Memorable Encounters with Sea Creatures

By Eric Hanauer

What does it take to get a dive guide excited? Working on live-aboard boats, these people encounter big animals time after time; encounters we consider once in a lifetime thrills. Do they become jaded or are they as excited as we are in retelling sea stories?

I asked Rafael Cervantes, a veteran guide from the Solmar V, to follow his ships itinerary through the Sea of Cortez and recall his peak experiences. From July through October each year, Solmar V cruises the Sea of Cortez, hitting legendary sites such as Gorda Banks, Cabo Pulmo, El Bajo and Los Islotes. Our interview turned into a story telling session among Rafael, Jose Luis Sanchez (the owner of Amigos del Mar dive center and the Solmar Fleets U.S. representative) and myself. Each of us tried to top the others tales. Most of the stories dealt with the big critters that have put Baja California on the must-see lists of adventurous divers all over the world.

Our conversation, like the Solmar Vs itinerary, began at Cabo San Lucas and continued north. Gorda Banks is a seamount eight miles off San Jose del Cabo. The shallowest pinnacles are more than 100 feet deep, but the big action is in the water column, where you may see schooling Hammerheads, vast schools of tuna or Mantas. My first Whale Shark encounter occurred here, but one of my most memorable experiences happened on the surface. We were riding Amigos del Mars panga on the way to the banks when a pod of Orcas appeared. One veered off from its companions and surfaced right next to the boat to check us out, then disappeared underwater and came up again on the other side. Close enough to reach out and touch, it was longer than the panga. All of us were frozen, torn between fear (we had seen film clips of these animals slaughtering Blue Whales) and the intense desire to swim with Shamu. Before we could make up our minds the Orca had rejoined the pod, apparently deciding we were harmless and uninteresting.

Cabo Pulmo is renowned as the only coral reef on the west coast of North America. In truth the coral is only background; you dive there for the fish life. Jose Luis said, Ive seen schools of Wavy Grunts, large groupers and huge Amberjacks hunting. Ive been swimming through clouds of fish when everything goes dark because they blot out the sun. This area has been declared a national park and regulations are strictly enforced. Permits are required to dive here; Solmar V must anchor outside the reefs and bring divers in inflatables.

Rafael met his first Orca here. I was on the boat, he recalled, and saw some fins on the surface heading straight for us. I wasnt very excited, figuring it was Pilot Whales, which are quite common in that area. It was really big and really close, so I told the divers to jump in the water. Suddenly this huge male Orca looks up at the four of us on the ladder. It was rubbing its dorsal fin against the line hanging from the back of the boat. Six to ten feet away it turned around and took a good look; I was really scared but also very excited. The encounter lasted just a few minutes, but at that time only a handful of divers had ever swum with Orcas.

El Bajo is the crown jewel of the La Paz area. You never know what youll see hanging around its three pinnacles. On his first dive there, Rafael nearly saw it all. I followed a guide to the sandy bottom, which didnt seem to make much sense because it was 120 to 130 feet. I was thinking, Whats he doing, is he lost, where are we headed? A couple of Hammerheads showed up in the distance; we followed them, then there was another couple and another couple. Finally we turned around, there were 70 or 80 Hammerheads, from the bottom to as far as you could look up.

When we headed back to the middle pinnacle, big 30 to 40 pound Yellowtail Snappers surrounded it. The guide then took us to a crack at 60 feet, where one diver barely could fit. It was moray eel city, totally absurd. They were on top of each other, swarming around, looking at us and they just kept swimming.

Whale Sharks are occasional visitors throughout the Sea of Cortez. Rafael recalled, We were anchored at El Bajo, eating lunch, when [dive guide] Scott Sundby leaned over the side...started babbling and pointed down. Finally he screamed, Whale Shark! It was scratching itself on the side of the boat. I remember fins and masks everywhere, people running, completely chaotic;like the boat was going to explode. Everybody jumped in and for an hour and a half we were swimming with that Whale Shark. It remained near the surface; most of us were freediving. I was able to change film three times.

The Revillagigedo Islands, the Solmar Vs territory from November through May, are renowned for Manta Rays. But for six weeks during the summer of 1997, Cerralvo Island near La Paz was the Manta capital of Baja. For some reason, these Mantas seemed to enjoy human contact, hanging around to feel bubbles on their underside and allowing people close enough to touch. It was at El Bajo in the early 80s that divers first interacted with friendly Mantas. Since then they have reappeared every few years, mostly around La Paz and Gorda Banks.

At this point, a caveat is in order. Some people become disappointed if they dont see Whale Sharks, Hammerheads, Mantas and other huge beasts on every trip. In wild places such as the ocean, nothing is guaranteed. This isnt an underwater petting zoo; big animal encounters are at the option of the animal. In Baja you can expect the unexpected, but youre never sure where or when. If you dont meet Se-or Big on your trip, theres still lots to see, both topside and underwater. And theres always the chance of meeting him next time.

Having stated that, one place is fail-safe: the California Sea Lion rookery at Los Islotes. Im not talking about just a few; there are hundreds of sea lions of all ages. One ton males guard their harems and their pups with bluff charges, veering off at the last moment and blowing bubbles at divers who enter their territory. In the spring, playful pups may nip fins and regulator hoses. Ive dived with sea lions in California, but the Baja population seems more playful, more curious and friendlier toward divers, big bulls notwithstanding.

All these places and more are on the itinerary of the Solmar V, which has earned its reputation as the Sea of Cortez premier dive boat. A pair of V-12 diesels powers its 112 foot steel hull at a cruising speed of 11 knots. Twelve air-conditioned staterooms are equipped with private sinks, showers and heads, as well as color television with built-in VCRs. Two fresh watermakers provide 1,600 gallons per day, more than enough for washing gear, cameras and bodies.

The galley looks like a fine restaurant, done up in dark woods, polished brass and beautiful etched glass dividers depicting marine life. Diving is done from a spacious rear deck or from inflatables launched with an overhead crane. Never content to rest on their laurels, Solmars owners take her into drydock every June for improvements, many suggested by clients. Two years ago stabilizing fins were added to the hull, to minimize rolling. There have been three major upgrades in the past year. A rear sundeck was installed, providing a comfortable outdoor lounging and reading area. The camera table was made more accessible by removing some framework and fill stations around it. A second 18 cfm compressor was added, with long, dry fill whips. All you have to do is remove your regulator so the crew knows that you need a fill. When you return, your regulator will have been reattached and youll be ready to dive again.

The rich marine life of the Sea of Cortez hasnt been damaged by the warm waters of El Ni-o. So, if you still want more after a week on board Solmar V, consider staying over in Cabo San Lucas for some land-based diving. Everything can be arranged by contacting the Solmar Fleets U.S. booking agency, Cabo Resort Reservations, at (800) 344-3849, fax (310) 454-1686 or visit the Web site at http://www.sol mar.com. The mail address is P.O. Box 383, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.