John’s Note: All photos in this post are courtesy of Keith Strange, dive master and adventure guide (talk about a cool job!) who happened to be in my diving party this particular day.
What initially drew me to La Paz, Mexico wasn’t the spectacular isolated beaches or the quaint downtown malecon, but the sights beneath the waves. Under water is where this area along the Baja peninsula truly stands out. Home to incredible biodiversity, it’s not uncommon to encounter whale sharks, hammerheads, mantas, dolphins, whales, and more within a short boat ride from La Paz. It is for this reason that famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau spent so much time in the area exploring the unique biology of the region.
Unfortunately for us, the Sea of Cortez was experiencing somewhat of a heat wave. By mid-autumn, the sea typically starts to cool down and as it does, the plankton begin to rise to the surface, bringing all the animal life that depend on it up as well. We had initially planned on diving with whale sharks and hammerheads, but due to unseasonably warm waters, both species were still hanging out at depths inaccessible to scuba divers.
Fortunately, La Paz has plenty of other options to offer divers, including wrecks, reefs, and one of the most playful, interactive animals in the ocean – the sea lion.
For our first dive, we ventured out to Los Islotes, a small group of islets a couple hours outside of the La Paz harbor. We strapped our gear on, rolled off the back of the boat, and before I could orient myself in the water I could see the dark outlines of the sea lions darting around me beneath the surface. I had never been scared of these animals before, but then again I had never been floating helplessly in the water surrounded by one of the largest colonies of California sea lions in the world.
While I flopped around on the surface waiting for the rest of the divers to enter the water, the graceful pinnipeds glided silently around me. Sea lions aren’t known to be aggressive, but when you’re being charged by 200 pounds of lean muscle and sharp teeth in an unfamiliar environment, it’s hard not to be a little nervous.
Once the rest of the group made it in, we slowly began the descent below the surface. When I could actually see what was going on beneath the waves, I instantly became much more comfortable with the animals. Bobbing on the surface, I could only see dark shadows coming at me like torpedoes, diverting at the last moment.
Once I was beneath the waves, it was clear that sea lions weren’t approaching in a threatening manner at all – they were curious and engaging in playful behavior, almost like a dog would. We rested on a ledge beneath the primary sea lion rookery and watched as they dove in the water, chased fish, or came closer to investigate our masks, regulators, and fins.
Just as I was getting comfortable around the sea lions, a large shadow cruised by slowly over my head. I twisted around to follow the shape and caught sight of a massive 500 pound bull sea lion keeping an eye on his harem. The bull showed no interest or curiosity with myself or the other divers and would only swim by every few minutes as if to keep an eye on us and to ensure we weren’t getting too close.
As our air ran out and our bottom time came to an end, we returned to the boat to head to the next dive site. It’s hard to top the sea lion experience, but our dive operators from The Cortez Club had plenty more in store for our next dives. The Feng Ming is an old Chinese cargo ship that was deliberately sunk in the Sea of Cortez several years ago to become a man-made reef, providing plenty of areas for sea life to take shelter in.
The boat sits in about 80 feet of water and holes have been punched in it allowing for safe and easy access for scuba divers. We circled the exterior of the hull before entering the narrow passages within. We silently drifted through dark tunnels, narrow doorways, up steep stair cases, and over large machinery as we made our way from the engine room to the captain’s room.
We shared the space with colorful schools of fish, crabs, and eels who now call the ship home. Each room in the boat revealed new species – and new challenges as we negotiated our way through narrow spaces with awkward tanks on our backs and fins on our feet. Finally, we arrived on the deck of the Fang Ming where we were once again greeted by two sea lions – miles away from their home and out hunting for their next meal.
We watched the sea lions chasing fish around the deck of the boat as we slowly ascended, pausing for our safety stop before climbing back on the boat, eating some lunch, and setting off for our final dive site.
On our third dive, we dropped down to a shallow, sandy bank just off the coast of Isla Espiritu Santo. Colorful parrot fish flitted about amid small rock outcrops and large, colorful starfish wedged their way into crevasses. But the real attraction here was in a series of softball sized holes along the sandy bottom. Shy, timid jawfish had painstakingly built these holes into the sand by carefully selecting rocks and shells that form a barrier against the constantly shifting ocean bottom.
From the dens, the jawfish peer out like prairie dogs of the ocean floor, searching for floating morsels or unwelcome predators. Approach too close or move too swiftly and the fish will retreat deep into the protective den. But with a little patience, we were able to make the jawfish comfortable with our presence around his hole.
Slowly and steadily, the fish would raise his head above the rim of his den before retreating back down. With each subsequent bob, he’d rise a little higher, showing off his smooth, stocky body. It was our goal to lure the jawfish out of his den entirely – not an easy feat given the general skittishness of the fish. To accomplish the effort would take a little bribery.
Keith, our resident dive master, grabbed a clam and using his knife, pried the bivalve open exposing the soft, white flesh within. Slicing away, he removed small chunks of the clam and placed them near the entrance of the jawfish den and backed away. The fish would get wind of the clam, slowly rise, and grab the clam meat quickly before retreating to the safety of his den. Each time, Keith placed the meat further and further away, until the fish had to leave his hole entirely to grab the meat. Our patience paid off as the jaw fish eventually came out to grab the clam meat.
Exhausting our bottom time and sucking our last breaths of air from the tanks on our backs, we ascended to the surface and climbed back on the boat, ready to head back to shore. Despite missing out on the megafauna La Paz is known for, we were still able to get a good taste of the sea life in the area.
But it wasn’t enough. Given the proximity of La Paz to the United States, the cheap cost of getting there, and the amazing biodiversity that can be found under the sea, rest assured, I will be back to dive La Paz again.
background image courtesy of jenorton