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January 2001 Vol. 16, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Sea of Cortez, By Sea, By Land

The Don Jose and ...

from the January, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

We were four hot, frustrating days out of Loreto, aboard the live-aboard Don Jose, anchored at the fabled El Bajo seamount in Mexicos Sea of Cortez. From everything Id heard about this world-class site, I was eagerly anticipating interactions with mantas, billfish, maybe even hammerheads. I got further stoked when a big turtle paddled by the swim step.

Unfortunately, the big game that makes this site famous had taken the day off. Instead, I fought a bitchy current to see the same assortment of tropicals Id encountered at other sites. When, during the surface interval I spotted a marlin jumping, I figured the best way to see the big stuff was to stay onboard.

When something seems like a bargain, theres often an underlying reason. It was a discounted rate for a unique itinerary that got me to join my dive clubs charter of Baja Expeditions Don Jose, which usually runs seven-night round trips from La Paz via a circuit of well known nearby dive sites. During August an occasional hurricane hits the tip of Baja, so they switch the itinerary to a series of one-way voyages between La Paz and Loreto, nearly 200 miles north. Traveling out of season is always a gamble, and this trip was coming up snake-eyes.

Not that the Don Jose isnt a reputable -- though aging -- vessel with a personable, hard-working crew. Not that summer diving is always a bust in the Sea of Cortez -- after all, big fish are legendary and well documented here. But the 100-degree heat had me sweltering on the surface. The bouillabaisse hot water, offering no relief, spawned a murky green plankton bloom. The only break from the oppressive weather came during a chubasco, a pugnacious summer squall that had me bouncing around the hallways.

The Don Jose at rest

The Don Jose at rest

While one so-called advantage of this route is to explore less-dived sites, it also includes a visit to the quaint colonial fishing village of Loreto. Yet with the mercury into triple digits, strolling the picturesque streets became an ordeal. The water in the bay and at our beachfront hotel, La Pinta, was as warm as the air. So I retreated to the shady pool side palapa bar for a cold cerveza (or two) and an early dinner.

My concerns, however, were secondary to four traveling companions whose luggage disappeared after checking it through a change of planes in LA. They picked up a few personal items in Loreto, borrowing others -- including undersized bathing suits and oversized T-shirts -- from the rest of us. Good thing they were among friends ... no one should be without a change of underwear in a sauna bath climate.

The next day at 4:00 p.m., normal boarding time, they bussed us to the Don Jose. Designed as a dive boat and launched in 1979, the 80-foot vessel lacks amenities of newer live-aboards, such as private bathrooms and 24/7 air conditioning. Though it normally holds 16 passengers, we stuffed 17 into the seven above-deck staterooms. They assigned my buddy and me to a forward starboard cabin with a narrow double bunk and two single bunks; our carpeted cabin featured a sink, a three-drawer bureau, another drawer under the double bunk, two hanging lockers, a sliding window, a fan and AC, which only operated when the scuba compressor was shut down at night. We shared a shower and head with the three bachelors next door.

We motored to nearby Isla Danzante to snorkel before dinner. Plankton teeming in the near 90-degree shallows kept visibility to 30 feet. The rocky, colorless bottom sported paltry outcrops of brown-tinged white coral, where a few sergeant majors and balloonfish appeared. In the greenish gloom, I did spot a couple of sea lions. But, oh that sunset -- painting the volcanic islands everdeepening shades of red, as a small pod of dolphins cavorted nearby.

Chef Roberto cheerfully slaved away in the tiny galley, turning out a hearty grilled tuna dinner. Like most meals, it was mildly spiced and featured Mexican touches, such as salsa, re-fried beans and a selection of hot sauces. Oddly, he served hot soup and entrees for almost every lunch (fish croquets, lasagna, tuna enchiladas) and dinner (accompanied by poor Mexican wine). While some claim that hot food cools you in a warm climate, count me among the unconvinced. Enrique, the affable steward, served meals in a starched white jacket. But when he cleared the last plate, he slipped out of the sweltering salon and stripped to a T-shirt. Most of us followed in short order, to enjoy dessert usually a frozen Snickers bar. A majority of the crew, by the way, have been on the Don Jose for years and speak good English. And they certainly made our trip comfortable.

