Socorro Expedition 2010, “The Blue Realm”

We were dining at the famous Casa Mia in downtown Cabo San Lucas, one of Mexico’s Number one travel destinations. Light banter between us, an ice cold Margarita, Live Mariachi music played by traveling minstrels. Trained Parakeets prognosticating your fortune, Clowns making balloon caricatures, grandmothers selling roses, even a gift shop selling all sorts of trinkets. This was the Mecca of Mexican tourist restaurants. Physically, I was there eating my delicious chicken enchilada, mentally, I was miles away……..250 nautical miles to be exact. With years of expectation and desire coursing thru my body, the salt water that I could almost taste, the sun rising and setting over open water, this trip was one I needed down deep in my soul.

Within the diving community you will find as many dive site preferences as you will species of fish. Some like the mellow shallow reef systems, some prefer the wreck sites, while others care for the smaller tropical critters, there is a group that like the open water pelagic. These are the animals found only in deep ocean and around formations like volcanic pinnacles. Typically these rock structures are found well away from normal land masses and are fish magnets with nutrient-rich upwelling. With Cabo San Lucas commonly referred to as ‘Land’s End’ our destination would seem like ‘World’s End’, a place that is as spooky as it is mystical. These islands are the last remaining remnants of ancient volcanoes and their lava flow ragged and rocky formations exhibit that. Heck, we might even see The Black Pearl and Captain Jack Sparrow!

Those of us that are willing to give up some creature comforts, the ones that long for the “blue edge”, that place well away from civilization where huge open water animals live and thrive, will be rewarded as well as challenged down to our very core. This is where currents change from hour to hour, from day to day, where fear and fascination intertwine in our minds. This place, this ocean Matterhorn, is where you will find the oceanic animals that reside in the deepest crevices of deep ocean. The almost prehistoric looking Great Hammer Head Shark, as well as the Galapagos, Silky, Dusky, and Oceanic Sharks. Leviathans like the Humpback Whale, giant fish like the Whale Shark. Also, Yellow fin Tuna, Marlin, Sailfish, Bottlenose Dolphin. This is where you will find the Giant Pacific Manta Rays, winged creatures that live on plankton and soar, swoop, roll, and glide as if they are birds on the wind riding thermo clines. This is their world, their “blue realm”, where we dare to go.

This place is accessible via the dive operation the Nautilus Explorer. Based out of Canada and owned by Mr. Mike Lever, a boat of substantial nature is provided to carry this team of aquanauts, 116’ long, 27’ wide, powered by twin Cummins engines this vessel has a cruising speed of 11-12 mph. With 7000 gallon fresh water capacity and 3600 gallon-per-day water maker, it allowed you to take as many showers as you like. The Revillagigedo Islands are approximately 250 nautical miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas Mexico. Comprising of four islands, he largest being Socorro covering nine by eleven miles, the smallest, Roca Partida is small set of craggy pinnacles rising from the deep. More than 300 miles of rolling seas separate San Benedicto, the northernmost island from Clarion; San Benedicto and Socorro, the two most popular dive sites, are roughly forty miles apart. Due of their location and because of the big animal encounters they provide, they have been compared to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Cocos Island in Costa Rica. They are quite wild in nature and very remote, lending themselves to being referred to as ‘the Mexican Galapagos’. Due to strong currents and choppy open water seas, this is not a place for the inexperienced diver, because of that fact, the place has gained near mythical stature within the diving community.

This year’s trip was brought about by my friend and camera mentor Brandon Cole and his lovely Melissa. Actually, Melissa and I were talking while in Fiji about the prospects of convincing Brandon into a trip here. Obviously her skills in persuasion proved sufficiently up to the task and we all met at the dock in Cabo San Lucas for our nine day itinerary. It was nice to have an extra couple of days because it is a 24 hour crossing from the dock to Socorro, and we have plans of diving……..a lot!

As we leave the tourist town of Cabo, and sail past the famed Arch at Land’s End we are busy with formalities of stowing our gear and learning the safety procedures with the vessel. The crew was both capable and amicable and thanks to the chef; Juan Carlos, provided food that was both tasty and plentiful, not to mention fresh baked bread and pastries. Dive masters Peter and Jesse not only cared for the divers in the water but also was constantly monitoring our scuba tanks, making sure they were full at every surface interval. Divers were offered straight air or an oxygen enriched mix (commonly referred to as Nitrox) of 32%. Personally, unless diving deep, past 130 feet, I can’t see why you wouldn’t always dive with 32% Nitrox. The benefits certainly outweigh the negatives. Less headaches, longer bottom time, and less nitrogen absorbsion into your tissues.

