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  • 2001-05 Big Adventures
    in Cortez
    by Marty Snyderman

    When I was a kid growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, my Uncle Herb used to take me hunting and fishing in the woods, lakes and streams around home. Every once in a while he would leave me to my own devices, while he headed off to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to fish with a few of his lifelong pals. I couldn’t wait for them to return with tales of adventure and stories about fish the size of the boat. They had photographs and fillets to verify their comments about the ones they caught, so I guess I was inclined to believe what Herb told me later about the ones that got away, “Big as the boat. Some a lot bigger. Get a load of that, kid!”

    Big Adventures in Cortez

    I sat frog-eyed and slack-jawed for hours on end, as I listened intently to every word of my uncle’s sea stories. To me, Uncle Herb’s tales of adventure made the Sea of Cortez the Africa of the underwater realm. I was certain that if Tarzan had been a scuba diver he would have met Juanita, and together they would have explored the waters along Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Afterward, I used to look at a globe and study the lay of the land in that far away place, and I would repeatedly promise myself that someday I, too, would explore this wilderness. No question about it, the powerful allure of Baja had a grip on my spirit way back in my youth.

    Fifteen or so years later, I moved to San Diego and in one of those ways that life can be so amazing, the wilderness Uncle Herb had raved about was virtually in my backyard. Of course, a lot of things had changed in my life. For one, I had become a certified diver. But one thing that had not changed, not one iota, was the fact that the Sea of Cortez remained a vast, virtually unexplored marine wilderness. Those fortunate few who had gone before me had promised encounters with sharks, whales, dolphins, Manta Rays, sea lions and schools of fish so dense that they blocked out the sun and reefs that teemed with a marvelous variety of every imaginable creature from rainbow-colored nudibranchs to eels.

    I made my first dive trip in the Cortez sometime in the late 1970s. We had to take our own compressor and be totally self-contained, but the diving was everything I had hoped it would be. Over the years, I have swam with Whale Sharks, the world’s largest fish, at Gordo Bank, in waters off La Paz and at Cabo Pulmo toward the southern end of this long, deep and narrow sea. Some of these fish grow to the size of school buses, reaching proportions of close to 50 feet in length and weighing as much as 30,000 pounds. I have seen Sailfish and Striped Marlin slashing through tightly packed balls of baitfish during feeding frenzies as frantic tuna and dolphins joined in. I’ve been surrounded by swirling schools of jacks so dense that they did, indeed, block out the sun. And like many Cortez divers, I’ve enjoyed numerous dives swimming next to graceful Manta Rays, animals with 15-foot “wing-spans,” that circled me dive after dive.

    Few dives are more fun than being at a sea lion rookery in late summer and fall. During this time of year, a typical morning at a rookery reminds me of recess at an elementary school. Pups are beginning to explore the underwater world with a just-found sense of confidence, and the yearlings cavort in seemingly endless games of tag and chase. At first glance it all looks like good fun. But these “games of youth” are training rituals that help prepare the youngsters for the battles of dominance they will fight as adults when males compete in an effort to establish breeding territories, and females fight to fend off or accept the males they choose to sire their offspring.

    In my family, Uncle Herb had a well-earned reputation for being able to embellish a story, and the facts be damned if it would help him get a good belly laugh at a punch line or make one of the kids think he was Little Rock’s own Tarzan. But as I explored the Cortez over the years, I began to realize that when it came to Herb’s tales of the Cortez and the things he saw, I am not sure he exaggerated anything at all. There was no need.

    On many dives in the southern end of this 800-mile-long sea, I have seen schools of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks fill the water over me as I held my ground and watched in awe. Sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds of these muscular, strikingly handsome seven- to 11-foot-long sharks invaded the reef around awestruck divers.
    The Hammerheads were first studied to any significant degree at the El Bajo Seamount not far from the sea lion rookery at Los Islotes, and the offshore seafan-covered pinnacles and caves of Las Animas Island. It has been learned that the sharks gather by day, but leave the seamount to hunt as solitary predators at night, often swimming as far as 11 miles from the seamounts before returning near the break of day.