In the morning I enjoyed French toast (scrambled eggs and cereal were also available; pancakes another day) while we motored to Higuerita. Major domo and divemaster Peter, eager to help no matter when asked, was a congenial host who got to know each of us. A fair-haired Mexico City native of Dutch extraction, he used the first dive as a checkout, having me purge my BC and take a deep breath. Weighted correctly, I floated with my eyes just under the surface. Visibility was down to 15 feet, but under Peters expert guidance we spotted small eels, lobster, a small sharpnose puffer, graybars and barberfish. On our surface interval, we hung with a pod of pilot whales as Captain Jose kept close without spooking them.

For diving, the Don Jose towed two 14-foot uncovered skiffs, called pangas. Peter provided a thorough briefing before every dive, outlining options. Each dive team could select an option and board the appropriate skiff. (Solo diving is not permitted, but no one bothered to comment about those who did go off on their own). Once I set up my BC and regulator, panga drivers Luis and Felix replaced them on fresh aluminum 80s and loaded my rig on the skiffs. I climbed down to the swim step and stepped aboard the panga. The drivers helped me don my gear at the site and my buddy and I would back roll simultaneously into the water.

At El Bajo de Cochi, a seamount named after the white trigger fish that hang out there, visibility was less than 30 feet, and the photographers rounded up the usual suspects cabrilla, coronetfish, king and Cortez angels, even a free-swimming zebra moray. Upon surfacing, the pangas motored over and the drivers took my weight belt and tank. Since the skiffs had no boarding ladders, I had to kick up over the gunwales, leading to some strenuous and ungraceful belly flops into the bilge.

I skipped the afternoon dive, lending gear to the four who were still without luggage. (No rental gear was aboard the Don Jose, but my friends cobbled together enough gear to make two out of four dives until the bags were ferried to the boat the next day). The Sea of Cortez, By Sea, By LandOn the shallow night dive, some folks spotted a 6-inch seahorse, but I saw mostly sea hares and synoptic cucumbers, which resemble octopus tentacles. But, the bioluminescence in the water added a magical touch, creating luminous wakes behind the pangas, sticking to our bodies and lighting one divers beard like he was Father Christmas.

The next morning we motored two hours through choppy seas to Isla Santa Cruz. Visibility and diving didnt improve and neither did my mood. The Loreto portion of the trip had been a waste of time. I looked forward to heading south to Las Animas, a collection of pinnacles famous for jacks, hammerheads, and other pelagics. First, though, we had to ride out the exciting chubasco that hit around 6:00 p.m. with piercing rains, 30-knot winds, and lightning striking all around us. A few passengers turned green around the gills, but the air cooled enough to make the salon comfortable for the first time.

The next morning I awoke to a cloudless sky. We steamed to Las Animas in the La Paz region, where the visibility improved to 50 feet once below a thermocline at six fathoms. Seeking clearer water, I was lured deep on every dive, and a couple of times I needed to clear my computer during safety stops. Here I saw a guitarfish, a huge surgeonfish, and a school of bigeye jacks negotiating a forest of sea fans. One token sea lion greeted me at Sea Lion Rock.

Instead of a night dive, the group voted for a beach picnic of chicken and beef grilled over a mesquite. While motoring to a nearby anchorage, we were entertained by 100 leaping and spinning dolphins that hung with us for half an hour. The show, itself, was better than a dive.

Now, I must admit some trepidations about traveling with my dive club, though I knew everyone well. I imagined the difficulty if a couple got into a spat. What if a friend turned into a pain in the ass and no one would take him on? Or what if someone wanted to dive to 200 feet, drink too much and get nasty, or get uppity with the crew? Given general disappointment in the diving, the possibility was ever-present, but instead we remarkably bonded; sure, there was a pain in the ass or two, but it was less than had a bunch of random characters showed.

