Socorro and Sea of Cortez trip report-June 12-22, 2016
What is about Socorro that seems to interest everyone? I would have to say until you have been there you just will not fully know but now after being to Socorro I can tell you it is all about the big animals-mainly giant manta’s, sharks, dolphins and more. It is also about being at the right place at the right time but in Socorro you just seem to get more of these things lined up to create an experience of a lifetime.
In case you don’t know Socorro is actually just the largest island of the Revillagigedo archipelago that you visit and the one you are at the least amount of time but it seems to be the most well-known. The main three places you visit on a Socorro trip are San Benedicto and Socorro Islands along with Roca Partida which is only a large rock out in the middle of nowhere. For our 10 day trip which was June 12-22, 2016 we also visited the Sea of Cortez on our last day of diving.
For this trip naturally the Nautilus Explorer was my only choice having been on it many years back when it did trips to Port Hardy, BC out of Vancouver, BC and plus it is the only liveaboard dive boat in the world that has been built to SOLAS standards which are the same standards that all cruise ships are built too. The Nautilus Explorer moved down south a number of years ago to the Cabo area of Mexico where it now calls home to run trips to Socorro, the Sea of Cortez and Guadalupe Island for great white shark encounters. The Nautilus just added a second boat to their fleet in 2015 and now a third in 2016 bringing the total number of boats going to the same areas to seven.
For those that have never been on the Nautilus Explorer it is 116’ long x 27’ wide. She is steel and originally built for trips to Alaska so I think she can handle just about anything she will encounter. She can hold 25 divers in a combination of 6 regular staterooms, 2 single and 1 triple stateroom below the main deck and 4 large suites above the main deck very close to the hot tub and also where the wheel house/bridge is. I stayed in one of the single rooms due to a cancellation and loved it. There is a large sundeck at the top deck and everything else is on the main deck such as the large salon, bar, kitchen and galley area. The dive deck is also on the main deck as well as one of the 2 camera table areas. She has 2 inflatable skiffs and 3 kayaks and is run by a crew of 10. For this trip our Captain was Stefpen, 1st mate was Arthur, cook/chef was Kiki, engineer was Dale, 3 divemasters/helpers were Arturo, Darren & Garret, hostesses/stewards-Marina & Lurentina and Hernan was our boatsman. They all worked well together with all the many duties they had and looked like they had fun the entire trip.
Now for the details of our trip which I have to say turned out great. I originally set the trip up for my business Channel Islands Dive Adventures and was able to get Brett Bovard with PCH Scuba to share it which was nice because we already share a number of our SoCal local dive trips together and quite a few of the people from each group already knew each other.
We started our journey by taking a short 2.5 hour flight from LAX to Cabo and used Jorge at Enterprising Travel for our ground transportation to and from the airport to the Tesoro Resort in Cabo where the Nautilus company had a hospitality suite for us to leave our luggage at while taking the few hours we had extra to explore the city. Of course our first order of business was to eat and with a little help we found a nice restaurant Taqueria Las Guacamayas with good prices off the main boulevard. I had 2 pastor, 1 shrimp and 1 fish taco, chips and 2 cold beers for a total of 180 pesos which was about $12.00 US. Afterwards we walked the boardwalk at the harbor which was beautiful except for all the guys wanting to sell us timeshares, cigars and other things we didn’t want.
At 7:30 pm we went back to the resort where we met two of our divemasters-Darren and Arturo. They gave us a short briefing and then around 8:15 pm we were off on another 30 minute van ride to where the boat was docked. It used to be in the main Cabo harbor but for whatever reason they have now moved to San Jose Del Cabo. By 9:00 pm we started our 30 hour journey to our first stop which would be San Benedicto Island. Once on the boat we did the necessary paperwork, had our welcome drink and got situated in our rooms and off to bed it was.
On Monday, June 13th we had a dive briefing and marine ID presentation on what we might see, put our dive gear together, napped, ate too much food and became better aquatinted with everyone on the trip.
Tuesday the 14th we arrived at San Benedicto Island early and it was so nice to hear the engines stop for a while and only hear the sound of the generators running. Our first dive was at Las Cuevitas which was more of a “check out dive”. This dive site has lots of big rock boulders with some on top of each other creating a couple large caverns to swim through. We did see some rays and towards the end of the dive a giant manta gave us our first glimpse of more to come. Our second dive was at the same place but we went a different direction along a wall not seeing much more than our first dive. For the afternoon dives we moved to El Canon where we made our last two dives of the day. Here there was an underwater extension of the island with a steep wall and a chance to see some bigger sharks. I didn’t see anything different but a couple people did catch a glimpse of a tiger shark. After dinner we had the chance to do a silky shark snorkel which was lots of fun. The water was clear and most everyone did the snorkel seeing some silky sharks. Most of the sharks would be just beneath us but a few came up close and then you could hear a few screams. None of the sharks seemed to want to have us for dinner which was a good thing and some of us were able to get video of the fun.