    Over the years, in the Sea of Cortez I’ve seen pods of Killer Whales, Pilot Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales and even the largest animals on earth, Blue Whales, as well as a variety of species of dolphins. There is no question in my mind that diving in the Sea of Cortez offers as good a chance on any given dive as anywhere in the world to dive with a variety of Mr. Bigs. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the Cortez is all about, and only about, Mr. Big. Certainly, that is not the case. The Cortez has it all, and fish life teems in the nutrient-rich, current-laden waters.

    I thought about many of the great experiences I had already enjoyed in the Sea of Cortez and wondered what adventures awaited me, as I was about to board the Solmar V for a week-long trip out of Cabo San Lucas this past August. Just like when I was a kid on the nights before Uncle Herb returned from his great adventures, anticipation and excitement prevented me from sleeping very soundly in the week before my expedition.

    It had been a few years since I had dived the southern end of the Cortez, and having seen the explosion of hotels, restaurants, shops and even discos when I arrived in Los Cabos, I feared the impact on the surrounding waters. The first few minutes of our first dive at the northern of Cerralvo Island alleviated some of my fears when we encountered a Manta Ray. The ray was accompanied by a pair of 21¼2-foot-long remoras, firmly attached to the ray’s cephalic lobes.

    On the sand bottom below, ocean triggerfish tried in vain to defend their nests against swarms of marauding snappers, goatfish, wrasses, butterflyfish, King Angels and more that were trying to steal the eggs. It was, indeed, a good start to a great week.

    The following day we visited one of my all-time favorite sites, the sea lion rookery at Los Islotes, one of two major rookeries in the southern Cortez. In early August, the bulls were still vying for and protecting their turf, and the females were keeping a motherly eye on their pups, forcing us to keep some distance. However, some younger animals put on a good show, buzzing around us in athletic displays that clearly showed off their mastery of the aquatic world. While returning from my first dive, I encountered another large manta as well as a squadron of four Mobula Rays, a species that people often confuse as baby mantas.
    That same afternoon we went out in the pangas (skiffs) to observe a small pod of Blue Whales. An average-sized adult Blue Whale is roughly 80 feet long; much bigger than many boats. Being close to big whales in a small skiff is the kind of experience one doesn’t soon forget, and you just can’t help but feel like you are truly in the middle of a wilderness. An hour after sunset we were back in the drink, enjoying a great dive, interacting with a Snowflake Eel, Jewel Moray, Hairy-legged Hermit Crabs and more.

    Later, at Las Animas Island, we were in for a special treat. Huge schools of baitfish swarmed in the current at the points of undersea pinnacles. The baitfish were being drilled by groupers, snappers and lightning-fast schools of jacks. The action varied from fast and furious to moments of relative calm, to fast and furious once again as the predators rushed the bait. This was the wild quality of the Cortez wilderness I had come for.

    The same could be said for a free-diving session with a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins that showed up in mid-afternoon. The dolphins were curious enough to come in for several prolonged encounters. During one, three members of our gang had five Striped Marlin come in for a once over. Wild! You don’t see Striped Marlin at a trout farm. It is hard to ask for anything more, but the next afternoon, a pod of more than 100 Pilot Whales showed up in the channel near La Paz. Unphased by the pangas, the whales spy-hopped, breached and tail-lobbed repeatedly at the surface in a wonderful show.

    For reasons yet undetermined, some Cortez reefs are home to astonishingly large numbers of moray eels. In fact, some icthyologists have claimed that El Bajo seamount, where Scalloped Hammerheads were first studied, is home to a greater number of moray eels than any other known dive site on earth. No one seems to know why but simply put, it seems like everywhere one looks there is a moray or two with a mouth-full of needle sharp teeth that photographers find irresistible.
    Sometimes, as I age, I worry that places I once dived as wilderness have been turned into “trout farms,” sites where divemasters know every fish and invertebrate on every reef. I suppose this is good thing in some places, but to me and everyone else who knew my Uncle Herb, the Cortez has always been an icon of wilderness, a place where not knowing exactly what you will see is a big part of the excitement and allure.

    After my recent trip, I can’t wait to tell Herb’s family about my adventures and to reassure them that one of my uncle’s favorite places is as wild and wonderful as ever.