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(I was one of three contributors to a Destination X story in the May/June issue of Dive Travel. The following is my dive briefing and live-aboard experience.)
Insider's Guide to Baja
Dive Travel Magazine, May/June 1997
At or near the surface of the water, the temperature is in the low 80s in summer and fall - at depth, the low 70s. Visibility ranges from 40 feet during plankton bloom to 100 feet-plus. The best conditions occur between June and November.
Due to Baja’s desert surroundings, air temperatures can exceed 100 in the summer - a good reason to stay in the water. For summer diving, a dive skin is plenty. During the late fall, wear a light wetsuit. Winter can require a quarter-inch wetsuit, hood and heavy gloves.
Conditions are calmest in the summer, although brisk winds can make it rough on the surface. But, Baja offers plenty of options year-round. Chances are, if conditions are bad in one place, they’re good somewhere else.
My article: Si to Shining Sea
Subhead: A log from the Sea of Cortez
Do I know the way to Don Jose? Sure do. I know it steams through the balmy Sea of Cortez above schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. It passes between cactus-filled shores lining aquamarine waters towards a vermilion sunset, following a spouting blue whale. It stops at a sea lion rookery to let its passengers frolic in shallow waters with playful pups. It hovers 70 feet above El Bajo Seamount, and lets us dive in waters shared with graceful manta rays, who glide on ten-foot wings through the warm waters near Isla Partida.
During my week-long live-aboard adventure on the Don Jose, I logged 17 dives in what is often called the "world's largest fish trap". Some divers with computers logged over 35. The weather was superb. The food was good. Conditions were splendid. And the diving was as diverse as promised.
My first day in La Paz, I marveled that a city of over 170,000 people can fuse so naturally with its surroundings. Home to fantastic sport fishing and day boats, there are many ways to experience La Paz. I opted for the Don Jose, an 80-foot motor vessel built in 1978 by master shipbuilder Don Jose Abaroa from a single mesquite tree.
As it turned out, the Don Jose had all the amenities for a comfortable live-aboard adventure. But, we were really there for the diving. It didn't take long to fill up my dive log with memories.
Los Islotes: Home of Playful Sea Lions. The new day breaks balmy and calm as we cruise out into the Sea of Cortez. We motor north towards our first dive site 25 miles away, as a school of dolphins rides the wake of our bow. Our first stop is Los Islotes, a trio of low-slung rocky islands with a sea lion rookery that is year-round home to several hundred friendly sea lions. With 85o water and 95o air, we dive shallow to watch the sea lions do forward flips, quick turns and have unbridled fun.
Isla Partida: The Manta Ray That Got Away. Overnight, we chug south one island to Isla Partida, an uninhabited outcropping of rock protected by huge boulders. One dive here is this trip's defining moment. I leave my camera on board. Big mistake! As we scour the rocks looking for morays, a shadow falls over me. Looking up, I see nothing but a giant Pacific manta ray. At ten-feet wide, the pelagic is a spectacular, almost eerie sight. As it flaps its majestic wings and floats by, gazing at us from one of its black eyes, four snorkelers from our boat swim by to take a closer look. The manta tilts towards us, then flaps its wings a few times and undulates away.
El Bajo - Hammerhead Central? This group of three pinnacles starts at 70 feet. Though we see six green morays in one dive - including a rare free-swimming eel, plus zillions of Cortez Angelfish, pufferfish, and more, we fail to see the scalloped hammerheads and whale sharks for which the area is famous. Still riding on the coattails of our manta moment, we're hardly disappointed.
Las Animas: Pangas, Pinnacles & Hammerheads. At Las Animas (“The Soul”), 40 miles north of Los Islotes, the pangas take us to the pinnacles northeast of the island where we dive one of the most exciting spots in the area. We go deep to 100' on the seamount east of Las Animas. For almost half an hour, we search the deep for hammerheads. Though I only spot one, the divemaster spots a large school of them at 150 feet.
El Bajo Seamount: That's A-Moray. Back at El Bajo Seamount, we hang for a few dives at 70 feet in heavy current eyeing dozens of moray eels that live in rock "condos" here on its craggy surface. The boat moves over to El Bajito, a small ridge near Los Islotes. We glide through coral canyons, a great macro photography area teeming with nudibranchs, Christmas tree worms and scorpionfish.
The Salvatierra: The Wreck That Was. Our last dive is on the Salvatierra, a 300-foot truck carrier lying in 60 feet of water. It's covered with a lush growth of fans and gorgonians - home to hundreds of Cortez angelfish, jeweled moray eels, sergeant majors, parrotfish and groupers. After exploring the vessel and taking macro shots, I realize I'm the last diver on the wreck. I corkscrew slowly toward the surface, around the mast, past the crow's nest. As I gaze upward at the Don Jose silhouetted by the blazing sun, I snap a mental picture of the ship that brought me so much enjoyment this week.
Adios! After an endless feast of diving, we glide ashore to the beach-lined Las Posada Hotel in La Paz, reluctantly trading in our sea-legs for terra firma. We walk along the sands, gazing at fishing boats idle in the harbor, surprised again by the town's quiet atmosphere, so much more peaceful than Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and other Americanized beach towns.
Later, as I thumbed wistfully through my log book, the ink on its pages scarcely dry, I marveled at the variety of new experiences chronicled on the sea-sprayed decks of the Don Jose. Before I even boarded my flight home, I was ready to return to La Paz and the remarkable diving that lingers off its shore.
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