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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Solmar V, Baja California, Mexico

a 24-hour steam to wild diving at the Socorros

from the March, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

On a Saturday last December, I boarded the Solmar V in Cabo San Lucas, showed my c-cards, and signed a release that was so remarkably simple, straightforward and reasonable that Charlie, a Los Angeles lawyer, couldn't sign it fast enough. I received tank and dive station assignments, and settled in for the 24-hour run to Islas Revillagigedos, commonly known as the Socorro Islands, about 250 miles south of Cabo. Socorro is the only real island; the other three are starkly beautiful volcanic rock outcroppings with the names San Benedicto, Roca Partida and Clarion.

Solmar VAs I enjoyed the welcome margarita and mini-buffet of cold shrimp, guacamole and chips, the beauty of the salon struck me -- all red mahogany, polished brass rails, glass panels etched with marine scenes, and Art Deco-style, leaded glass light fixtures. Solmar V's outer hull is green and yellow, and the color scheme runs throughout; green carpet, yellow roses on the console, brass lamps with green glass shades, even the tablecloths are green. I was stoked. That shattered quickly, however, when I was shown to my tight cabin, probably the smallest I've ever had on a so-called luxury liveaboard. I just hoped the big-fish diving was as advertised. For me, the cost of a trip sets the standard for just how luxurious the trip should be -- and this was an expensive one. The Revillagigedos beckoned me as a place where I expected mantas, hammerheads and dolphins on every dive. But "luxury" also means amenities to add to a diver's comfort, and Solmar V fell a bit short in that area.

Despite the horror stories I'd heard about how rough the crossing can be, this one was smooth, enabling the crew to provide their orientation -- they emphasized safety and respect for the marine environment -- on Sunday while we were still under way. Divemaster Daniel explained the diving routine, which sounded exceptionally regimented: an initial checkout dive, two days with three dives and three days with four dives. I would be assigned to and required to stay with a group of seven, and follow the divemaster. The Mexican government has mandated no gloves or lights (except camera strobes and video lights) for this protected area, so there would be no night diving -- which makes sense because it's all openocean diving in strong currents.

Solmar V, Baja California, MexicoI also learned that towels in the cabins would be changed only twice during the nine-day trip. That meant each diver would get a single deck towel per day, resulting in a soaked towel after the first dive. So no warm fresh deck towel after each dive? Wait a minute -- $3,299 for five days of diving means a luxury liveaboard, right? Still, soggy as my daily deck towel always was, I somehow made it work for three or four dives, but I was annoyed, especially when others hogged extra towels or stole the one I had hanging over a rail to dry. The crew never did figure out how to manage the towels.

We arrived late Sunday afternoon at San Benedicto for the check-out dive, which is all it was worth. Las Cuevas was dark and murky. I did see large Moorish idols and a couple of turtles, but at least I got my weight and buoyancy adjusted. The best part was returning to the salon for frozen margaritas. With no night diving, most of us sampled Steward Luis's cocktail du jour -- strawberry or mango margarita, pina colada or daiquiri -- along with appealing appetizers such as quesadillas, sushi and barbecue ribs. Wine, beer, and soft drinks were always available. After a dinner of sautéed chicken breast and fresh green beans, I headed for my bunk.

My dive buddy and I managed in the tight quarters, but not happily. The shower and toilet share the same tiny compartment; downright uncomfortable, especially when having to put up with the squeeze to the knees while seated. Despite the toilet paper being encased in a "waterproof" container, it stayed damp. The tiny sink was in an alcove so small that I had to wedge my shoulders between walls in order to brush my teeth. My roommate had similar problems, evidenced by toothpaste drip on the floor. Okay, no more whining. I was tired, so I settled in, anticipating good diving ahead.

