The Revillagigedos Islands

A Socorro cruise diary

A diver uses his GoPro camera to record an intimate encounter with a giant
manta ray at The Boiler, San Benedicto Island.
A savvy dive traveler will decide where to go — and when — based on the marine creatures likely to be in residence at the destination in question. It doesn't take much research to realize that if the objective is big animals such as manta rays, whales, sharks, dolphins, tunas and whale sharks, the Revillagigedos (rev EE uh hee HAY dose) Islands, more commonly known to English speakers as the Socorro Islands (if for no other reason than ease of pronunciation), are about as good as you are likely to find on the planet.

With a "where" that's such a slam dunk in terms of consistency, one must next consider the "when." The Socorros are a 250-mile steam from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, so getting there means a 24-hour boat ride. A liveaboard is the only way to dive the islands, as there are no day boats or resorts. It's nice to have decent weather for the crossing, and November through May seems to be the sweet spot. (I'm sure the animals are there year round, but getting to the islands might be a little extreme in other months.) January, February and March feature an added bonus: Migrating humpback whales visit in these months to calve and train their young.

This phenomenon has been known for the past decade, but the quality of the humpback encounters appears to be improving each year as the whales seem to be getting more accustomed to divers. The encounters have certainly gone viral lately, especially after the 2012 season in which a mother and calf took up residence off Roca Partida for more than nine weeks, which allowed many divers to bring home truly amazing stills and video. The fact that these encounters occurred on scuba is even more astounding, as the whales typically spook at the slightest sound of bubbles; generally if proximity is achieved at all, it happens while freediving.

A baby humpback whale

The trade-off for sharing these islands with whales is that the water is a bit cooler in the first three months of the year — usually 70–74°F instead of the 78–82°F water enjoyed in other months. It's not hard to dress for water temperatures in the low 70s though; a 5–7mm wetsuit provides ample thermal protection. The chance to see whales in the water and hear them singing on almost every dive was sufficient motivation for me to book a February trip this year.

I was ecstatic about the marine life we encountered, but in April and May there are likely to be whale sharks; the spring also brings bait balls and silky sharks in far greater numbers along with water warm enough for just a 3mm wetsuit. As great as this trip was, I'm not sure what month I would choose to go if I were to do it over again. That might be the hardest part about planning a visit to the Socorros — not the "whether" but the "when."
The Travel

Socorro features surge, strong currents and endless horizons; it's a destination for experienced divers. The boats that serve the Revillagigedos Islands leave from Cabo San Lucas. Most depart in the morning so they can arrive early enough the next day to allow for three dives. While there are plenty of airlines and flights that serve Cabo, lost baggage remains a nagging issue because of the hub system and connections involved, especially with travel during the winter months to see humpbacks. Several divers on this trip connected through Dallas/Ft. Worth, which usually isn't adversely affected by weather, but snow events there triggered baggage delays and forced one of the guests to travel without his personal dive gear. There are so many nice resorts and so much that's fun to do in Cabo San Lucas, arranging to arrive a day or two early is not a bad idea, especially in the heart of winter.

A marina at Cabo San Lucas

The following is a dive diary written at sea, Feb. 8-16, 2014.
Day 1: The Canyon

Whitetip reef sharks at Roca Partida
Following a full-day steam, which allowed plenty of time for dive-safety briefings and assembly of our cameras and dive gear, we awoke to discover a large school of dolphins frolicking in our bow wake, heralding our arrival at San Benedicto Island. The island itself is largely devoid of vegetation, and even a superficial glance reveals its volcanic origins. This was fine with me, as less vegetation means less particulate matter in the water after it rains and thus, better visibility. We didn't have rain all week, so that wouldn't have mattered anyway, but you can assume 75- to 150-foot visibility most of the time in the Socorros, with the clearest water on any given day at Roca Partida.

