In Search Of Giants
Sea of Cortez 2008 Expedition
By Jeff Toorish
"The literature of science is filled with answers found when the question propounded had an entirely different direction and end."
--John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, 1951
What’s In A Name?
The Sea of Cortez goes by many names; locals prefer Sea of Cortés, in Spanish it is called Mar Bermejo, and to others it is knows as the Sea of California. It is the narrow body of water between the Baja California peninsula and the main isthmus of Mexico. It is also one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with unique diving and spectacular wildlife.
A team of Advanced Diver Magazine photographers and explorers assembled for an unprecedented expedition to the Sea of Cortez in September 2008. In addition to ADM team members Curt Bowen, Jeff Toorish, Alan Studley, Jon Bojar and Kim Smith, there were an additional 14 divers aboard the Don Jose dive boat out of La Paz, Mexico. Normally, the Don Jose hosts 16 open circuit divers, but this would be a rebreather-only trip, and there would be a whopping 19 rebreather divers aboard. Space was tight, but the caliber of the divers allowed for smooth sailing for the six days of the expedition.
The dive team assembled from around the world, including Great Britain, Canada, the US and Hong Kong, as well as locally near La Paz. KISS rebreathers were the most common aboard, but there were also rEvo, Megladon, Inspiration and Nautilus CCR units. Remarkably, equipment problems were very minimal and not a single diver was forced to resort to open circuit during the entire trip.
Scientists believe the Sea of Cortez was opened up about 5 million years ago, give or take a few hundred thousand years. Its surface area is roughly 62,000 square miles. Several rivers end their journeys in the Sea of Cortez, including the Colorado, Fuerte, Sonora and Yaqui.
The Mountains that border the two sides of the Sea of Cortez are clearly tectonic, and provide a breathtaking sense of the power that created this gulf. It is probable that its waters would have flooded the Mexicali and Imperial valleys had the massive Colorado River delta not blocked the sea from progressing further.
Most of our team flew into the airport that serves Cabo San Lucas and nearby Los Cabos; from there we used two large vans to carry our many boxes of gear to La Paz, where we would pick up the Don Jose, the dive boat we would call home for the next six days.
La Paz is the capital of Baja Sur (the southern Baja state), and a beautiful, rustic seaside town. It has grown due to the tourist industry but retains many of its natural elements, giving visitors a more accurate view of life in this part of Mexico. Cabo San Lucas was always known as the more gritty place in Baja, with a reputation as a top surfing spot. Some team members spent a night or two in Cabo San Lucas and discovered first hand the intensity of the waves, with an undertow so great people walking on the beach had to stay far away from the water lest an errant wave literally pull them in. Even after a night at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo bar and several shots of tequila, no one thought it prudent to try a swim in the roiling waters.
The drive from Cabo to La Paz showed the Baja countryside vibrant green, thanks to recent rains. While normally it was a classic scrub desert, brown and gray and uninviting, during out visit, it was far lusher, with some cacti flowering. The two hour drive crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and required more pit stops than normal due to the consumption of cerveza by team members –and we probably don’t need to talk any more about that.
Once in La Paz, the truly enormous amount of gear was somehow stowed aboard the Don Jose in short, efficient order, a quick dinner in town, and a return to the boat for an early night. The next few days are going to be busy and adventure filled and everyone understands the need for a good night’s sleep.
The Don Jose is an 80 foot vessel operated by Baja Expeditions. It was built in 1978 and offers relatively comfortable quarters and a steady ride. No roughing it here, the cabins are comfortably air conditioned at night, and the food was nothing short of superb. The cooking staff even prepared special meals for non-meat eaters aboard. Captain Jose Lozano has been with the ship since the beginning, rising to take command with a firm, quiet authority.
The Dive Master for the week would be Peter C. Schalkwijk, and the team could not have asked for a more professional leader. Peter handled every problem and issue with humor, grace and style, ensuring an expedition with no on-board drama.
