Sea of Cortez

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    Sea of Cortez Trip Report – Rocio Del Mar Liveaboard
    Original Post by LeeParrish on ScubaToys (August 2010)

    A couple weeks ago I started to look at what I might do for a dive trip later this summer/fall. My September is pretty busy between going to Alaska fishing and work, so that was out, and I really didn’t see anything very interesting for October. I was checking the LiveAboards section on ScubaBoard to see if there were any trips listed there and I saw a message from Dora owner of the Rocio Del Mar that they had some openings for the week of August 7 – 14 for a Sea of Cortez expedition to the Midriff Islands. It was only a week away, but it sounded interesting so I contacted Dora for more details and began to check on flights. I was surprised to find I could get a free flight using my AA miles on American without any problems, I guess Phoenix isn’t a popular destination in August. So I went ahead and booked it, and then frantically started to get my gear together.

    So just a week later I’m getting up early (4:15 AM) for my 6:00 AM flight out of Tulsa through Dallas and arriving in Phoenix at 9:10. It was a good day for the airlines, I actually arrived a little early. Dora recommended a shuttle service HeadOutToRockyPoint for transportation from the Phoenix airport down to the Puerto Peñasco where the Rocio Del Mar sails. So as soon as I had collected my luggage they picked me up and we began to pick up other divers that were heading down on the same trip. The van ended up having 11 of us total, all going on the same dive trip. The trip is about 4 hours through the Sonoran desert and we stopped a few times for food and breaks and while riding in a van for 4 hours wasn’t my favorite part of the trip it was a great time to get to meet everyone.

    We arrived in Puerto Peñasco in the mid-afternoon and boarded the boat. It’s a very nice boat, custom built for diving so it has a great layout and a spacious dive deck. The boat is set up for a max of 22 passengers, but we only had 13 so there was extra space for everyone, though I doubt it would have felt crowded even with 22 on board. The cabins are all very nice, with private head and shower facilities in each one. I shared a cabin with Adam, a diver from Chicago for the week. He ended up being my dive buddy for the week as well. The rooms are big enough for their primary purpose, which is sleeping, but you really don’t spend much time in them, or at least I didn’t. The entertainment room has nice leather furniture and a flat screen TV, DVD and VCR, and karaoke machine, though I didn’t see anyone using it, I guess we didn’t have any aspiring singers on board. They also had a nice selection of books, including some signed copies of Humann and Deloach’s book “Reef Fish Identification, Baja to Panama” which we all used to identify the different fish we found during the trip. There is also a great area to sit on the second deck that is shaded, as well as the entire upper deck is available if you want to get some sun. The upper deck is usually where the coffee drinkers ended up for the first cup of coffee every morning as we watched the sun come up over the glassy sea.

    We left port later that afternoon and the seas were pretty rough once we cleared the harbor breakwater. I was feeling pretty good until I went down for dinner and then decided maybe I didn’t want to mess with a good thing and just skipped dinner. I had eaten enough snacks when we boarded that I wasn’t really hungry, and was pretty tired from getting up at 4 in the morning, so I decided maybe the best place to wait out the rough seas would be in my bunk sleeping. So I called it a night and slept through the roughest part of the voyage. I woke up early the next morning to calm seas and a nice warm and breezy day.

    The schedule is basically, eat and dive, with a little time to rest between meals or dives. They serve the first breakfast which is fruit, cereal, bagels, toast, and juices around 6:30. The first dive is usually at 7:30, and when we get back a hot, cooked to order breakfast was ready and waiting. So we ate our “second breakfast”, and then got ready for the second dive. Of course after that dive it was usually about time for lunch, which was usually a soup and something else tasty. Then it’s time to do a couple more dives in the afternoon, usually with snacks between them, or if we were doing a night dive we’d do an afternoon dive, take a break, then eat dinner, then head out for a night dive. Though because it would get dark so late we usually ate dinner fairly late, and did a couple late evening dives in place of one of the night dives.