The crew chose The Canyon for our checkout dive due to its lack of current and typically benign conditions. An easy first dive to work out weights was helpful as most of us either had new wetsuits or were wearing more layers than we usually did. This is not to say it wasn't an interesting and productive dive though; The Canyon has offered some of the best hammerhead sightings I've had in the Socorros. The bottom is at about 80 feet, and there is a ridge of boulders gently sloping down from 50 feet to meet the dropoff, a place where a diver could secret himself behind a boulder in hopes of a close shark encounter. While normally an active place for hammerheads, the water was warmer this year than we had anticipated, only dropping to 77°F during this trip, and the sharks mostly kept to the cooler, more nutrient-rich waters below.

Octopuses are unusually common, with multiple encounters on most dives.

I had a nice octopus sighting, which was very exciting until later in the trip when I realized I was seeing octopuses on every single dive. There were as many as six at some sites, and once I even encountered a mating pair. I have never seen so many octopuses so consistently anywhere in the world, including previously in the Socorros. The fact that others on the trip also came home with mating-octopus photos from different sites makes me think there might have been something special in the water this week.

Barberfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris) form large cleaning stations for sharks.
The other target species for this dive (and many others) was the barberfish (Johnrandallia nigrirostris), a type of butterflyfish known to clean sharks of parasites. We had a flyby from a giant manta, which likewise would have been extraordinary except in comparison to later dives at The Boiler where as many as five mantas swirled about, barely inches from our dome ports.

As we motored into the anchorage in the morning we saw spouts from several humpbacks, so I took the opportunity to try some topside photography. There was a mother and a calf, but they were relatively skittish, and conditions were a bit rough to allow for any quality images from the inflatable. I tried underwater instead but was pretty unsuccessful there, too. I did see the whales from a distance and another manta ray as well but nothing that presented photo ops.

An interested Galapagos shark circled below us while we swam. It's funny how the mindset changes from being on scuba with a group of other divers trying to get close enough for a photograph to snorkeling on the surface with lots of bare skin exposed and the dinghy far away. Even though you may know better, a shark interested in you while you snorkel is a lot more disconcerting than when you have a big tank protecting your back and a big underwater camera housing protecting your front.
Day 2: The Boiler

Trumpetfish at Roca Partida
The Boiler, also at San Benedicto Island, is near The Canyon, but it's quite a different site. The long ocean swells inexorably beat against this remnant of an underwater volcano that rises to within 10 feet of the surface. The spray from the site can be seen from a great distance, which was noted by sailing ships long ago and is how the site got its name. The wave action here causes a consistent upwelling, which provides food for the Creole wrasses and whitetip reef sharks that are common at the site. Large Chinese trumpetfish and guineafowl puffers share the rock face with the clarion angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis) that serve as cleanerfish for the immense giant mantas (Manta birostris). I found an octopus here as well (unsurprisingly, in retrospect), and there are lots of lobsters and other invertebrate and vertebrate life amid the striations carved in the rock face. But it is a dedicated macro shooter indeed who can turn a blind eye to the mantas when they arrive — staying focused on the life in the rock when there is so much of fascination in the blue water nearby is no small feat.

We found that remaining near The Boiler made for better manta encounters than chasing them into the blue. They tend to move ever seaward, and while a single diver may be rewarded by a direct approach, others will see only shapes in the distance. Disciplined and considerate divers let the mantas come to where they want to be: the giant rock that hosts the cleaner fish with which the rays live in symbiosis. Staying near The Boiler makes sense anyway, especially when a current is running, as the rock provides a welcome lee that precludes the need for a blue-water hang that would mean being swept ever farther from the mother ship.

Unlike manta interactions elsewhere, some of which are often quite turbid (because plankton attracts mantas), the water here is clear and blue. The mantas come near and seem to enjoy the divers and their bubbles. I thought this day on The Boiler was as good as it could get, but I was wrong. The best would come when we returned to the site later in the trip.
Days 3 and 4: Cabo Pierce, Socorro Island

A leather bass is protected from predators by sea urchin spines.
The Mexican Navy sometimes closes Socorro Island for maneuvers, but fortunately the island was available for diving during our itinerary. Without it we would have had to share other sites — many none too large — with other boats. The Boiler in particular would have been problematic; it was crowded with only our group of 24 divers. The dive site at Roca Partida is even smaller, and having two or three boats there at the same time would be really tricky, especially for encountering pelagic life, which is the reason we are here. To avoid being the third boat at Roca Partida one day our captain elected to do two days at Cabo Pierce. This was just fine for it was very productive, yielding pictures of a humpback calf, dolphins, mating octopuses, large schools of barberfish and, of course, manta rays.

