>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.
>A diver uses his GoPro camera to record an intimate encounter with a giant
>manta ray at The Boiler, San Benedicto Island.
>manta ray at The Boiler, San Benedicto Island.
>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.
>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 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.
>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.
>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.
>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.
>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.
>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.
>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.
>Day 6: Back to The Boiler, San Benedicto Island
>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.
>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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