Bigger and Badder in Baja

The complete diver's guide

Text and Photography by James Forte

For the last seven years I have been making the short three hour flight out of Los Angeles to explore the riches of the Sea of Cortez and Baja, California. I have made this trip every year without fail to see the abundant marine life available in the Sea of Cortez. The possibilities of encountering schooling hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins, sea lions, and the thousands of colorful reef fish that live here keep me coming back for more. This particular trip, however, would be one of my best yet. I was asked to find and interview the local divemasters, who dive day in and day out in this spectacular region. I had already befriended many divemasters from my previous trips and heard some great stories, but this time I'd find out which dive sites were their favorites, and get their best sea stories for a trueinsider's guide to Baja.

La Paz Divemasters

Nelson Cota, Javier Mora & Ricardo Fifield of the Cortez Club: These three have been diving for eight years and have worked around Baja as divemasters. When asked for their best sea story, they simultaneously answered, "schooling hammerheads.

"Nelson's favorite dive site for these sharks is Isla Las Animas, an island and group of pinnacles north of La Paz. Diving off the main island starts at the surface and continues down to 120 feet or more. Near the surface, balloonfish, damselfish, moorish idols and sea turtles can be spotted. Diving with the hammerheads is not for the beginning diver as they are often found at depths from 100 to 150 feet.

Javier prefers Isla Los Islotes, a California sea lion rookery. Off the west end in the deeper water, you can find schools of barracuda and sardines and on occasion large groups of mobula rays or hammerheads.

Ricardo, who ended up as my divemaster on this trip, prefers searching the El Bajo sea mounts for sharks. "Here," he said, "you can just sit on the bottom (95 feet) of the north mount and look up for sharks, billfish, schooling jacks and tuna that are sure to pass by."

Enrique Castillo of Scubaja: Enrique is the managing director and head divemaster for Scubaja, one of the newest operators in La Paz. He has been working in the La Paz area for ten years and decided two years ago that he would create Scubaja. Enrique said the wall dive at La Reinita is his favorite. Starting at about 45 feet, the wall is covered with seafans, cup corals and schools of colorful reef fish. You can continue along the wall or descend and look for schooling hammerheads and other large pelagics that may swim by.

Alfredo Barroso of Baja Expeditions: Alfredo was born and raised in Cuba where he learned to dive. After watching Howard Hall's film Shadows in a Desert Sea, Alfredo wanted to see hammerheads, and so he moved to La Paz in 1994. Alfredo's two favorite dive sites are the El Bajo seamounts and the wreck of the Salvatierra. In five years of diving at El Bajo and the surrounding area, Alfredo has filmed sperm whales, orcas, false killer whales, pilot whales, dolphins, marlin, whale sharks, mantas, and, of course, hammerhead sharks. On the Salvatierra, there is an amazing abundance of fish and invertebrate life as well as gardens of black coral.

Adria Rocio Lozano of Baja Quest: Rocio learned to dive in 1986 while learning oceanography. In 1991, she moved to La Paz to lead adventure travel trips in the Sea of Cortez. She has three experiences that she puts at the top of her list. At Isla Las Animas, seven hammerhead sharks circled 20 feet from her and three other divers for half an hour. At another time, a friendly manta played with her for 40 minutes at Isla San Benedicto. Recently, 12 whale sharks gathered to feed in a 200 square yard area near La Paz.

East Cape Divemasters

Mark & Jennifer Rayor of Vista Sea Sport: A husband and wife team, Mark and Jennifer moved to Buena Vista eight years ago for retirement. After diving in the rich, beautiful waters of his new home, Mark decided to go back to the states, upgrade his divemaster rating to instructor and purchase enough dive gear to start Vista Sea Sport. Jennifer also became an instructor and partner in the business.

Cabo Pulmo Marine Reserve is the highlight of East Cape and the only live hard coral reef system off North America's west coast. Mark picked El Bajo de Los Morros, a drift dive and part of the reserve, as his favorite dive. This half mile expanse of hard corals has the best visibility in the area. Mark recalled an experience at the end of a guided tour when they heard porpoises and then watched them play around the divers.

Jennifer told us of Punta Perico, an advanced diving area with large boulders at 65 to 70 feet that form monument-like rock formations with large swim-throughs and loads of reef fish.

Cota Trasvina of Vista Sea Sport: Trasvina, known as "Chuy" by all the locals, was our captain the day we dived with Vista Sea Sport. Chuy started operating boats as a captain and fisherman at age 13. Now 33, he is using 20 years of local reef knowledge to put divers on the best sites possible. El Bajo is his favorite dive site. He has fished it his entire life and has now found it to be an even better as a place for diving. One day, as he was looking around the blue waters during a safety stop, a large whale shark swam up to him and waited for him to finish his stop before moving on.

Raphael Peyras of Vista Sea Sport: Raphael is a French diving instructor making his way around the seas to learn the names and habits of as many fish as possible. In the year Raphael has spent in Baja, he has logged more than 200 dives. He came to the Sea of Cortez in search of the large pelagics that frequent Gorda Banks, the home of "Senor Big." Up to 100 schooling hammerhead sharks can be found here, as well as dorado, marlin and sailfish, and humpback whales in the winter months.

