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    by Walt Stearns

    Solmar V Adventure:

    Frolicking in Mexico's Sea of Cortez

    by Walt Stearns, May 1997

    Like a bunch of hyperactive puppies discovering a new toy, they began their attack. Nothing seemed safe; fin tips, snorkels, ponytails; anything the sea lion pups could get hold of was fair game.

    Few events are more memorable than a friendly face to face encounter with an intelligent marine creature. Our encounter was with a mob of six to nine month old sea lion pups. This incredible experience took place off tiny Los Islotes in the south central end of the Sea of Cortez. Los Islotes is home to the largest sea lion colony south of California.

    Between two arid masses of land; the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico; pulses one of the most fertile bodies of water in the world. The Sea of Cortez has earned the nickname 'Giant Fish Trap of the Eastern Pacific'; more than 850 species of Pacific tropical and semi-tropical fish have been identified here. Some of the most surprising species found in the Sea of Cortez belong to the Panamic group and are nearly identical to several tropical Atlantic and Caribbean species. For example, the Panamic Porkfish could easily pass for its Caribbean cousin, with the exception of a touch more gold in its body coloring.

    The Sea of Cortez is an active hunting, breeding and playground for a wealth of large marine creatures. Besides a variety of sharks and rays; including Whale Sharks, schooling Scalloped Hammerheads, giant Manta and Mobula Rays (dwarf species of the Manta), the sea is host to various dolphins and whales including the majestic Blue Whale. Pods of Pilot Whales and/or Orcas are frequently seen.

    The linchpin to this phenomenon is the region's tidal system. With each day's tide, a large volume of the Sea of Cortez's water moves, creating substantial upwellings. These cool waters bring a wealth of nutrients. Water temperatures range from the high 50s to the mid 80s (░F), with visibility running as little as 15 feet to more than 100.

    Although it is possible to see several of the sea's great dive sites from shore based locations, the most sensible way to explore it is on a live-aboard. Of the handful of vessels that habitually cruise these waters, the nicest is the Solmar V.

    One hundred twelve feet long and powered by new twin, turbo Detroit 12V-71 diesels, the Solmar V is a masterpiece afloat. Everything about her is near state of the art. Geared for even the most intensive dive groups, the aft quarterdeck is appropriately spacious, with a centrally located four by eight foot camera table featuring two unobstructed tiers for working and plenty of space underneath for stowing several large camera cases. Flanking both the port and starboard sides of the deck is a system of wide bench/tank racks with large, plastic gear storage bins underneath. Above the aft quarterdeck is the vessel's new sundeck, installed last June, with lounge chairs and carpeting.

    The Solmar V stern features a broad, full width swim platform with a double width, in-water ladder. Next to the aft rails are four, big freshwater rinse tanks (two for cameras, two for dive gear). Owing to the nature of the diving conditions of some sites, the Solmar V also utilizes a pair of large, 21 foot inflatables, called pangas, to shuttle divers to and from sites.

    The interior of the Solmar V is paneled in rich, polished mahogany, inset with bright brass railings and fixtures. There are four stained glass lighting fixtures and the vessel's salon has the look and feel of a lavish, private pub or bistro. Seating for dining and lounging is provided by four large, U-shaped booths upholstered in deep forest green with thick cushioning. Additional seating is provided by four pairs of barstools, complete with library style lamps on the tables. Six, large decorative etched glass panels depict marlin, tuna, dolphins and mermaids.

    Similar creative detailing continues below decks with six superior and six deluxe model staterooms (for a total of 22 divers). With the same rich wood and brightwork, all rooms come with private shower (also doubles as the head with a built-in toilet) and vanity with sink and mirror. Although each cabin's actual floor space is a bit on the cozy side (roughly a yard square), they are not without creature comforts. Features include an individually controlled air-conditioning system, TV/VCR (for watching movies of your choice from the ship's video library) and, of course, soft, roomy bunks (two per cabin, with the exception of the individual standard cabins well forward). Blankets and comforters are also provided. The deluxe has a slightly narrower bottom bunk and less floor space.