Cabo Pierce features a sloping ridge that rises from deeper than 120 feet almost to the surface. There are cleaning stations all along the ridge; hammerheads frequent one at 90 feet, which is where the largest concentration of barberfish can be found. Along the top of the ridge, in about 25 feet of water, the mantas frequently come in to be cleaned by clarion angelfish. While the mantas at The Boiler seemed to like our bubbles and appeared to enjoy interacting with divers, the mantas at Socorro seem only tolerant of divers and much more focused on being cleaned of parasites.

From January through early April humpbacks cruise these waters. The crew asks divers not to dive down while on snorkel should they see one, but occasionally even divers on scuba find humpbacks at their dive sites, particularly at Roca Partida, where the footprint is much smaller than the other islands, concentrating the marine life.

I got lucky one day at Socorro. We saw a mother and calf swimming rather casually and went out to join them from the inflatable. The mother remained motionless in about 25 feet of water and spread her pectoral fins while the baby swam beneath to find the teat and suckle. After about five minutes the baby came up for air. We stayed on the surface to the side of the whales, and when the baby swam to the surface — sometimes directly toward us — that's when the photo opportunities occurred. Typically the mother will move away after the first such interaction, taking baby with her, but the level of tolerance is highly variable and greatly affected by the mother's mood that day.

It is common to see dolphins playing in the bow wake as boats approach the Socorro Islands.
It worked for me that one day on that one pass. I figure I had about 12 good seconds with a whale this trip, but those seconds may have been the highlight of my week. On the second day at Cabo Pierce I gave up a dive to try again, but all we saw were whales in a hurry to get somewhere other than where we were. They were moving with a purpose, and we never even got so much as a visible flyby.

The dolphins, on the other hand, were very engaged. Both while on scuba and when snorkeling, we had frequent visits from groups of four to six bottlenose dolphins that seemed unperturbed by proximity to divers. This is very unusual; while we noted some tolerance at The Boiler, the dolphins at Socorro are on another whole plane of engagement.

Sitting at lunch and peering through the windows to see whales breaching or dolphins rolling is inspirational. Going entire dives with the songs of humpbacks reverberating through your body is likewise amazing.
Day 5: Roca Partida

Roca Partida

A nine-hour steam separates Socorro and Roca Partida. The rock is the very top of a big seamount that rises from 10,000 feet to a plateau about 250 feet deep. From there it terminates at a point about 120 feet above sea level. It sits in very clear water and hosts a diverse array of marine life, including Galapagos and silky sharks, tuna, schooling hammerheads in the depths below, wahoo and lots of whitetip reef sharks in the "shark condos" along the east side of the rock. These eroded holes in the face of the wall may be occupied by as many as eight to 12 sharks, which are very approachable here, unlike in other areas of the world. Big schools of creolefish and jacks populate the moderate depths seaward of the rock, and through this throng swim Galapagos sharks and large yellowfin tunas. Diving to 80 or 90 feet is usually enough, although the hammerheads tend to be deeper when the water is warm.

