Where Man and Manta Meet
A Solmar V Adventure to the Wild Islas Revillagigedos
by Walt Stearns
Making a safety stop at five feet, I looked below me and couldnt help but laugh. The scene resembled a game of follow the leader as two large Manta Rays, both with wingspans of roughly 17 feet, cruised in formation, with a lone videographer bringing up the rear. My encounter with them had lasted close to 20 minutes. Now out of film and low on air, I could only watch my two new piscine friends and my dive partner, Jose Moya, a professional videographer from Spain, disappear into the distance. Minutes later the three reappeared, still in formation. As they came closer, it was obvious the mantas were not tired of playing.
When a manta wants to interact, it will typically take the initiative and, gliding overhead, bask in the divers bubbles. The mantas proximity allows the diver ample opportunity to gently caress its underside. This encounter can be a ballet of giant somersaults, with the manta making several slow passes overhead. The diver should not wear gloves and should take care not to hold onto the animal.
While I love getting close to my subjects, taking such an active role in this encounter took its toll. A foot above my head, two room sized animals had jockeyed for more tummy rubs until the skin on my fingertips was rubbed raw. Unlike a stingray's velvety belly, a manta's underside is highly abrasive. Next time, Jose gets to be the masseur!
While the first leg of our trip had provided plenty of large schooling fish, Hammerhead Sharks and one or two Manta Rays off Socorro Island, nothing compared to what we saw around San Benedicto Island. Everywhere we turned there were Manta Rays. Our best collective estimate for this day was somewhere in the neighborhood of 30.
Witnessing one of these immense, delta-winged giants glide effortlessly through the water is a memorable experience. Having a full acrobatic, tactile encounter was truly awe-inspiring. Among the destinations where divers can experience this with mantas, San Benedicto, in the Revillagigedos Islands, is one of the most noted. The specimens found in the vicinity of these islands are regarded as some of the largest in the Pacific, with wingspans as great as 21 feet.
To find the Islas Revillagigedos (also called the Socorro Islands) on a world map can be a bit of a challenge. The volcanic Revillagigedos three, tiny, desolate landmasses;San Benedicto (220 miles south of Baja), Socorro (35 miles south of San Benedicto) and Clarion (80 miles west);seldom amount to more than an ink dot. What they may lack in stature, they make up for in marine life encounters. Besides the large population of reef beauties such as Clarion and King Angelfish, Barberfish and Moorish Idols, the waters are also home to large schools of jacks, tuna and, of course, Scalloped Hammerheads and giant Manta Rays.
What draws marine life to the Socorro Islands is a wealth of food, namely plankton, along with favorable water temperatures. Year-round temperatures range from 69¡F (owing to nutrient laden up-wellings) to highs of 82. Big animals such as Manta Rays and sharks tend to favor temperatures in the 70 to 76¡F range. Underwater visibility around the islands is customarily 80 to 100 feet but can sometimes fall to 35 to 50 feet where up-wellings occur (sometimes triggering plankton blooms). Unfortunately, for U/W photographers, the big fellows seem to like these areas. When conditions reach their apex, with temperatures in the mid 80s and visibility at 100 feet, the big guys are usually nowhere to be seen;too little food and too much warm water!
Currents ranging from one to four knots, sometimes combined with strong surge from oceanic swells, are a constant in the Socorro Islands. Owing to the location's remoteness and propensity for currents, there is no night diving.
Which wild and woolly Socorro Island's dive sites are visited is dictated by sea conditions. The underwater terrain is comprised of either a large submerged ridge, a boulder field on a sloping bottom or huge pinnacles shooting up from the depths. A trademark is the abundance of fish.
Two of San Benedicto's most prominent sites for manta encounters are the Boiler, a huge pinnacle rising more than 175 feet from the depths and stopping short of the surface, and the rocky, boulder laden shelf of Roca Fortuna.
Hammerheads can also be found here but, as with most oceanic nomads, there is no guarantee. The sites that provide the best odds for encounters include Cabo Pearce and Oneil Rock at Socorro and Roca Partida, a small sliver of rock lying almost midway between Clarion and San Benedicto. Even Roca Fortuna on San Benedicto's north side has a few Hammerheads (estimated at 100 to 150 sharks at one time) now and then.
