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 Mexicos Sea of Cortez to fish with a few
of his lifelong pals. I couldnt 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 uncles sea stories. To me, Uncle Herbs
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
Mexicos 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 worlds 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. Ive been surrounded
by swirling schools of jacks so dense that they did, indeed, block out
the sun. And like many Cortez divers, Ive 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 Rocks own Tarzan. But as I explored the Cortez over
the years, I began to realize that when it came to Herbs 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 Ive 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 wouldnt 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,
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 rays 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 doesnt soon forget,
and you just cant 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
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 dont 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
After my recent trip, I cant wait to tell Herbs family
about my adventures and to reassure them that one of my uncles
favorite places is as wild and wonderful as ever.