    I’ll leave out a detailed account of every dive site as the photos do tell a pretty good story of the different things we encountered as we slowly worked our way south. The diving is varied, and each dive was a new exploration. Some were shallower, some deeper, and most had at least some current. A few sites had significant current, and were set up as fun drift dives where you could just fly along watching the scenery go by. These were some of my favorites. Another favorite of mine was a pair of small islands a little further south we dove on called, “Morrito 1” and “Morrito 2”. The first dive started out as a fairly deep wall (70+ feet) with a decent current to push you along. I found both a jeweled and green moray, a pair of blue lobsters, as well as a nice sized octopus on the wall portion of the dive. Later it turned into a wide shallow reef between the two islands. Here we found many small fish, including Hawkfish, and many sponges and gorgonians. The water was warmer here, in the mid-80s the entire dive. I think what I liked the most was on the shallow reef area there was a rubble field that had a colony of Bluespotted Jawfish. The males were in breeding colors and each would swim up out of it’s burrow for a few seconds to try to find a girlfriend. Mixed in with them were a few garden eels. I could have spent the whole dive just watching these little fish. The second dive here was a smaller island, but it had a huge fish population, from Angels to big schools of Creolefish and cloud after cloud of Scissortail damsels. I probably could have dove these sites for the rest of the week without getting bored, but the Sea of Cortez has so much more to offer we headed off that afternoon to see other areas.

    I have one small accident early in the week. I was gearing up and I guess I didn’t have my wrist computer latched well on my arm. I went over to dump some water out of my mask over the side and plop, my computer fell in the ocean and starting drifting down. Luckily Dora (the DiveMaster and boat owner) and I were already geared up getting ready to go on a dive, and I have a backup console computer, so we jumped in and headed down to search for the missing computer. The current was ripping, and viz wasn’t great due to the current picking up sediment off the bottom, which meant we couldn’t see the bottom until we were nearly on it at 92 feet, and had probably about 10 to 15 feet of viz. The current separated Dora just as we hit the bottom, so I started searching for her, and by the time I found her a few seconds later she had already found the computer. It was right where she hit the bottom, sitting on the sandy bottom. I guess Dora fell at exactly the same rate and angle as the computer did. Looking at the computer data it took nearly 2 minutes to fall 92 feet, mainly due to the current that helped keep it from falling at full rate. So we regrouped, headed up, did our safety stop, but when we surfaced we were about half a mile from the boat. Luckily one of the zodiac drivers saw us and was there in a minute to haul us back to the boat where we got out, refilled our tanks, and went on the regularly scheduled dive. And for the rest of the week I made sure my computer was well latched before getting near the water!

    All in all the diving was great. Visibility was variable, with the heavy tidal flow the the Sea of Cortez experiences a dive site can change conditions quickly, and great viz can drop when the tide starts to push or pull. One notable dive later in the week was planned to be between a cut in an island at a site called “Caballo”. The dive guides had checked it and reported that it looked workable, so we loaded up the zodiac and headed out. Out boat was the first in, and we were planning to do a negative entry, all descend quickly as a group, and then try to stay together as best we could since the current was still running fairly strong. This worked fine for about the first 10 minutes of the dive as we worked our way along a ridge that partially blocked the current. But then we got to a place where the current was much stronger and we were all hanging on to rocks to keep from getting swept away. In a few seconds the rock I had hold of gave way and the other 4 followed me as we began to be swept along in the current. The only problem was that the current was pushing us away from the area we had planned to dive and out across a big sand flat in about 70’ of water. While flying along we did cross a huge field of garden eels, and then right through a big school of Cortez Barracuda. Once we all agreed that it was better to end the dive we deployed an SMB and head up for a safety stop since we were getting farther and farther from the dive site. When we surfaced the zodiac was waiting, and then we found out that the other zodiac had aborted the dive about 5 minutes in and had returned to the boat already. Luckily we regrouped and were able to dive in a sheltered cove nearby, though none of us could quit talking about the wild ride we had been on earlier that afternoon.

    Sea Lions frequently joined us on our dives. The males would swim along bellowing under water letting us know where their territory was and warning us to stay clear. The females and juveniles would swim around looking at us like they weren’t sure what we were. They would peer into your mask at times wondering what kind of strange creatures we were always blowing bubbles as we swam along and never going back to the surface. In one case there was one that would surface and get a breath, come down and blow it out in a cloud of bubbles and then go back and do it all over again. I think it was mimicking us and the bubbles coming out of our regulators. One of their favorite activities seemed to be to circle around us and swim at incredible speed as they showed off their underwater agility. Most of the time it seemed they just wanted to play, and the more you interacted with them the longer they would stick around. If they followed up back to the zodiac they would often look like sad puppies after we got out of the water, seemingly upset that we weren’t going to stay around and play.