The Captain of the boat this trip was a chap by the name of Gordon, with whom I became friends with immediately. Note: make friends with the Captain so there is no chance of walking the plank during the trip! The cute little ‘Galley Girls’ were constantly shoving water and snacks at us as well as letting us know when the next meal would be served. They were busy non stop with not only the food duties but tiding up our cabins and changing towels. Engineer Brian was a very accomplished free diver and was extremely good at getting grease on his hands & face. Joel and Dave were the mates whom run the pangas or skiffs ferreting divers back and forth from the dive site to the mother ship. I am sure they got tired of handling our massive cameras, but never an utterance came from their mouths about it. As a matter of fact, this crew was like a well oiled machine who worked together perfectly and constantly had a smile on there faces………I am convinced they had to be on some kind of drugs!

As I opened my eyes at 6:00 AM, I looked out the porthole and spied the island of San Benedicto. We had to report to the Mexican Authorities of our arrival and show them our manifest. As we were eating our breakfast, we motored to our dive site, the Canyon, on the south side of the island. This would be an opportunity to check out our cameras as well as fine tune our weights. This would be the only time of the day where we would enjoy a dry wet suit….more importantly to me was this would be my first chance, since my trip to the Galapagos, to see Hammerhead Sharks. Trust me, I was on that first zodiac out with Brandon and found the school cruising by just out of strobe range and visibility. My estimates, of what I saw, were around 50-60 sharks, I am positive there are more. These are one of my favorite sharks to see and I desperately need to get a good digital image of this animal for my wall! The basic problem is they are extremely shy creatures and absolutely can’t stand the sound of our bubbles as we breathe. Someone said; ‘why can’t you be satisfied just seeing them’? Good question.

With the first dive ‘in the can’, Captain ‘Gordo’, while in touch with the home office, and local weather reports, decided to move to Roca Patrida earlier than originally planned. Roca is a very small remnant of a volcanic cone and a very exposed rock in the middle of nowhere. You do not dive this location unless it is relatively calm, currents can be wicked. Roca was covered with a white substance that actually looked like snow, but my “spidey senses” told me that it was not snow due to the 79 degree temp and the sea birds flying and landing on it! So after the dive briefing, usually led by the lovely Jesse, we donned our wetsuits and prepared for the loading of the skiffs or zodiac inflatable to carry us out to the unknown.

This is a “high energy” spot where you can see anything! Big schools of fish, Wahoo, white tip sharks, mantas, tuna, jacks and we saw them all! This is also the best place to see whale sharks as well as Humpback Whales. I happen to glance up toward the surface and there is one of the pro shooters, David Hall, capturing a shot of a school of fish that was swirling in surge, not an easy shot at all! Speaking of David, here is a man that moves at a snails pace, is always the last one out of the ocean, only sleeps in 30 minute increments and has made taking underwater pictures to an art form. If you ever get a chance to dive and visit with this cat, do it, truly a wealth of information and a true gentleman. I enjoyed speaking to his daughter Jessica who came with him this time, lovely young lady and smart as a whip.

Patrick and Karine, from France were usually the some of the first in most of the time, carrying a housed camcorder with lights; the thing looked like a submarine underwater as Patrick pushed this thing around like it was nothing. My nickname for them was ‘International Super Models’ as they were color coordinated in all there gear. Patrick was in excellent shape and it was no surprise to me that he is a surfer. Marc & Michelle from Washington were on board and were in the water as much as anybody trying to capture that perfectly exposed image.

Depending on the location we either dove off the back of the Nautilus Explorer or were carried to the dive site and picked up after surfacing by an inflatable skiff. Each method had its pros and cons and is typically standard within the diving world. They also had a bigger aluminum boat that was used to carry divers; personally I was glad I didn’t have to do a back roll off that beast as it looked to be a long way to the water! Once finished and a safety stop preformed, we would deploy the well known safety sausage, an inflatable tube device that when full of air would stand up above the waves and the mates would see you and pick you up. Trust me when I say; it is an unnerving feeling to surface and see no prospect of retrieval as the current sweeps you further and further away from your friends! Not that it ever happened with us, as the fellows were always “Johnny on the Spot” with the inflatable. I took special pride in my ability to pull myself into them until mate Dave said that David Hall was better at it than me! Obviously Dave suffers from some metal delirious affliction.