During the night we moved to Socorro Island which was about 30 miles away and on Wednesday the 15th our first dive was at the “Old Man on the Rocks” which was nice and uneventful. We then moved to check in with the Mexican Military which is required. About 5 Mexican military personnel boarded the boat, with 4 going up to the bridge to see the captain while one stood on deck with his rifle always smiling when you looked at him. They got cold drinks and some refreshments and then we all were asked to go into the salon where they checked us and our passports and took some pictures of some of the group. They then boarded their skiff to go back to their base and we were now ready for the rest of our trip.
Our second and third dives of the day were at Cabo Pearce which was a wall with a lava extension that went out towards the sea. Here we encountered some very strong currents and our first dive here did not go as planned with most of us fighting the current to not get washed over the rocks on shore. Luckily everyone made it OK and the second dive went much better. For our second dive here we started further out making it quickly to the receiver which was a short rope about 10’-15’ long that was attached to the rocks. This is a good place to hang out looking for big things to swim by like mainly sharks. We hung out for about 5-10 minutes and then moved with the current to the other side of the lava finger where I had seen my first awesome dolphin and manta experience. At first we didn’t see much but it sure came together at the end of the dive.
Again, after dinner it was time to make another long move to Roca Partida which was about 72 miles away. Roca is where most all of the big stuff happens and to see how small the rock is and to imagine 3-4 dive boats there at once is just a little amazing to me. Luckily we were in for a treat as we were the only boat at Roca the two days we spent there. We made 4 dives each day with the blue, green and red team always switching it up on who went first as we did the entire trip. It really is a place that when it happens it happens and no matter if you are first or last seems to not make much of a difference. We saw up to 5 different giant manta’s as well as lots of smaller reef sharks, some larger Galapagos sharks and the occasionally sighting of hammerhead sharks off in the distance. The hammerheads were usually deep and kept their distance so getting any good pictures or videos was very hard to do. Roca is a very steep sided rock that just seems to drop into the depths of the abyss. It does have some ledges where you usually would find the smaller reef sharks on it and one hole looked like a nursery with all smaller young sharks in it. The crevices usually had green moray eels and smaller fish along with some hard corals growing in a few places. The upper area of the water column close to the rock had bigger schools of fish like jacks and so forth.
Weather our first day at Roca was nice, sunny and relatively calm for the area with the forecast being even better the second day but then forecasts aren’t always correct as would be in our case. It seemed the second day instead of better weather we had a cold front come through with some wind making the seas a bit choppy and it also brought a little rain along with it. It turned out good but did make loading and unloading the skiffs a little difficult.
The way most of the diving was done was by skiff and on a few dives we just jumped off the back of the boat with some divers swimming back and some getting a ride back on a skiff. The days we used the skiff we would get in when told, grab our fins and then our cameras would be handed to us. The 2 days diving at Roca this sometimes became difficult with the skiff dropping off the back of the boat up to 6 feet and then the next second it would be washing over the back deck. Luckily no one got hurt or anything was lost. See my video and you will see what I am taking about.
Our group was divided up into 3 groups of 8 making the red, blue & green dive groups. Each dive a group would move backwards letting everyone get the chance to be first out for a dive. Each group had a DM and each day the DM would move to another group so no one had the same DM all days. Some groups changed especially later in the trip as people sat out dives due mostly to fatigue or ear problems. Trips like this take their toll on everyone in some way, shape or form. As it turned out myself and 1 other person were the only 2 that made all 25 dives and both silky snorkels on the trip.
After Roca Partida it was back to San Benedicto another 85 miles of travel for our last 2 days in the area. The ride over was very nice and we did all 4 dives on Saturday the 18th at the Boiler which we skipped the first day due to a big swell in the area. I personally am not into sharks all that much which is probably the main attraction for everyone at Roca Partida but I am into dolphins and giant manta so I REALLY like The Boiler.