Unlike many live-aboards that travel overnight, this usually doesnt. You get easy sleeping, but lose diving time. So, the next morning we motored east of Isla Espiritu Santo to El Bajo where even day boats from La Paz arrived. No panga diving here. The current was so strong I had to pull my way along a line from the swim step to the anchor line, then down to 85 feet through a gauntlet of jellyfish. Fortunately, I had been warned about these stingies and put on a full skin for the first time. I spent most of the dive hauling myself from rock to rock, seeing nothing new, despite the 60-foot visibility. Then, I, with a thousand dives under my belt, ascended the anchor line, not of the Don Jose, but another boat 100 feet away. I must admit. Ive done it before.

Discouraged, I skipped the second dive, but no one reported anything new. Divers must remember, however, that fish swim. The next day the same site was visited by Baja Expeditions day boat out of La Paz, the Rio Rita. The divemaster reported schools of hammerheads in 120 fsw. The report came to me in a unique way: Baja Expeditions website, www.bajaex.com includes the divemasters log from every dive off the Don Jose and the Rio Rita.

After a third disappointing dive at El Baja, we motored to the sea lion rookery at Los Islotes. With the current a good three knots, Peter instructed us to head directly to the bottom. The Sea of Cortez, By Sea, By LandI lost the group immediately and descended to 47 fsw looking for bubbles in the pea soup, then surfaced but saw no one, including the pangas. After waiting for someone else to surface, I kicked a couple hundred yards back to the Don Jose. The skiffs were tied off. Felix and Luis snoozed in the shade. No one heard me calling from the ladder, so I climbed up, and walked to the bow to look for my buddy and the guide, who were now on the surface. A contrite Felix ferried me to them and by then the other divers had surfaced too. So we all descended within the cove and drifted to a cave where we were buzzed by a half-dozen playful young male sea lions. Although the panga drivers were hard working and personable, this lapse, in strong currents, was inexcusable.

I skipped the second dive and snorkeled after lunch, where I spotted two remoras moving effortlessly, but could barely make out the triangular black shape of the manta they were riding. On my next surface dive, the manta turned to eyeball me before swimming out of range. Now we were getting somewhere! In the afternoon, I dived with sea lions in the cove and then took a delightful sunset cruise around the island in the pangas. Here, were terrific close-up photo-ops with sea lion pups, pelicans, frigate birds, and gaudy, sally lightfoot crabs.

The next morning La Reyna turned out to be the best dive of the trip. Peter led us through a welcoming committee of Moorish idols, then through grottos and swim-throughs frequented by sea lions and turtles. Our ultimate destination was a large natural bowl where three 10-foot mantas visited. Each made several passes,sometimes, getting close enough to touch (a no-no in the Baja Expeditions rule book). I made four dives here, encountering sea lions, turtles and mantas every time. Visibility decreased from 60 feet to 35 feet or less in the afternoon, but there was so much action in the water, I didnt care. But, a live-aboard isnt necessary to dive here -- for our first three dives, we were joined by day boats from La Paz operators.

At the end of the day, during a pia colada happy hour, my buddy and I realized how a day like this redeemed the whole trip -- great, big critter diving. I appreciated having been with friends through the difficult early part of our voyage. Our camaraderie made it easier to deal with the heat that dominated life on the Don Jose, keeping our clothes and sheets constantly damp, and our skin feeling grotty, even after bathing in the rudimentary military-style showers.

Although whale sharks are common here in June, theres a chance theyll appear in August so we chipped in to hire a spotter plane. The next morning the Don Jose pulled into La Paz Bay. Eventually, the plane passed overhead, but had no luck at all spotting these behemoths. So, we made our way to the 300-foot Salvatierra, a ferry that sank a quarter-century ago in 60 fsw. I pulled myself along the current line to get to the anchor line, but on the bottom the current dissipated enough to make a leisurely circumnavigation. The wreck was rife with life, most noteworthy a four-foot jewfish being cleaned next to the crows nest, and a clarion angel (about 100 miles north of its species usual range), which spends its time upside down, munching on vegetation that grows from the ceiling of the Salvatierras wheelhouse. Another great dive.

Roberto prepared an incredible goodbye lunch of chile rellenos and tamales, which we ate at the dock in La Paz waiting for immigration officials to check our papers. Baja Expeditions provided tipping guidelines of 5 percent-10 percent of the trip fee. Our trip organizers, who had once served as divemasters on the Don Jose, suggested that each person tip the crew $20 each per dive day (six) plus $75/person for the divemaster. Thats more than Ive ever tipped on a week trip, but the extraordinary personal attention was worth it. Now I know why there is no turnover.