The “Galley Girls”; Clair and Christine were alternately always at the swim step with a smile, water, cranberry juice, watermelon slices, and the cheery question…..How was your dive? I always wanted to hide one of my arms in my wet suit and show them an empty sleeve while telling them that an eel ripped it off. Seriously, it was very nice to get that saltwater out of your mouth after the dive, but the hot water shower, rinse tank for the wet suits and clean towels was a wonderful bonus. Not only that but they even had a hot tub on the top deck…… these guys know how to treat divers!

One of the surprises on this particular cruise was a young lad by the name of Evan, from New Jersey. Initially I winced when I heard that a twelve year old would be joining us, but was taken by his manners and intelligence, his father Mark and his wife had obviously done a wonderful job raising this little guy. We soon became buddies and I tried to instill my wisdom and streets smarts into him. Very rarely did he act his age and we had a great time visiting. Actually I enjoyed visiting with everyone on the boat, especially the ladies. Every morning I would rise at 6:00 AM and have coffee with Rene…..I brought my own instant Starbucks not knowing what the boat coffee would taste like. The Nautilus coffee turned out to be very good, but not available at 6:00 AM. Renie was always up working on her knitting projects so we got to visit about all sorts of things. Dave and Jan from Orange County California were fun to talk to and always had some anecdote to share. Jan hurt her hand as she rolled off the panga and damn if she didn’t finish the dive, got it taped up, and never complained a lick! Not the only incident that took place, a fish had also bitten her ear! Now that is a real woman! Alastair and his fiery wife Rakel were a hoot; here you have a Scotsman that you can’t half understand and speaks like Sean Connery and a woman from Spain who sounds like Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie Zorro. I made the fatal mistake of calling her a ‘little shit” one night and even though it was only in jest, I swear I feared for my life for a few moments as she asked me ‘just what in hell’ did I mean by that!! Whew, that was a close call….once again I let my “Alligator mouth overload my Chihuahua Ass”!

The couple from England; Jonathan and Shelia was always on hand to add to the conversation. Actually, Jonathan talked constantly and questioned everything……maybe that’s how he got so smart? Ivan was from Toronto Canada, very quiet guy that coughed constantly…..I tried to stay away from him because I thought he had pneumonia and I am such a germaphobe. Actually he was good fellow with a cough, no worries after all.

Mikal was on assignment for a Russian underwater magazine. I asked him one day ‘what the good word was’? He said everyone is safe, and as he looked straight into my eyes and put his hand on my shoulder, said…….even the simple! Was he insinuating that your author was simple? My old pal from previous dive trips, Scott, was plagued with first dive computer problems, then camera problems, and finally ear problems. That was a shame, because “Westside” as I have always referred to him, can take some wonderful pictures. The only other Texan was my cabin mate Jon and with underwater camcorder in hand, recorded some stunning footage of Mantas and Dolphins before being taken out by some inner ear infection. All divers know that on a week long dive trip, ear problems are a real concern. Constantly equalizing and being full of water takes its toll but I have had success with using dry out drops and my ears just seem to get better as the week progresses.

On one ‘jump’ at Cabo Pierce we are surprised with a pod of Dolphin. Dolphins are so cool and arguably one of the most intelligent mammals in the sea, and with their constant smile is just magical to be around. It was here that I we witnessed a very rare sight………one individual splits from the pod and turns vertical facing the surface. For the next ten minutes this dolphin lets multiple divers’ stroke and pets him, motionless in the water column, as his eyes rolled around in his head, this is truly odd behavior in wild animals, typically only seen in the trained. We surfaced from this dive with a sense of real fortune, as this dolphin almost certainly singled us out for this encounter.

With a couple of dive days left we move to the ‘piece de la resistance’…..the famed ‘Boiler’. The name given because of the fact that the pinnacles rise to within 20’ of the surface which causes the seas to appear like they are boiling. This is where we will also have the best opportunity to dive with multiple Giant Mantas.

And yes Virginia, I do believe in Santa Claus and Christmas came early…….. Beautiful Mantas for our enjoyment, too big for our stockings! For the next two days it was a Vernable ‘Manta Pallozza’, multiple encounters on nearly every dive, 5- 7 individuals swooping languorously thru the water, gliding, barrel rolling, cru zing with no apparent fear nor malicious intent to anyone. These animals were huge but infinitely elegant in the way they moved thru the water. Once engaged with a diver, they would almost drop down to you and encourage the human touch. You could feel there massive bodies and muscle structure wiggle a bit when first touched. This behavior lead to the common malady ‘manta fingers’ a problem which stricken several divers on board. The tips of there fingers would actually loose derma and bleed from the constant touching of the underbellies of the animals. Not a dehibilitating condition but minorly painful nonetheless. You see, like most marine species, their outer surfaces are rough as sandpaper. Melissa, the mermaid of the boat, said that she could feel them actually sigh and relax on your hand when touched properly. Our friendly winged creatures also seemed to enjoy the exhaust bubbles from our regulators. I had my hands full of camera most of the time but I couldn’t resist taking time to experience the feel of one. Secretly, I have always wanted to ride one of these animals and tried constantly to figure out way to do it whilst holding my SeaCam and without the scorn and chastisement of the dive masters, it was one of the only regrets of the trip.