On September 22nd, as the sun came up over the nearby mountains casting a golden hue over the town of La Paz, the Don Jose cast off and the adventure truly began. One of the benefits of diving in the Sea of Cortez is the relatively short distances between dive sites. It would not take long, steaming at a moderate speed, to reach our first dive site; a reef called Suani (pronounced swanee) for a shakeout dive.
The hopes of the team were to photograph large sea animals, such as hammerheads, whale sharks and perhaps some giant rays. As with any dive trip, nothing is guaranteed, but if nothing else, divers are an optimistic group. There was no thought of seeing anything particularly large at Suani, but the reef was teaming with schooling silver fish, curious puffers and colorful nudibranch.
Each dive saw an array of rebreathers, camera and video gear enter the water via the dive platform on the stern of the Don Jose. The crew had an astonishing ability to match up each diver with his or her various pieces of equipment after only a couple of dives; something that never failed to amaze.
The Right People And Places
Speaking from experience, there is no doubt that even one difficult person on an expedition can have a hugely negative impact on the overall dynamic of the team. Negativity has no place on a dive trip, especially one involving a lot of technical divers with all that gear in the confines of a boat at sea. Fortunately, no such stress occurred on this voyage; every diver was experienced, adept and positive. There was a great deal of sharing of equipment when necessary, and plenty of pitching in to help when help was needed.
Peter Piemonte summed it up perfectly, "Combine agreeable companionship, a fine vessel and crew with warm clear waters, and you have the 2008 Advanced Diver Magazine trip to the Sea of Cortez. A great trip that I was glad to be a part of."
For the next five days, the Don Jose steamed across the Sea of Cortez, taking the dive team to exotic sounding places with names like Los Islotes (Small Island) where we learned that seals, while playful, are also extremely territorial. At Los Islotes, the seals have a very strong hierarchy, and the dominant males are incredibly protective of their females and pups (as ADM photographer/explorer Jon Bojar discovered when he got a little too close to a seal home).
Los Islotes is one of the most famous dives in the Sea of Cortez, and with good reason. Divers have the opportunity to observe seal behavior in close proximity, both on the surface and below.
The next day, we traveled to El Baho (The Sea Mount). This dive featured three pinnacles where hammerhead sharks sometimes gather. As rebreather divers, we have a greater chance to see the elusively shy hammerheads because we don’t produce the bubbles that are known to scare them away. Unfortunately, on this day no hammerheads were visiting El Baho, although several dive boats with open circuit divers were—along with their bubbles! (To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, “out, damn’d bubbles, out I say!”)
Even without the hammerheads, El Baho was a fascinating dive with a great deal of fish life and moray eels seemingly in every crack and crevice. Many of the morays appeared to be huge, and in some cases, there were two in the same hole, making them appear as one eel with two heads.
Other dive locations we visited, Los Puntos (Sea Lions); Bajo Reina, where we encountered a kicking current and found four anchors, one with about 40 feet of line still attached; and an interesting wreck that offered excellent exploration opportunities. What we did not manage to see were the large animal that are sometimes prevalent in the Sea of Cortez.
While that was our objective, as it turned out, because of the spectacular dives and excellent company, the diving itself was a success, as diver Garry Gressett put it so eloquently:
"A wonderful trip that can be remembered for years to come. I went expecting to see big mantas but found a big digital camera with all the attachments instead sparking my sudden interest in photography. It's amazing to start a new hobby with advice from the best underwater photographers in the world. Thanks guys and safe diving!"
Other members of the dive team: Bob and Amy Ferguson, Brian Hackett, Patrick Vigeant, Andy Higgie, Robb Witt, Andy Niven, Casey Omholt, German Yanez and Padro Cervantes.
Special thanks to the crew of the Don Jose: Engineer: Hernan Parra,
Chef: Benito Leon, Assistant Chef: Orion Flores. Skiff driver: Felix Higuera,
Skiff driver: Antonio Orozco, Deck Hand: Juan Alejandro Lucero