The Boiler is a large rock with a small footprint on top which is only about 15’ from the surface and gets wider and larger as you get deeper but it is still small enough to swim around during a dive. It also has a number of good sized ledges and large crevices with a little bit of everything and it reminded me about some of our pinnacles back home in the Southern California area. My second dive here was probably the best ever in all my diving and I have been diving for a long time now. Of course I haven’t traveled the world but still it was a dive I will always remember. My buddy Jeff and I decide to head around the Boiler to the side where another pinnacle was at that topped of at about 75’. The visibility was incredibly good with it at least 100’. As we rounded the corner we could see the other pinnacle about 50’-75’ away so we swam over to it going around it a couple times coming to the top were we hung out for a short time waiting for something big like more mantas. All of a sudden 2 mantas appeared between us and the main reef so we headed towards them trying not to act like we wanted to get close and scare them away and it worked. For what seemed like 15 minutes we had an encounter of a life time with most of it being at about 15’ to 40’ feet deep in the blue water. Around us where other divers enjoying the same thing and with the clear blue water it just made the experience magical and again this is what a trip like this is all about. The next two dives at the Boiler were nice but nothing like the second which was perfectly OK with me.
Earlier in the day I asked the captain about possibly getting a ride in the inflatables over close to shore after hearing some of the divers got one after getting picked up from their dives and the captain said yes between the third and fourth dives. When it was time we loaded up both skiffs and our tour started. Without special permits which we did not have we couldn’t go ashore but we could check out all the cool rock formations, large arch, small crevices and more. It was all good and fun and this ride also gave me the idea that there is much to see and dive in the area that is totally unexplored which I will have to work on.
After our last dive we moved to a more protected area for the night and for dinner. A few of us did try another silky snorkel but the water was very cloudy and it just didn’t turn out as good as the first night we did this.
On Sunday the 19th we did 2 more dives at El Canon and our last at the Boiler. The water was very cloudy at both sites dropping the visibility to around 40’. Even the Boiler wasn’t as good and two mantas did give us a flyby but for a very short time. After we were done it was time to get moving to the Sea of Cortez because the expected travel time would be about 35 hours to where the captain wanted to start. The ride out was incredibly smooth all night and during the day on Monday the 20th the water was as still as it could be, like a lake. In fact it was so smooth that around 11:00 am the boat slowed down and at home when that happens we all jump up to see what marine life there is to see the only problem was there was no marine life to see and that is when the captain said it was so calm and we were ahead of schedule to lets go swimming. What fun for about 30 minutes those that wanted to could go swimming while some of us had more fun jumping off the higher decks of the boat. Everyone had fun and it sure helped break up the ride for us. I dived down under the water and when I opened up my eyes I seen the bluest water ever with sun rays shining up through-now that was a sight to see.
The rest of the day was a kickback day with people watching movies, going over pictures, resting and around 5:00 pm Arturo showed us a presentation on sea lions for our dives tomorrow at Los Islotes but it was more like how to survive diving around sealions and live to tell about it and it seems the sealions of Los Islotes are much more playful and sneaky as the ones we dive with in California. Around sunset we passed Cabo not arriving at Los Islotes till about 6:30am the following morning.
Tuesday the 21st and it is our last full day of the trip, my how time flies by when having fun. We did 3 shallow dives at Los Islotes and got the chance to get a skiff ride around the island. The skiff ride was lots of fun and we also were able to see a number of baby sealions that appeared to have just been born. One still had the placenta attached to it and the seagulls were trying their best to make it their next meal.
The dives were OK with visibility running about 20’-25’ and water temperature in the mid 60’s. During the dives you could pass through areas that had a 5-10 degree temperature difference several times. There were big rocks underwater all around the island and most had little growing on them. There was also a cavern that went all the way through the smaller islet which was a great spot for macro photography with lots of small things to see. The shallow areas close to the island were usually the spots for sealion interaction but sometimes they just didn’t seem to care much about us divers.
At about 6:00pm the anchor was pulled and we were off for our 15 hour cruise back to Jose Del Cabo. It was also a perfect time to dry gear, get packed and organized for the trip home. In the evening the DM’s showed us a fun movie they put together with pictures and videos we all shared that from the trip-it was for sure the hit of the day! Our crew did an excellent job taking care of us and Kiki our only chef did the job of many in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe till told that he not only made all the meals but baked everything we had except for the cookies and afternoon treats that were made by Lurentina and Marina.
On Wednesday the 22nd we would leave the Nautilus Explorer, our home for the past 10 days around 8:30am where we would stay at the hotel across the street from where the boat is docked. Around 10:00 our ride would take us back to the airport for our journey back home.
By Ken Kollwitz