On Monday morning, I was ready to dive at 6:45 a.m. after a mini-breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, and sweet rolls.(After the first dive each morning, it was a full breakfast of eggs, pancakes, French toast or omelets with ham, bacon, hash browns and refried beans.) It was dark when I suited up, but by the time I got in the water, the sun was bright, although it soon retreated behind clouds. The air and water temperatures varied between 68 and 78 degrees, and there was more cloud cover and wind than sun and calm. I was comfortable in my 5-mil, but a few who expected tropical water came without sufficient rubber. Brian, the oldest and thinnest guy on the boat, was constantly cold, and was often on the sundeck trying to warm up, still encased in his wetsuit.

We spent the first day at San Benedicto with two dives at El Canon, where visibility was 20 feet. I saw an abundance of large black and trevally jacks, walls of orange Creole fish, several free-swimming morays, but no mantas. The next two dives were at El Boiler, where divemaster Juan guaranteed I'd see mantas. I did indeed see one, which came right up to me and did a little ballet. I also observed schools of sleeping whitetip sharks, and a few lazily swimming around. After the second morning dive, Luis, the steward, greeted divers with hot chocolate and brownies or cookies. At the rate, I was consuming the treats, I figured I'd be adding more lead to my weight belt.

The 112-foot-long, steel-hulled Solmar V started out as a long-range sport fishing boat, but was converted to scuba in 1992 (its age is the reason for its tiny cabins, as newer luxury liveaboards provide more spacious quarters). The dive deck is spacious, with out-of-the way hanging racks so one doesn't have to negotiate pungent wetsuits while crossing the dive deck. The extra-large photo gear table holds plenty of cameras. I thought it odd, however, that they didn't provide small camera towels. Instead, they offered a roll of toilet paper to dry camera gear, so many photographers stashed deck towels to do the job.

The boat holds 22 divers in 12 cabins, and my trip was a full charter with a crew of 10, plus a videographer. One crewmember for two divers was an impressive ratio. Jose Luis Sanchez, who purchased Solmar V about six years ago, was also aboard with his wife, Leslie. My fellow divers were four Spaniards, one Russian, one Israeli, and the rest American. All were very experienced -- six older divers had each been diving for more than 40 years. Jack, a doctor from California, still used a horse-collar BC and 1960s backpack. Ron, a diver who harbored strong opinions, started a lively political discussion the last night that made the Spaniards glad they didn't understand English, and had me wishing I didn't either.

Solmar V, Baja California, MexicoAfter a five-hour night run, Solmar V was required to check in on Tuesday at the Mexican navy base on Socorro Island, 50 miles from San Benedicto. Officials boarded, verified that we passengers were who we said we were, let a small dog sniff around, then bid us farewell. That stop took some time, so we did only three dives at Socorro's Cabo Pierce, a manta cleaning station where orange clarion angelfish do the grooming. There were plenty of black and chevron mantas here, but with only 20-foot maximum visibility, it was hard to see them clearly. One enormous black manta, the size of a Zodiac and sporting two remoras on its underside, made a number of passes. At first, I thought 20 mantas came to be cleaned but after my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I realized there were just six continually sweeping in and out. Between manta encounters, Daniel coaxed an octopus from its crevice (this is all rocky bottom diving without coral) and pointed out the small stuff and other things I would have otherwise missed, like a couple of Galapagos sharks. Poor visibility aside, it was an exciting dive and a great opportunity for photography and videography, but 22 divers plus three divemasters on the same site at once made it crowded. On the third dive, seven show-off dolphins cavorted at 60 feet. I was so caught up in trying to photograph one that I let it seduce me down to 110 feet, my limit on Nitrox. Dives were generally in the 60- to 90-foot range.

Daniel, David, and Juan inspired great confidence as divemasters. They were friendly, accommodating, knowledgeable, attentive, and happily assisted with equipment problems. David, trained in marine biology, shared a wealth of information. Chef Tony prepared creative, beautifully presented and remarkably good meals, emphasizing tasty soups, fresh veggies and crisp salads to accompany entrees like filet mignon or grilled fish. Tony saw to it that we divers never went hungry -- a bowl of fresh fruit and baskets of cookies, pretzels, or mixed nuts were always available. Every crewmember pitched in where needed. Even Captain Gerardo often helped to serve the sit-down meals or was at the dive platform to take my fins and help me on board after a dive.