Cabo San Lucas Divemasters

Hector Peredo Aquirre of Pacific Coast Divers: Hector's 11 year diving career started in the Gulf of Mexico, where he spent three years as a commercial diver. He moved to Cabo San Lucas to work as a divemaster.

Like many of the divemasters in the area, when asked his favorite dive site, Gorda Banks took first place. Hector's favorite dive at this site was on Mother's Day. The sea conditions that day were calm and incredibly clear. Just as they got down a short distance, a school of hundreds of hammerheads surrounded him and the other divers. After returning to the boat from the first dive, he went in for a snorkel, something he rarely does. Just after he entered the water, a 35 foot whale shark swam up and stayed around long enough for all the divers to hop in and enjoy. The day we dived Gorda Banks with Hector and Pacific Coast Divers we experienced a large school of hammerheads ourselves.

Jorge Shulz Harp of J&R Divers: Jorge had the most years in diving of anyone we interviewed: 28 years as a diver, 14 years as a divemaster/instructor and 10 years as owner/operator of J&R Divers.

He told us a little about the local diving. "...[many] Pacific fish species can be found in the Sea of Cortez, often in large schools." This abundance of marine life is in large part due to the plankton rich waters. Sometimes, however, the masses of life-giving plankton can change dramatically. The east side of Blow Hole is his favorite dive site. "Here you can run into turtles, schooling big eye jacks, groupers, and large Pacific mantas. I also really like blue water diving off our deeper pinnacles in the winter months for humpback whales."

Devore Sherman and Victor Arriaga of Baja Dive: Tired of the busy city life in Los Angeles, Devore moved to Baja in 1983. In 1987, he moved to Cabo to work as a divemaster with the local operators. Devore is now the head divemaster and a partner in Baja Dive. His favorite site is Cabo Pulmo. "It's simple," he said, "You have the coral reef, lots of fish, mantas, whale sharks, warm water, and decent visibility year-round."

Another Baja Dive employee, Victor Arriaga was the oldest divemaster we met in Cabo. Victor has been diving and living in Cabo for 19 years. He chose The Point and The Shipwreck at Lands End as his favorites. Both can be visited on the same tank of air and both are loaded with schooling bait fish, California sea lions, moray eels and, on this particular trip, a large school of skip jack tuna feeding on bait fish.

Dustin Lohrman and Donna Juday of Underwater Diversions: Owner and operator of Underwater Diversions, Dustin moved to Cabo San Lucas to open his business six years ago. Dustin has been an instructor for seven years and has been diving since he was 13. He is now 25. Dustin now has three boats and specializes in diving his favorite dive site, Gorda Banks.

Donna Juday had been diving for two years when she decided to move to Cabo from Phoenix, Arizona. Donna picked her favorite dive site and experience with ease. She said, "Here I am diving at the Blow Hole and I hear the humpbacks singing behind me out in the blue water. As I turn around to hear them better, I see that a pair are swimming by me. I'm sure you can imagine the shock and joy I felt that day."

Antonio Luevanos Godinez of Amigos Del Mar: Antonio has 20 years of experience, many as a commercial diver and instructor. Having been in Cabo for the last 15 years, Antonio had more than his fair share of stories. His favorite dive site is the canyon that was once visited and made famous by the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Sand Falls is a small portion of a long wall that goes from the Arch, back in to the bay and ending at Pelican Rock. Large seafans, schools of fish, manta rays, eagle rays, and sharks are often spotted here. Antonio recalled sitting at a safety stop near the Arch end of the wall when a giant Pacific manta appeared and stayed around until being moved out by a whale shark who was also curious about the divers.

Scott Sunddy of the M/V Solmar V: Scott is probably the most well known divemaster in Cabo and is referred to by all who know him as "Scott Ray." He has been diving for 12 years. Scott spent 260 days last year on the live-aboard dive boat Solmar V. He has identified and helped educate others in identifying more than 117 giant Pacific mantas.

The Solmar V specializes in live-aboard dive trips to the Islas Revillagigedos. The four islands, Isla San Benedicto, Isla Socorro, Isla Roca Partida, and Isla Clarion, lie 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas. Scott told me of his favorite dive site and dives. "...Isla Roca Partida...has to be my favorite. I know of eight species of sharks that live here. I have counted seven species of sharks at one time during a dive. I have seen the rare porbeagle shark as well. Another time I had 50 dolphins swim by, including a rare albino...." Scott also mentioned that for those looking for mantas, The Boiler at Isla San Benedicto is pretty much a guarantee.

Axel Witteveen of Tio Sports: Axel is a Belgian who made his way to Cabo San Lucas. His favorite dive site is Land's End. "There is so much diversity-lobsters, rays, turtles, and schooling fish. The energy in the water is awesome. There is also a fishing boat wreck that has seafans and gorgonians that are magnificent...."

John Fox of Cabo Aquadeportes: John's parents, John and Molly Fox, started one of the first diving operations in Cabo and became the first NAUI Pro facility. Today, John Jr. is running the family business. John's favorite site is deep under Pelican Rock, a wall that is seldom dived due to its depth. Pelagics, schooling fish, seafans and the unknown are easily found here. He calls this dive The Church. He feels as though you can be touched by God when diving along his favorite wall.