Volcán Barceno, Isla San Benedicto
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Having enjoyed diving in the Sea of Cortez, I was excited to visit the same area again but wanted to return at a better time of year. Larry and I did exhaustive research and eventually agreed that the Solmar V liveaboard excursion to the Islas de Revillagigedo was a trip we couldn't resist. The four islands, commonly referred to as "Socorro" in English, are all volcanic in origin and the waters around them experience mixing ocean currents that attract and support abundant ocean life. Their fame of friendly manta rays, sharks, occasional bottlenosed dolphin encounters, and isolation from the mainland bustle of divers captured our interest.
After nine months of anticipation, we left Juneau on Dec. 12, 2001, which happened to be Wednesday of my last finals week at UAS, (I justified this trip as a graduation present to myself). Still spinning from school and packing, I boarded the Solmar V with Larry in Cabo San Lucas for the 250 mile, day-long crossing. Not far out of port and not long after dinner, I joined several other passengers in an unpleasant bout with seasickness; I was queasily hoping that the diving would be worth the discomfort while I lay pathetically in my bunk all night. Of course it was--we played with many truly friendly mantas, swam with six species of shark, (five on one dive), saw and heard dolphins very briefly, and saw all kinds of exotic fish, four species of morays, and so on. Swimming mantas are truly one of the most graceful things I've ever seen; at the Boiler several individuals stayed with the divers throughout both days we were there, alternately cruising by at eye level and stopping overhead for a pat. For any divers planning a trip there, I'll give a hint on how to pet a manta. When they hover above you, don't linger--swim for it! Not that you want to come crashing into them, but they don't wait forever and often they're some twenty feet overhead and in front of you. A tiny twitch of their wings and they're zooming off. (Just being around such large and curious creatures is reward enough, though, even without the pats). The Boiler off Isla San Benedicto is a terraced sea mount and apparently a cleaning station for the mantas. We watched Clarion angelfish clean one individual as it swam by and I wondered whether the mantas have learned how to respond to divers in order to be petted--we assume this feels nice--just as we've learned to respond to them, (one of our dive masters gave a very detailed account of just how to interact with the mantas before our first dive). By hovering above the divers they know they can expect pats on their bellies just as they know the fish will clean them when they visit the Boiler. I think it's a reasonable theory, but it doesn't account for the eye contact and the obvious interest in us, so there's clearly more going on. Just recently, Larry and I watched an episode of PBS's Secrets of the Ocean Realms series in which there was a scene of mating bat rays; the males swam beneath the females, rubbing their heads against the bellies of their mates in just the location that most human-to-manta petting takes place. Perhaps this is a sensitive place on many rays, and maybe the mantas that like to be touched, (about 30% of them, according to our dive master), are females!
The Panamic green morays were abundant everywhere and posed beautifully for our cameras. We were lucky enough to visit Roca Partida, (the seas have to be relatively light), where there are few holes in the rock fit for a moray so the eel inhabitants had to rest completely exposed or lay in crevices. Roca Partida is the plug of an old volcano and lies some 50 miles west of the other islands we visited. Only 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, it is just about as intimidating as a dive site can be. We dove from pangas in four to ten foot seas, (I'd have been terrified to be out in a skiff in seas like that in Juneau)! Everybody rolled backwards off the boat at the same time and immediately dropped beneath the surface to escape the swells and allow the captain to start the engine and pull away from the surf pounding against the sheer cliffs. The wall beneath the water continued almost straight down out of sight. Roca Partida is famous for sharks and on our first dive we saw a hammerhead, a dusky, big schools of Galapagos, some silvertips, and whitetip reef sharks. Unfortunately, most of them were below 100 feet so the diving was deep; at least the visibility was good so we had ample light to see by, if not enough for photography. Quite a different experience diving to 100 feet in Juneau! What made the diving at Roca Partida challenging were the surge and the underwater currents. Being the only piece of land for miles, water pounds against the rock and causes vertical currents in both directions which can significantly alter a diver's depth without their being aware of it, especially if you're staring out into the deep blue in search of sharks. At one point I was at 120 feet gazing down at about seven large Galapagos sharks swimming 15 or 20 feet below me. A few moments later, I noticed that there were sharks at eye level, which was pretty exciting until I realized that a current had swept me down to 138 feet! In other places, closer to the surface, the surge spun us in ten-foot-diameter circles. This was fun once we relaxed, especially since the fish were forced to ride it along with the divers, but a little frustrating when we tried to go anywhere or photograph something on the rock.