That night we stayed at Hotel Los Arcos, the centerpiece of the La Paz waterfront, a salty old seaport about 100 air miles up the Baja peninsula from Cabo San Lucas. We reminisced about what was and what could have been, though two first time divers on board, who thought the diving remarkable, wondered how jaded we experienced divers might be. Nonetheless, the next time I take a precious week out of my schedule, and some precious zeros off my bank balance, I will maximize my chances for success by scheduling my trip during prime time. And prime time for the Sea of Cortez is September, the later the better.

-- D.L.

The Sea of Cortez, By Sea, By LandDivers Compass: A birth certificate is no longer sufficient for travel to Mexico -- bring a valid passport. Only Aero California flies to Loreto; major airlines fly to La Paz ... Baja Expeditions office is in San Diego (phone 800-843-6967; fax 858-581-6542, e-mail travel@bajaex.com) handled the logistics and referred us to an efficient travel agent for flight and hotel reservations. La Pinta Hotel, with large air-conditioned rooms, is a midrange Loreto resort at $84/ night. Bring lots of small bills. Everybody wants your American 20s, but nobody can provide change in American currency ... The Don Jose has 110V. Storage lockers on a canopied poop deck above dive deck hold wet gear ... VHS video player, TV and slide projector in salon ... you can join the crew watching cartoons dubbed in Spanish. No onboard film processing, no Nitrox. Between dive snacks are fruit and cookies, maybe guac and chips. Dive trips run July to November ... rates are $1,595/person double occupancy for a deluxe room, $1,395 standard; Mexican beer and sodas are included. Day trips from La Paz to the best sites (90 minutes each way) from Baja Expeditions, Fun Baja Adventures (800-667-5362 or www.deepdiscoveries.com), the Cortez Club (011-52-112-15592 or www.cortezclub.com) and through the Los Arcos Hotel or ubiquitous waterfront kiosks. Gear rental is generally available ... there is a chamber in Cabo San Lucas.

Vista Sea Sport

It wasn’t many years ago that diving in the Sea of Cortez from a Baja-based land operation was a chancey affair. However with American dive management savvy, an influx of capital, and Mexico’s effort to increase tourism, the strip from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas has become an important destination with good options for serious divers.

The Sea of Cortez is not easy, clear water, coral-covered Caribbean diving, as our feature article on the Don Jose explains. Currents can change daily, even during a dive. Water temperatures seasonally swing by 15, maybe 20 degrees (high 80s, dips below 70 -- an unseasonably chilly 64 degrees early last June). In August and September (also hurricane season) you could handle skinny-dipping scuba, but come winter, you’ve got thick rubber and windy conditions.

Then there are the rewards: big schools of fish, darting sea lions, if you’re lucky, mantas, maybe a gorilla-sized grouper and hammerheads in the mist. Of course, you can’t be assured you’ll see the big guys, but the chances are better here than any Caribbean destination, that’s for sure.

La Paz has day operations and decent sites. Cabo San Lucas, frankly, so Americanized that it might as well be north of the border, is fine for casual divers who want to spend evenings at Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Café. Whatever your choice, select a location with a reliable dive operator.

One of the more dependable operations is 60 miles south of La Paz (and 40 miles north of the airport for Cabo San Lucas). Here, at the towns of Los Barriles and Buena Vista comfortable resorts such as Las Palmas, Rancho Buena Vista, and Rancho Leonero offer full meal plans, sport fishing, and other activities. The area is well-situated to reach a range of sites. Cabo Pulmo, 15 miles to the south of Buena Vista, is a protected marine park; farther south, the sea lion colony at Los Frailes is a wild dive. To the north, one may travel as far as 20 miles to Isla Cerralvo’s southern end or dive the coral reefs of El Cardonal. Either direction, boats from La Paz or Cabo San Lucas rarely, if ever, visit.

