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June 2006 Vol. 21, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Midriff Islands, Sea of Cortez, Mexico

cool water, abundant marine life

from the June, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader,

A flicker of movement interrupted my fascination with an unfamiliar sea slug, sequestered in a miniature forest of delicately sculpted sea squirts and scarlet sponges. Like a creature from a B-horror movie, the interloper emerged from the dense growth, its dime-sized body shrouded in hairy-green algae. Then, a cast of decorator crabs rose from their hideaway sporting veils of sponges, feathery hydroids, and other hitchhikers.

Here, in Julias Enchanted Garden, truck-sized boulders were plastered with extended tentacles and appendages scouring for food. With my light I led the swarms of plankton Pied Piper-like, into the arms of voracious sand anemones. While I spotted almost as many different nudibranchs as I had in Indonesia, a green turtle the size of a car hood and a burly free-swimming moray reminded me where I was . . . in the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California on most maps) in the Midriff Islands with Ricardos Diving Tours.

Ricardo’s Super Panga at the Midriffs
Photo by Yrma van der Steenstraeten

Ricardo’s Super Panga at the Midriffs

The Midriffs include more than 55 islands, islets, and pinnacles that rise from 3000-ft depths and span 80 miles in the northcentral gulf. Tidal currents race through, drawing up cold, nutrient-rich water, which mixes with warmer waters that flow north in summer. Here one finds a unique blend of species, including eastern Pacific tropicals and California cold-water marine life. Add the high concentration of whales, dolphins, and sea lions, as well as seasonal whale shark visits, and things can get interesting.

Ricardo is based in the small fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles, not easy to get to because there is no commercial airport - its an eight-hour drive from San Diego. He has 15 years experience diving and navigating the Midriffs. His is a small-town, small-boat operation, rough around the edges, but he and his son-in-law, Baruni (who provides English translation for Ricardos limited English), are enthusiastic with an aim-to-please attitude. One of Ricardos best assets are his eyes. Once it took him all of five minutes to fulfill my request for an ocellated frogfish. The plate-sized specimen was so well-concealed, it took me a minute to realize what is was. Visibility can be limited (30-40 feet in the summer and fall, but up to 100 in the winter), so sites are often difficult to find, even when fixed by GPS.

Midriff Islands, Sea of Cortez, MexicoWhen I found Ricardo four years ago, he took me where none of the other local boats had - a little-known seamount, less than 30 minutes from the dock. Schools of yellowtail jacks darted across the mount while the best assortment of Cortez tropicals Id seen since Cabo Pulmo darted among the pillars of rock and forests of beet-colored gorgonians. Lobster, octopus, and a python-sized moray joined the show. Now, he motors to the Midriffs in his new 26-foot super panga, a larger version of fishing boats and dive boats used throughout Baja. Ricardos two pangas hold up to six divers each and eight for shorter trips (that would be over crowded), but I never dived with more than three other people. There are seat cushions and a large beach umbrella. Gear is left loose on the deck. The boats are equipped with life jackets, radios, first aid kits, and emergency signaling devices, and Ricardo says hell have a DAN oxygen kit by fall. Air in the tanks -- good aluminum 80s filled to 3000 psi was always checked before dives.

Ricardos operates from the town boat ramp and hell pick you up on shore if youre staying along the rocky beach. While closer sites can offer good diving, serious divers will want to take the hour-plus trip to the outer islands of Isla Angel de la Guardia, Isla Partida, and La Raza, where there is better sea life, but potentially more current, especially upwellings. Though the ride can get harsh in big seas, especially on a 90-minute return trip, his boat is designed for the Gulf of California, where the sea can go from glass to a 5-foot wind chop in the blink of an eye. More than once, Ricardos seamanship helped us avoid potentially dangerous seas.

With the help of glassy seas, we arrived at Isla Angel de la Guardia in under an hour. We anchored on the 50-ft. tall Rapture rock, where the current formed tiny whirlpools. The cacophony of 50 California sea lions told me this was their turf. I back rolled and dropped quickly to the lee of a boulder at 30 feet, where colder 70-degree water rose from the depths, clearing the visibility to 75 feet. I descended over a series of ledges to the precipice, aided by a mild down current, then plunged over the edge, eventually to 120 ft. Forests of yellow-polyp black coral swayed like horizontal weeping willows. Spanish shawl nudibranchs grazed on hydroids, replenishing their harpoon-like stinging cells. I spotted four black sea bass the size of small refrigerators. Rapture Rock rivals walls like Cozumels Maracaibo Deep. As I ascended, a mature green sea turtle darted into deeper water. With the current swirling around the rocks, I held on at 45 feet and watched a procession of finescale triggerfish, yellowtail snapper, and swirling masses of Mexican barracuda. Higher, barrel-chested male sea lions darted so close with bared teeth I could almost tell what they had last eaten. When I surfaced the boat was right there, as always, and Ricardo and Baruni hoisted my gear out of the water, and helped me up the portable ladder.

Though only certified as an open-water diver, Ricardo has logged thousands of dives. He impressed me with his skills, though he is still learning the tricks of being a top-notch dive guide (e.g., giving a complete briefing). You can follow him for all or part of the dive or follow your own profile -- you tell him. Novices may find the conditions unnerving at times. Closer-to-town sites like Punta Pescador (max depth 40 ft.) will be more to their liking.

