamount reaching to within 33 metres of the surface and forming a large plateau dotted with black coral. Schools of jacks spiral in the upper water column and large tuna and ocean-going species such as Marlin and Wahoo may also be seen. The area is famous for an abundance of moray eels.
The Cabo Pulmo Reefs consist of four finger-shaped reefs stretching northeast from Pulmo Bay. This is the largest area of hard coral reef in the Sea of Cortez and as such attracts many reef-dwelling animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate. Dives here are very scenic with sea fans and sea whips decorating the valleys, cuts and ledges. A series of short walls gives way to a sandy bottom at about 18 metres. Stingrays, snake eels and patches of waving Cortez Garden Eels inhabit this area. Crouch quietly on the bottom and see just how close you can get before the elegant garden eels retreat into their holes! Angular-shaped boulders form small grottos that are home to a veritable aquarium of reef fish. Here you can find some really unusual fish, such as Scrawled Filefish, as well as Azure Parrotfish and Blunthead Triggerfish which occur only here and in the Galapagos.
COMBINATIONS: Why not combine a visit to the Sea of Cortez with a visit to the Great White Sharks of Guadalupe Island, in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California? The very best season for diving in La Paz (August to October) coincides with the Great White Shark season. Alternatively, between late October and late May you can combine La Paz’s California Sealion encounters with a liveaboard journey to the remote Revillagigedo (Socorro) Islands. The road transfer between La Paz and San Jose del Cabo, the departure point for the liveaboards, takes less than 3 hours. Talk to us about the possibilities.