    One evening after ending our diving and heading for a new site we spotted a pod of Sperm Whales. They were off in the distance, but quite a sight to see these huge creatures on the surface getting ready to dive. When we asked how deep the water was in the area the captain said 600m (almost 2000 feet). These whales were likely swimming down in search of the large Humboldt squid that live in the area. We never saw any Humboldt squid, but after the night dive one evening the lights of the boat attracted some squid in the 18” to 2 foot range and they were fun to watch. They were much faster than I had expected, looking like rockets in the water as they hunted for small fish that the lights had attracted. The night dive itself was awesome, quite a few creatures out at night, but what was just as memorable was not just the dive, but it was a new moon, so when we surfaced you could see the sky like nowhere I’ve been in many years. No light pollution, just the boat lights off in the distance and when you looked up it looked like someone had painted the Milky Way in colors you just can’t see when near a city.

    The days went quickly with the dive, eat and repeat schedule. The food was great and hearty. I never was hungry, and often after a meal I didn’t think that I’d be hungry for the next meal, but a dive or two always made me ready to head down and get the next meal. Thursday night we had a BBQ on the upper deck with grilled beef, tortillas, beans, and a very interesting cactus salad. And of course a few “cerveza” to wash it all down. A great meal and a wonderful place to sit and eat, as you could look up and see the stars in high definition as you enjoyed good food and good company.

    Our last dive day was scheduled to be a morning dive, then time to look for whale sharks, then an afternoon dive before we began the journey back to Puerto Peñasco. The morning dive was good, but I think we all were so full of anticipation for whale sharks that it was hard to concentrate on much of anything else. That is until I started to find quite a few Tiger Nudibranchs (Roboastra tigris) and then one of the other divers, Bob, finds a FrogFish. I thought we couldn’t do much better than that when he almost immediately finds a nice sized orange colored Pacific Seahorse. So while we may have started out thinking about the whale sharks later in the day we quickly turned our attention back to the dive at hand. We get back from the dive, move the boat to a different location and the zodiacs head out to search for whale sharks. They radio back for us to get ready that they’ve found a few. We were only allowed to snorkel with these fish, but that works better anyway, they are pretty quick, and usually right on the surface feeding in the area we were going to see them. So we load up on the zodiacs and head out. Soon we started to see the telltale signs of dorsal fins and the tips of tails above the water as we neared the site. We all tried to quietly slip in on the first few sharks we saw, but they usually swam away fairly quickly. I decided to stay in the water and wait to see if one might return, and in a few minutes a large adult came swimming by. This one was taking it’s time and feeding along the surface and didn’t seem to be bothered at all if I swam next to it. I started to shoot video and followed this giant around for as long as my legs would hold out. In the end it was pretty amazing to be swimming with the largest fish in the ocean. The one I followed was at least 25 to 30 feet long, and it’s tail was easily 5 to 6 feet tall. I’m not sure how many there were in total, but there had to be at least a dozen, including some smaller juveniles and larger adults.

    One last dive after the whale sharks, though we were all so tired from swimming around that I’m not sure anyone would have complained too much if we hadn’t done the last dive, but most everyone decided they couldn’t miss out on one last dive in the Sea of Cortez. I tried to stretch it out as long as possible, not really wanting the diving to be over, but in the end I felt very fortunate to be able to explore the Sea of Cortez. It’s an area unlike any I’ve been to before, a mix of both tropical and temperate creatures, with a huge variety of different habitats and creatures. It was really interesting how each dive could be so different, if even only separated by a few miles or sometimes as close as different sides of the same island. It’s really a magical place, very remote for being so close the US, and I can only image how much more there is to explore.

    We left Friday night to head back to Puerto Peñasco and about 4 in the morning on Saturday the boat began to rock harder and harder. The winds had whipped up some pretty heavy swells and they were aligned so that we couldn’t cut through them but had to work our way through the wave crests and troughs to get back to Puerto Peñasco. While I thought the ride out was rough, this made that seem like nothing. I ended up not sleeping much after 5 when I went out on the deck to hang on the rail and watch the waves bounce us back and forth. A few miles out of port a huge pod of dolphins chased the boat through the waves but didn’t stay long as we seemed to be going to slow for these graceful creatures as they jumped and played in the heavy seas like it was a treat for them. We pulled into Puerto Peñasco and loaded up the van and headed back to Phoenix where I caught my flight back to Tulsa.

    All in a all a great trip, and somewhere I’d definitely like to go back and explore more some day. The Rocio Del Mar was a great boat, and the crew was wonderful. I hope many others will take the time to go experience their hospitality and live the adventure that is the Sea of Cortez. I’ve posted the photos from the trip here: Sea of Cortez 2010

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