Midriff Islands, Sea of Cortez, MexicoIn September, few dives were duds. Almost every day we spotted green sea turtles, one of five species here. Large scorpionfish were so plentiful that if one couldnt manage his buoyancy he might bounce off them. I saw many free-swimming, constrictor-sized green morays, golden sea horses, two varieties of frogfish, and a healthy selection of nudibranchs. A couple of sites conjured up images of the Sea of Cortezs golden years, 200+ lb. black sea bass and enormous lobsters.

I stayed north of town, at Campo Archelon (resendizshidalgo@yahoo.com),which attracts an eclectic mix, including visiting scientists, assorted Baja legends, and nonlegends like me. They offer beachfront palapas ($10 per night for two) and stone cabanas with cots, stove, hot shower, and refrigerator ($40 per night for four). Its glorified camping with a cot on a sand floor, next to the water. Glorious, as long as no wind-sounds of the sea, whale breaths, or sea lion barks. I love the tranquil setting, especially the blood-red sunrises over the bay and the tide pool that hosts more macro-life than many dives. The water is a cool refuge from the 100-degree-plus days, with nights in the 90s.

In March I returned to winter westerlies roaring down the canyon, making for bumpy boat rides. While days were sunny and 75-degrees, the nights dropped into the low 50s and upper 40s. But Ricardo had a 150-hp Yamaha outboard for even faster trips and a sonar unit to locate new sites that were generally comparable or better than dives Ive done in La Paz. Amarillo (Yellow Forest) was an exciting drift dive reminiscent of Cozumels Santa Rosa Wall. It was plastered in thick stands of yellow polyp black coral, which sheltered juvenile whitetip and horn sharks. Barunis Canyons had gorgonian-covered pinnacles dramatically rising from 200 feet and monster black sea bass in the depths. The cold water (70F and below) prevented longer dives; even with my new 7-mil and a hood, 45 minutes and two dives a day was it for me. Most of the tropical fish had packed their bags and headed south until the water begins to warm in late May.

Between dives, six fin whales gulped plankton within a stones throw. At times, the air and water were so still that I could hear whale breaths miles away. Rarely a day went by without a performance by hundreds of acrobatic dolphin pods. We snorkeled with sea lions at several sites. The islands, part of the Islas del Golfo de California Protected Area, are unique, harboring blue-footed boobies and osprey, and is a temporary home for elegant terns from South America.

Diving the Midriffs is a step back in time. Pristine water, no other divers, and some of Bajas best diving at sites few people have ever seen. For me, the sense of adventure today makes it just about perfect. Theres a lifetime worth of underwater exploration to be had.

- I.T.

Midriff Islands, Sea of Cortez, MexicoDivers Compass: There is an airstrip for private planes . . . Its an eight-hour drive north from La Paz, which has an international airport. The drive is relatively straightforward, though with narrow roads, but you will be rewarded as you crest the last hill and see the azure-blue Gulf of California and offshore islands sprawl across the horizon, a vivid contrast to the hours of desert in your rear view mirror . . . You will need Mexican auto insurance. Contact Baja Travel Club (800-727-BAJA, www.discoverbaja.com.) For a membership fee, you get special rates on Mexican insurance and com- Midriff Islands Isla Angel de La Guardia Bahia de la Angeles 5 prehensive emergency towing. Compare insurance coverages at www.bajabound.com). Some rental agencies limit how far you can drive south of the border. For specialty rentals (RVs, Hummers, one-way rentals), try California Baja Rent-A-Car (888-470- 7368, www.cabaja.com) . . . Besides diving, fishing, kayaking, and windsurfing, there is spectacular hiking up 3,000-foot Mikes Mountain on the edge of town . . . The best motel option in town is Costa del Sol (costadelsolhotel@hotmail.com) with air-conditioned rooms priced in the $60 to $80 range. Clean with friendly service, and a $5-$10 dinner menu, offering basic Mexican fare and seafood . . . Newer accommodations are Villa Bahia (http://www.villabahia.com) and Los Vientos (www.losvientosspaandresort.com.) Villa Bahia offers one- and three-bedroom guest houses. Some rooms have full kitchens. They have a slow 23-foot cabin cruiser with a non-diving guide and goes to average dive locales. Los Vientos has 15 units, ranging from $107 to $185/night/double occupancy. Each is furnished with beautiful traditional Mexican furnishings and art and has a pool, spa, and gourmet restaurant. Dinners range from $25 to $60 . . . The most popular diving season is June through November, when water temperatures peak in the low 80s. West and north winds can disrupt dive plans in fall and winter, though usually something is diveable. Ricardos Diving Tours offers three different trips and has a complicated pricing system. Figure $60-$80 for local 2-tank dives, $120 -$160 for trips to the outer Midriff Islands and three tanks. Deal directly with Ricardos Diving Tours. Some hotels take a percentage for arranging trips. E-mail ricardoarcen@hotmail.com. A website (www.scubabaja.com) is slated to be on-line by summer.

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