    Following the Solmar V's Isla Revillagigedo's season (November through May) she heads for the Sea of Cortez when the weather is the most pleasant (June through October). At present, the Sea of Cortez itinerary comes in two options, a five day charter with three days of diving and an eight day charter with five and a half days of diving.

    Departing its home port in Cabo San Lucas, the Solmar V's five day itinerary takes it to the coral reefs of Cabo Pulmo, Gordo Banks and Isla Cerralvo. Ten miles north of Cabo San Lucas, five miles from shore, the massive submerged seamount of Gordo Banks rises from more than 1,000 feet. The rocky contours of its large plateau, lying 120 feet (average) from the surface, are covered with a species of Black Coral whose polyps are almost neon yellow. Prolific with massive schools of baitfish that could easily enshroud large groups of divers in their silvery vortices, this spot is the stomping grounds for pelagics such as marlin, Sailfish, tuna, Wahoo, sharks and Manta Rays.

    Farther north, tucked within the protected waters of Pulmo Bay, is the reef system of Cabo Pulmo. Defined by the eight separate, elongated ridges of rock that form its base, it is one of the largest true coral reef systems in the Eastern Pacific north of Panama. At depths averaging 50 to 60 feet, the ridges are covered with an abundant and diverse assortment of both hard and soft corals in varied shades of crimson, violet, orange and gold. Staying close to the protective cracks and crevices of the reef are Streamer Hogfish, King Angelfish and large schools of Yellowtail Grunts, Blue Striped Snappers, Panamic Porkfish and Yellow-tailed Goatfish.

    For the minutia of the reef, Isla Cerralvo is a macro photographer's dream. Surrounding this small spot of land, actually the third largest island in the La Paz territory, are several small pinnacles rising from depths of 60 to 100 feet with their tops just breaking the surface. Along their rough contours is a cornucopia of juvenile reef fish, flatworms and nudibranchs. Among this location's critters are rare red and white Banded Seahorses and Blue Spotted Jawfish. A 100 to 200mm lens is strongly suggested to capture the Blue Spotted fellows.

    While the five day voyage will often include Isla Cerralvo, the eight day itinerary (which also includes Cabo Pulmo) extends north to Bahia de Los Angeles (Bay of Los Angeles).

    The diving off La Paz, in the Sea of Cortez's southern region is considered among the best offered by the Baja Peninsula. Miles of rocky reef systems offer deep, undercut terraces, steep drop-offs, large caves and huge pinnacles rising from the seafloor to the surface. The biggest attraction, of course, are the schooling Hammerheads, Manta and Mobula Rays and Whale Sharks.

    Special sites in this area include Los Islotes, Las Animas to the far north and, of course, the famous seamount El Bajo. Acclaimed for being the first site where schooling Hammerheads were seen, El Bajo is comprised of three large, pinnacles rising from the seafloor at 120 feet, with their crests 55, 70 and 90 feet from the surface. Dives conducted in the late afternoon seem to be the best for seeing Seľor Big.

    Overall, Las Animas is my personal favorite. There is plenty of sea lion action and, occasionally, divers will spot Hammerheads in groups of 3 to 12. The intriguing topography includes several pinnacles (rising from depths of 90 feet) and a large marine cave system deep within the island.

    If you have a few extra days to spend, either before or after your trip on the Solmar V, or prefer to be land-based, Amigos Del Mar can set you up. When it comes to diving Cabo the staff members are experts. In addition to maintaining the diving operation onboard the Solmar V, Amigos Del Mar also handles diving services for the beautiful 110 suite, 14 studio unit Hotel Solmar, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. From its main base at Cabo San Lucas, Amigos Del Mar features a small fleet of three dedicated dive boats. Two of these spacious trimarans (the 33 foot Amigo I and 37 foot Gran Amigo) have been modified for diving; the Amigo II is a 25 foot twin outboard speed boat. The three boats run half and full day trips to Anegada Pinnacle, one of the fishiest spots in Cabo San Lucas Bay; the Arch, with a resident sea lion population; Gordo Banks and Cabo Pulmo, both all day adventures with lunch provided.

    For more information on booking passage with the Solmar V, contact Cabo Resort Reservations at (800) 344-3349 or (310) 459-9861 in California, fax (310) 454-1686 or write to P.O. Box 383, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.