In addition to the Hammerheads and mantas, the Socorro Islands are also visited by Humpback Whales from mid January to the end of April. Leaving the cold winter waters of Alaska, these large cetaceans come to the Socorro Island's warm waters to mate and give birth. Other visitors from the cetacean family include Bottlenose Dolphins, Pilot Whales and, occasionally, one or two pods of Killer Whales.
The Lap Of Luxury
Plying the waters of both the Islas Revillagigedos and the Sea of Cortez, the Solmar V is a genuine thing of grace and beauty. Measuring 112 feet in length she is a luxurious vessel, distinguished by her ambiance and unique decor.
The vessel's salon has the look and feel of a lavish, private pub or bistro. It is paneled with rich, polished mahogany, inset with bright brass railings and fixtures and lit by four stained glass lights. Four large, U-shaped booths, upholstered in deep forest green, provide seating for dining and lounging. Six, large decorative etched glass panels depict marlin, tuna, dolphins and a mermaid.
Creative detailing continues into the guest accommodations below decks. Comprised of six superior and six deluxe staterooms (accommodating a total of 22 divers), all have the same rich woodwork, private shower and head and vanity with sink and mirror. The cabins are cozy (roughly a meter square) but they feature air-conditioning, TV/VCR, soft, roomy bunks (two per cabin, with the exception of individual standard cabins well forward). Topside, the boat has a brand new sundeck.
When it comes to diving, the Solmar V is intense. The aft quarter deck is spacious, with a centrally located camera table (newly improved) and wide bench/ tank racks with individual gear storage bins underneath. The stern features a broad swim platform with a wide, in-water ladder system. Next to the aft rails are four, big freshwater rinse tanks (two for cameras, two for dive gear). The Solmar V also utilizes a pair of large, 21 foot inflatable tenders, called pangas. Operating effectively in the wilds of the Socorro Islands means using both methods.
With their sights set on Clarion Island, west of Socorro and San Benedicto, the live-aboard received new twin, turbo Detroit 12V-71s. The Solmar Vs fuel capacity has also been increased and a second, 18 cfm compressor added.
The target season for the Socorro Islands is November through May. Each trip is nine days long (including the 22 to 24 hour sea crossing from Cabo San Lucas), providing five and a half days of diving that begins with the marine wilderness of Socorro and San Benedicto. When weather conditions are favorable, the Solmar V often crosses over to Roca Partida, a slender spire of rock in the middle of nowhere with a reputation for plenty of sharks and other pelagic action.
In June, which is also the start of hurricane season in the Revillagigedos, the Solmar V retires to drydock, returning in late June for five and eight day charters in the Sea of Cortez.
The five day trip offers three days of diving on the noted hot spots of Cabo Pulmo and Gorda Banks. The eight day itinerary, with five and a half days of diving, ventures north of La Paz. Among the hit list is Los Islotes, home to the largest sea lion rookery in the Sea of Cortez, and Las Animas, with more sea lion action and a few Hammerheads. Not only is the Sea of Cortez noted for the dwarf species of manta, the Smoothtail (Mobula lucasana), it is also one of the better destinations in the Western Hemisphere for Whale Sharks sightings. Whale Shark season is from August to mid October. Although not guaranteed, the opportunity for seeing one or two of these behemoth is pretty good.
With its design and range, and the crew's members superior service and working knowledge of the Sea of Cortez and Socorro Islands, the Solmar V offers the most impressive dive experiences in the region.
For more information or reservations, contact Cabo Resort Reservations at (800) 344-3349, (310) 459-9861 in California or fax (310) 454-1686. You can also write to P.O. Box 383, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.
Bonaire Hotels and Resorts 1997 Winter Season: Hotels and resorts on Bonaire offer something for every lifestyle and budget this winter. Whether travelers choose an intimate six room guesthouse, a 224 room full service oceanfront resort or a fully equipped condominium, all are sure to enjoy Bonaire's year-round sunshine, world-renowned clear waters, wonderful coral formations and the most thriving fish population in the Caribbean. All rates are available through mid April 1997.
With 15 properties on the island offering rates starting at less than $70 per night, 14 offering rates less than $100 per night and 9 offering rates less than $140, Bonairean bargains are easy to come by. Deluxe accommodations are also available. Many are in and around the local capital, Kralendijk, and others offer waterfront accommodations steps away from world-class diving and snorkeling.
For more information, contact the Tourism Corporation Bonaire in the U.S. at (800) U-BONAIR/826-6247 or (212) 956-5911 or visit Bonaires Web Site at http://www.interknowledge.com/.