The next day’s dive briefing was bit of a shocker as Jesse announced that Manta’s were evil creatures! Yes, I couldn’t believe my ears when she explained in grave detail how these denizens of the deep will lure you into a sense of well being, cause you to loose track of the boat, your friends, your air supply………especially your AIR SUPPLY. I had previously read where because of their perceived ‘horns’ and strange appearance, (the name ‘manta’ is Spanish for “blanket”), manta rays were once feared by old seamen, calling them devilfish). Evidently, some people were returning to the boat with no air in there tanks and I am convinced that this was a direct result of those EVIL MANTA’S!! Not only that but divers were being recovered well away from the boat and dive area….evil mantas luring divers into the blue…HORRORS! Actually, this writer was guilty of ‘going blue’ repeatedly……. and what can I say…….EVIL MANTA’s!

After one dive where we were blessed with 7 mantas around us for the whole dive, I heard Jim, say that it was in the top 5 dives of his life! This statement was notable in the fact that it came from a man of experience, 27 years of diving around the world! At one point underwater, I took my eyes out of the viewfinder and just took in the whole picture, imprinting on my retina, a sight of wonderment as numbers of Mantas and divers in different positions from deep to almost the surface interacted with each other……it looked like a nursery room Mobile hanging from the ceiling. Yes, Jim, I agree with you, definitely in the top 5 of my life as well. I surfaced a happy man with very little air in my tank…….opps, don’t tell the dive masters.

With that we clean our gear, and prepare for the steam back to Cabo, sad that our ‘awesome adventure’ was ending. Thankfully, Neptune was in a charitable mood and gave us near flat water for the ride home. As we laid our head down on the pillow of our beds, and after eating the little chocolates that were placed there every night, our thoughts returned to the days diving and the wonderful experiences that we had. It suddenly dawned on me the fortune that the trained Parakeet plucked out of the box, at the restaurant, the night before the trip…….’you will be rewarded with lasting friendships’, indeed I am.

EPILOGUE
On the morning of 14th of February 1994, two Mexican fishing boats laying out long lines and gill nets off the island of San Benedicto, after several hours the nets were brought up and dozens of Giant Manta Rays were caught, their 2,500lb bodies in tatters, as well as the nets they were trapped in. Because of the damage to the nets as well as the Manta’s, the fishing boat, a Mexican Department of Fisheries vessel decided it was easier to cut the nets and throw everything back into the water, entangled mantas, nets, everything. When they retrieved their long lines, all that was hooked were reef sharks. They simply cut the lines above the hooks and dropped them back into the water where they promptly sank to the bottom of the reef. When these two boat left, they left thousands of feet of monofilament net covering the reef, still killing anything that was being caught in it. In all the carnage, not a single useable fish was harvested. This day became known as the St. Valentines Day Massacre at San Benedicto Island. The Mexican government, embarrassed, banned all fishing within 200 miles of the island.

Years later on April 29th 2000, a fleet of 70 to 90 ton drift gillnet boats with two miles of net surrounded San Benedicto Island, which is the home of the worlds largest Giant Pacific Mantas, and after 5 days decimated the sea life in this Marine Park. Even after four days of fishing, their nets were still getting 100 to 200 sharks per boat, per day! It is estimated, based on counts from several nets, they killed between 2000 and 4000 sharks, mantas, turtles, tuna, Wahoo, and other marine animals. After the vessels left, divers entered the water and after two days of diving, not one live shark was seen whereas before they would have spotted hundreds!

I first read about this tragedy in 2001 in a book written by Carlos Eyles, title; ‘The Blue Edge” and with tears in my eyes while reading the above, I made a silent promise to myself to not only see this place but to stay committed to saving places like this. Please contribute to the many outlets to protect our precious sea life. The Socorro Conservation Fund is a good place to start. We are literally watching, before our eyes, not only our country but our seas being savagely destroyed……..commit to get involved otherwise both will be just a distant memory!

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