I’ve asked a well-traveled Undercurrent correspondent, who makes frequent jaunts to the area to tell you what to expect -- and with whom to dive. Here is his report:

* * * * * *

Having tried several dive operations in the area, I’ve now settled on Vista Sea Sport in Buena Vista. Owned and operated since 1993 by Californians Mark and Jennifer Rayor, both PADI instructors, it has knowledgeable Mexican boat captains, formerly fishermen, who are certified divemasters. These guys know the sites and aim to please. Both the boats -- fast pangas with sun covers -- and the overall operation are well kept. An infrastructure rare for Mexico -- backup compressors, GPS, oxygen, etc. — provides support for every contingency. In fact, I quit bringing my own BC and regulator and opted to rent their fine equipment, just to lighten my load.

I rent a car at either airport - - the major agencies are present -- but the hotels arrange transportation for their guests. If you stay anywhere in the area, the Rayors will pick you up and deliver you after the dives.

In early November, conditions had turned windy and the water was too rough to put a boat in at Buena Vista. But that didn’t stop them; they drove five divers an hour south to Pulmo Bay where they had arranged for a fishing panga to take us out. The sites here are just offshore, a good thing because fishing pangas are not set up for diving. “Deep Reef,” with a max depth of 90 feet, sported big groupers, schools of jacks, barracuda, several kinds of rays, and even a frogfish. Water was low 80s to about 60 feet, but at 60 feet I hit a cold, green thermocline. After a surface interval on the beach and a bite to eat (the hotels provide lunches), we dove to 50 feet at “El Bajo,” a long and wide reef with great topography and corals and great numbers of fish, more than I have seen in Palau (but fewer sharks, and less coral). Saw turtles, and a grouper that could manhandle a diver.

The next day, we motored north into a moderate wind, so the return trip would have the wind at our backs. At “Punta Perico,” close to the southern tip of Isla Cerralvo, the topography is marked with huge boulders and swim throughs. A lot of fish, eels, rays in the distance over the sand. Max depth was 77 feet. No current, maybe 50 foot viz, water was 82-84 degrees. El Cardonal, the second dive, is in a protected area, so we relaxed on the boat, had a bite to eat, then did a long dive on a large flat coral reef, about 25 feet max depth. It’s a stunning giant hatchery.

Another day, a spectacular dawn signaled that the wind had laid down. We had a nice boat ride to Cabo Pulmo, again diving “El Bajo,” then a surface interval with lunch at Iguana Beach and a bit of great snorkeling. Then we dove “El Cantil,” also in Pulmo Bay. On one side there is a flat rock area in about 25 feet, with a lot of coral and fish. The edge is cut with interesting long crevasses and rock formations, and then goes out to a flat sand bottom at 60 feet. Depending on the day, these sites can be leisurely cruise or ripping high voltage drift dives. At El Cantil I have seen schooling hammerheads, and schools of hundreds of rays. At the end of the reef, dorado -- a.k.a. mahi-mahi -- and amberjack pass by.

The next day, with the wind up again, they towed his boat north -- wind doesn’t scrub dives here -- and put it in the water for Cerro Verde, close and reasonably protected. Not a spectacular site, but good for the conditions and divers, two of whom are resort coursers. I followed the gully down to 100 feet, where it opened into sand filled with garden eels, while the “newbies” stayed in 20 feet. There’s always a divemaster in the water, by the way, but if you have proven your skill you can go off on your own.

Again, keep in mind that the Sea of Cortez, unpredictable as it is, is a rewarding destination for a serious diver. You just never know what you’ll see.

-- D.C.

The Sea of Cortez, By Sea, By LandDivers Compass: Boats leave at 7:30 a.m. returning between 1- 2 p.m. for two tank dives, which run $90 to $110. Two or more divers can arrange trips just about anywhere, including the Gordo Banks, two hours away. Visit www.vistaseasport.com to get the lowdown or call 011-52-114-1003 for information. The website has plenty of information on accommodations; considering the Hotel Buena Vista, which has 60 bungalows that begin at $135 double/day, with all meals included. Call 1- 800-752-3555 or visit the website at www.hotelbuenavista.com. Rancho Leonero has 35 rooms beginning at $140/night, double occupancy, all meals included. Contact them toll-free at 800-646-2252 or 800-334-2252 or 714-692- 6965 from other countries. E-mail: rancholeonero@worldnet.att.net.

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