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.
As 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,
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.
I 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
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.
After 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.
Divers 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 . . .