We started our diving at Isla San Benedicto as soon as we arrived about a day after boarding in Cabo. We did a checkout dive the first evening at Las Cuevas where we saw whitetips in caves, (a little tricky without a light), a huge moray, fish, and a large green sea turtle. The next day was spent at the Boiler with the mantas, then at Roca Partida, and then on to Isla Socorro the following day. The visibility there was meager, (about 25 feet), but two dives at Cabo Pearce gave us bottlenosed dolphins, sharks, a zebra moray, and some different fish, including goatfish and cornetfish. El Acuario that afternoon was pleasant, home to coral heads and lots of fish and some rather feisty Socorro spiny lobsters. I reached out to stroke the antennae of one lobster, (as I'd seen others do earlier), and it lunged at me aggressively, swam out of its hole, and slowly stalked off, clearly victorious.
We returned to Isla San Benedicto on our fifth day of diving and dove near a lava flow peninsula that was deposited shortly after Volcán Barceno was born in 1952, making a picturesque backdrop. Between dives we took a panga ride to see the rocks at close hand and glimpsed the only bit of green we ever saw on San Benedicto as well as more of the ubiquitous masked and brown boobies sitting on the rocks. Submarine Canyon was good diving early in the day. Larry and I took off across the sands and scattered rocks away from the canyon in pursuit of a school of hammerheads and sat in 90 feet of water watching them pass on and off for ten minutes. More curious were some baby silvertip sharks who buzzed us several times--one unfortunate individual had a small fish hook caught in the corner of its mouth. On the way up a friendly leather bass visited us and we saw a small electric ray as well. The visibility diminished during the morning until shark encounters were unlikely. I did have a close look at a hammerhead over the canyon who swam out of the murk for a look around and then disappeared again, but Larry was watching the mantas. We spent the rest of our dives there watching the mantas swim circles around us, (no patting here), and looking at the fish and lobster. For the final day we returned to the Boiler and enjoyed not just mantas in the morning but a curious silky shark that hung out under the boat. To encourage her to stay around, the crew caught black jacks and threw chum in the water, continuing to do so while several divers, (including Larry and I), began our second dive. We hung under the boat hoping to see her feed. I never thought I'd willingly jump into the water with chum and a shark (!), but it was clear that we were in no danger. On our third dive the surge was pretty bad around the sea mount and the mantas had scattered so Larry decided to call it a day. I went out with another diver and one of our dive masters to do a blue water dive in the hopes of seeing more sharks; we were rewarded with exotic pelagic critters, (comb jellies, jellyfish, a tiny pelagic crab, and rainbow runners), but not a lot of shark action. Actually, the others saw what they claimed was a twelve foot Galapagos shark rising up out of the rainbow runners with a purpose, but somehow I missed that. A juvenile pilot fish, (with zebra stripes), spent the entire dive with us as though we were his long lost school. Meanwhile, back at the Boiler, a whale shark showed up and treated almost everyone else to a close look--including Larry, who went back in the water to see it.
All in all, it was an amazing trip. I only regret that I wasn't a little more relaxed to begin with--I still carried a lot of residual stress from the semester--but the wildlife was great. The crew took good care of us, hauling our gear in and out of the pangas, refilling our tanks faster than we needed them, accommodating individual diver interests, (like the blue water dive), and so on. Most people seemed pleased with the meals, though as the trip wore on the food that I was provided, (I'm a vegetarian), began to look a lot like a large plate of the vegetables everyone else was getting on the side of their steak or BBQ chicken. In the future, I've decided to bring some light, instant meals to give to the cooks on liveaboards, just in case. In their defense, they probably would have made me something else had I specifically requested it at dinner time. We plan to return in another year or two during the winter months when the humpback whales are breeding there. Not only will we have the chance to see and hear them underwater, but we'll be more relaxed in general knowing the diving conditions, how to look effectively for sharks, how to pet manta rays, and so on.
Below are some of my favorite pictures from the Revillagigedos trip--click on them for enlargements and captions, (all identifications are tentative). Despite the many dives we did with close manta encounters, I failed to come home with any great manta shots, mostly because I was enjoying myself too much with them to think about more than casual photography. (I hated to stick a camera in front of my face when a manta swam past that was seeking eye contact). That's my excuse, anyway. My shark pictures were a little disappointing too, but they were just too deep. I was surprisingly comfortable swimming close to large requiem sharks, but I still didn't want to risk irritating them with a flash. All photos were taken with a Sea&Sea MX10 with YS-40A strobe where appropriate with a standard, close up, or wide angle lens.
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Click for enlargements and captions
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