Roca Partida is the epitome of action for many Socorro adventures, and it would occupy paragraphs of praise in a typical trip diary. However, this is not an aquarium, and Mother Nature determines the pace. Our trip to Roca Partida was fairly tame, and four dives were enough. Of course, tomorrow might be off the charts, but we've decided to head back to give The Boiler another try.
Day 6: Back to The Boiler, San Benedicto Island
Having made the choice to leave Roca Partida and steam overnight back to The Boiler for our final day was a bit risky, but sometimes the planets align. Some of the group wanted to stay at Roca Partida, knowing their chances for hammerhead sightings would be better there. We did have the best shark action of the trip there, between the shy Galapagos sharks and the ubiquitous whitetips in their shark condos along the pinnacle. I was conflicted because during my afternoon dive those who had instead opted to go whale watching were treated to a male that put on an energetic show of pec slapping and even breaching. So for whales, too, the odds may have been better at Roca Partida, but we hadn't seen a mother and calf yet, just young males, and they were not allowing a close approach. It was great to see their spouts on the surface and to have heard them singing on so many dives though. The thought of getting close to a whale in the 150-foot visibility nearly tipped the scales to a second day at Roca Partida, but the next day at The Boiler confirmed it was the right choice, or so we've now convinced ourselves.

We pulled into the anchorage at The Boiler at first light and discovered we would have it to ourselves. This was a huge boon as there are now six liveaboards in the area, and the sites are not propitious for huge throngs of divers seeking proximity with a small and finite number of big animals. I chose an 8-15mm Canon fisheye lens on a full-frame 5D Mark III and hand held a single flash. Earlier in the week I had been shooting a 16-35mm and a 24-70mm hoping to fill the frame with marine life that I assumed might be a little skittish, but as this was the last day I decided to take a chance on the fisheye, hoping for the very close encounters that would make such a lens work. Fortunately I chose wisely: The mantas were exceedingly cooperative.

Sometimes we work from inflatable boats as we did at Roca Partida, but when conditions are right the captain drops the hook and trails off to allow for giant strides off the rear platform. The crew ties a descent line to the top of the rock at The Boiler, and we're able drop directly onto the site. There was no current, so I began my first dive by swimming to the east side of the rock, the side most often subject to current; there, out of the early morning shroud of darkness, came the first manta. There was another diver seaward of me, and that's enough to keep some mantas from coming any closer. Sure enough, the ray looped around and slipped beyond the edge of my visibility.

I waited along the top of the rock at about 30 feet, and soon it rematerialized. It was extremely mellow and very engaged. I swam very slowly, and it came closer and closer until we could swim parallel, synchronized at no more than two feet apart, my full-frame fisheye full of manta. Vertical, horizontal, rectilinear, circular, with divers, without divers, with ball of sun, without ball of sun, jacks in the background, Boiler in the background — this manta delivered it all. For 30 minutes I had the best manta interactions of my career. Right lens, right place, right animal, and the day had just begun.

Clarion angelfish swim from the refuge of the reef to clean parasites from the mantas in a symbiotic relationship.

The second dive was even better. Now there were four mantas, and they were all eager to play. My new friend, Klaus, from Germany, was releasing air from his spare cylinder, and a manta came directly overhead to play in the bubbles as Klaus swam along the periphery of The Boiler, slowly kicking on his back with the manta just two feet above him. For 50 minutes it was all mantas all the time; it was so productive I decided to sit out the next dive at The Boiler and go look for a cooperative whale again.

In retrospect that was a bad call because the group enjoyed epic interactions with five different mantas that time, while I got skunked in whale world. Although we saw several different whales, they sounded when we got even remotely near. I jumped into the water a few times, but we were never even rewarded with a sighting, let alone a photo op. But it was a privilege to be out on such a beautifully warm and calm day, just me and the dinghy driver in pursuit of a whale encounter.

In the late afternoon light I went scouting for whales one last time, even though we hadn't seen a spout for a while. After all, there were still corners to turn and new bays to examine. I remained ever hopeful that one mythic "player" would be waiting. We saw no whales that day, but we did come across a school of at least 20 mantas near the surface, their wings often breaking the water. To see so many from the inflatable meant many, many more were lower in the water column and invisible to us.

Seeing these mantas reminded me about the Mexican Navy frigates that patrol these waters and the radar installation on Socorro that would alert the Navy of any unauthorized vessels here to exploit the islands' marine life. Our time as guests among these islands was magical and a testament to the Mexican government and their vision to create and enforce this conservation biosphere. The whales, mantas and sharks say gracias, and so do we.

© Alert Diver — Spring 2014

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