We next headed for Roca Partida, another long run of 9 hours. I awoke Wednesday to the sight of that gigantic split rock covered with snow. What? Oh, wait, it's actually decades of bird droppings splashed on the stunning rock rising from the sea. The day dawned with heavy cloud cover that stayed for the two days we spent there. No mantas at Roca, but I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium. Large black, green and amber jacks; trevally; thousands of Creole fish, parrotfish and trumpetfish; lobster; octopus; spotted boxfish; a school of big tuna whizzing by; and so much more that I couldn't identify. Descending the wall, I came upon crevices in which 30 whitetip sharks snoozed, and then I saw the rest of the shark population -- silver tips, Galapagos, hammerheads and even a couple of silkys. I saw migrating humpback whales breaching the surface, and could hear, but not see, them underwater.

Previously, we had descended stern lines hanging from the boat's swim step to dive, but getting to the Roca Partida wall required travel in two Zodiac pangas, in which crew loaded our gear and cameras. Drivers Geronimo and Luis maneuvered through heavy chop to get us to the right spot, and assisted us in donning our tanks before we backrolled into the water. But 12 divers plus tanks and cameras on a panga struck me as not only overweighted, crowded and difficult, but inconsistent with Solmar V's commitment to safety. Heavy surge and strong currents sprouted divers surfacing with orange safety sausages all over the place. Nevertheless, the highly experienced and competent "pangeros" handled it all affably and drove us without a mishap. Clarion Island was skipped, as it was not offering good diving. So on Friday, we returned to San Benedicto for the first dive at El Canon and the next two back at El Boiler. Better visibility, but just a couple of mantas. Between dives, Geronimo offered a panga ride to view San Benedicto up close and see the arches and rock formations sculpted by the sea. For the final dive, the crew decided to try Cape Fear, but the current was so strong they couldn't secure the anchor lines. Jose Luis and Captain Gerardo pulled the plug as it was way too dangerous to put divers in the water, so we went back to El Boiler to finish up. Nobody complained.

Late that afternoon, we started the 24-hour run back to Cabo San Lucas (another smooth one), where I said goodbye to a wonderful crew and my fellow divers. I've been on luxury dive boats where the last dinner is not included, the last breakfast is sparse and the crew pretty much ignores passengers after the tips are paid. However, the meals, service, and attitude never waned on Solmar V, and the crew's attentiveness was top-notch right up to the moment I disembarked.

Despite less than ideal visibility, strong surge and raging currents (you need to be an experienced diver in these waters), the diving was spectacular for the most part. I was impressed that every crewmember went out of his way to be helpful and see to it that we had the best diving possible. I was fed well, enjoyed lounging on the sundeck between dives, and slept in a comfortable bunk. In retrospect, the tight cabin, deck towel fiasco, overcrowded pangas and the few other inconveniences seem minor, especially in light of the world-class diving.

-- S.M.

Solmar V, Baja California, MexicoDivers Compass: A superior cabin on Solmar V costs $3,299 (standard cabins are $100 less) for five days of diving on a nine-day trip, with a total of 19 dives, including the checkout; a 10 percent discount is offered to return guests . . . All meals, snacks, and alcoholic drinks are included; airport transfers and a $15 chamber donation are extra . . . It's cash only, as the boat does not accept credit cards; a professional trip video was offered for $85, payable directly to videographer Adil, who only accepted credit cards . . . It's easy to get to Cabo San Lucas from just about anywhere, as it is served by multiple airlines, including Alaska, United, American, Delta, Mexicana and Aero Mexico . . . Website:

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