Diving La Paz Mexico
By Jon Anderson, December 10, 2018
Less than 30 minutes after leaving the dock at The Cortez Club in La Paz we spot a pair of young humpback whales near the San Rafaelito sea lion colony. The sea lions don’t seem to notice the spouting and fluking of the passing whales. We observe the whales for a few minutes then our captain throttles up so we can make it to our first stop of the day, Los Islotes. Los Islotes is a large California Sea Lion colony known for its playful sea lions and mesmerizing schools of baitfish. I am diving with local photo expert Nick Polanszky of Pro Photo Baja who knows the best spots to shoot on Los Islotes. We spend almost the entire dive under the arch near the west end of the island where the juvenile sea lions are extra playful. After an hour passes we make our way back to the boat through the thick schools of baitfish.
Before our second dive we drop off snorkelers from our boat at a beautiful secluded beach on the uninhabited Isla Espiritu Santo. From the boat, I notice a suspicious looking “rock” in the shallow water near the beach, a few minutes later the “rock” moves. “STONEFISH!!!”, we yell to the guide on the shore. Stone scorpionfish (Scorpaenna mystes) are extremely venomous with spines on their back that can seriously injury anyone who steps on them. Just off of the beach a pair of buoys mark the wreck of the Fang Ming, a 56 meter long Chinese fishing vessel that was sunk intentionally nearly 20 years ago as the first artificial reef in the Sea of Cortez. The wreck is nicely encrusted with a variety of corals and has become home to countless fish. We find a pair of turtles resting on the deck and a moray eel that has taken residence in one of it’s smoke stacks.
After two great dives, we head back toward La Paz to start searching for whale sharks. Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) congregate near La Paz from October to April to feed in the nutrient-rich waters. Several feeding whale sharks are located after a short search. The captain carefully positions the boat for us to slip into the water and snorkel with the feeding whale sharks for a few minutes before becoming exhausted. We return to the boat and alternate with the others in our group repeating the cycle a few more times.
Exhausted we head back to The Cortez Club reminiscing about the wonderful day we have had. That’s right humpback whales, playful sea lions, turtles on a wreck, and whale sharks all in just one day!
I came to La Paz with the intention of primarily shooting macro but had so much fun with the sea lions at Los Islotes that we decided to go back on the second day. Today Nick and I decide to explore more of the island. The number of baitfish sounding the island is mind-boggling, it feels like you are diving in fish rather than water at times. Hunting snappers and playful sea lions pierce through the schools causing fluid expansion and contraction. Despite not knowing how to shoot video with my camera, I switch the mode, adjust a few exposure settings and press record. At one point, Nick and I are in a shallow area where there are nearly a dozen young sea lions interacting with us. They are very playful until a large bull comes by and indicates that we should be on our way. We return to the arch from yesterday but today there are fewer sea lions playing here. I notice a well-positioned Panamic cushion star (Pentaceraster cumingi) and setup to take some vertical shots. Just when I start thinking I could really use a hero sea-lion, I get a hero snorkeler instead! After a few frames of what appeared to be flailing at the surface, Chris Verde from Pro Photo Baja decided to swim with perfect pose and positioning, camera at his side, saving my shot!
Our second dive today is on the USS Diploma/C59 wreck, a former US minesweeper laying on its side that was used by Mexican Navy prior to being intentionally sunk. This wreck is newer than the Fang Ming but still has lots of fish on it. I found myself attracted to the Cortez Angelfish that seemingly posed for me in the exterior passageways of the ship. When we surface from the C59 we discover it has begun raining and everyone is eager to get back to town.
Racing back through the rain we are signaled by another boat to slow down. Moments later a pair of humpback whales breach, one after another, perhaps the same pair we had seen the previous day. We are treated to a few more breaches and lots of fin slapping before heading back to The Cortez Club to get out of the rain.
Finally, on the third day I have put together my macro setup to go looking for the nudibranchs, blennies, and other small critters that I know live in the Sea of Cortez. Today it’s just me and Natalia Siqueira of Pro Photo Baja going out on the boat. We first go to Swanee Reef, a shallow site that is a mixture of healthy reef and coral rubble with lots of life. Natalia quickly finds a tiny eel, a Hyselodoris ghiselini nudibranch, and Tambja abdere nudibranch that unfortunately are not well positioned to photograph. Nearby I notice a tiny face sticking out of a large coral head, it’s a Browncheek Blenny (Acanthemblemaria crockeri). Examining the coral I find a few more and select one to photograph. Not far from the blenny I spot a Hypselodoris agassizii nudibranch cruising the reef. I wait for it to move into a better position then start photographing it. Before we know it, an hour has passed and it’s time to return to the boat. With the slow pace of macro photography we only covered a tiny part of Sawanee Reef but I am very excited for future critter hunts here! Coral rubble is one of the best places to find nudibranchs in the Philippines, I wonder if the same is true here.
We have an early lunch on the boat as we head back toward La Paz for our second dive at San Rafaelito. Even though there are quite a few sea lions on the small island that is not why we are here, we are interested in the tiny critters living here. Quickly after descending, I find a coral head like the one at Swanee Reef so I inspect it for browncheek blennies, sure enough, there is a little face looking back at me. I flip in my diopter, position my camera, and start shooting. A few shots in the blenny yawns, I squeeze the shutter hoping the shot is in focus, luckily it is. I try a few more techniques with the blenny before Natalia calls me over to show me a football-sized octopus she has found tucked under a boulder. After the octopus waves a tentacle at me a few times I decide to leave it alone. I spend the rest of the dive hunting for critters and attempting to photograph tiny gobies that dance around the coral.
With a few hours of remaining daylight, I decided to drive to El Sargento to experience the beauty of the desert ecosystem. I heard that the areas surrounding La Paz are a good for spotting the Northern Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway). As golden hour approaches, I spot a pair of Caracaras near the road sitting atop Saguaro cactuses. Surprisingly the birds let me get fairly close to them to snap a few photos. After stopping a few more times to photograph Saguaro cactuses I finally reach El Sargento where I enjoy some tacos and margarita as I peer off to the fading light on Isla Ceralvo.
After 3 days in La Paz, I have truly started falling in love with Baja California Sur and the Sea of Cortez. It is no wonder why Jacques Costeau, John Steinbeck, and Ed Ricketts chose to spend much of their time here. I can’t wait to return to La Paz to continue exploring the natural wonders of the region.
La Paz Restaurant Recommendations
Dulce Romero - A bakery and restaurant with healthy offerings made using local ingredients. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as a variety of baked goods. I had breakfast and dinner there, both were excellent.
Doce Cuarenta - A trendy coffee roaster with coffee beans from around Mexico and delicious baked goods. They open early enough to have a pastry and coffee prior to diving.
Big Sur Coffee - An aquatic-themed coffee roaster with coffee beans from all over Mexico. They also open early and have some pastries available. I am pretty sure they roast coffee for Dulce Romero as well.