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Scuba Diving Magazine and ScubaDiving.com takes you behind the scenes of Editor at Large Nick Lucey's recent trip aboard the Solmar V live-aboard to the Socorros for the October 2008 issue. This is his dive log from the expedition.
Day 1: Adios Cabo
Anxiously rolling our gear bags down Cabo San Lucas's central marina dock, my dive buddy Steve and I arrive at the gangplank of the Solmar V at precisely 2pm, giving ourselves plenty of time to settle in to the sleek, green and gold vessel. There's no mistaking this eye-catching live-aboard (as a Green Bay Packers fan, I'm rather partial to the paint scheme). At the gangplank, we're greeted by Gerardo, the captain, and the entire Solmar crew. We check in, fill out paperwork, remit our passports, show our dive credentials, get a quick brief, and then go below decks to stow our gear. We return to the spacious salon for an eye-popping spread of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, guacamole and chips, as well as frozen margaritas, and chilled cervezas and sodas. After chatting with our fellow divers, our soon-to-be best friends for the next week, and setting up our dive gear at our deck stations, we retire to the sun deck and watch as the lines are pulled in and we begin our voyage to adventure. We actually leave early -- 3:38 pm, and nobody's complaining. We watch the skyline of Cabo go by, past the expansive resorts, past Lands End, until the southern tip of Baja disappears from sight. A dinner of chicken picatta, rice and veggies is served at 7 pm, and anticipating a long boat ride, most divers retire to their cabins to read, and watch a DVD on the in-room television and player. The Solmar V is remarkably stable underway, and I am lulled into a deep sleep.
Day 2: Anticipation
I wake up at 7am, hit the shower, then head up to the salon for breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham, toast, coffee and fresh fruit. Light conversation with other divers, then to a very thorough dive briefing at 10am. After the dive briefing, it's back to the cabin for a quick rest, then back up topside to eat a lunch of club sandwiches at noon. In a slight food coma, I head back to the cabin for a bit of shuteye until 2:30pm, when we first start seeing land -- Isla San Benedicto. All the divers are jazzed with anticipation of getting to the Socorros and getting wet. We arrive in the volcanic island’s lee some time around 4:00pm. The island is punctuated by an enormous, grooved volcanic peak, that last blew in the early 1950s. The volcanic crown of the island rises like Devil’s Tower from the surrounding lava rocks and open ocean. This will be the spot of our first check out dive, on a site called El Fondeadero, or “The Anchorage”. On this first dive I see some large jacks, and the endemic Clarion angelfish (named after one of the four Socorro islands) for the first time. The Clarion angelfish is a burnt umber color, with blue edged dorsal fins and yellow-trimmed pectoral fins; quite a sight. The dive is followed by some hot chocolate spiked with cinnamon, and then a Tecate once I shower and dry off on the sun deck. Sunday night is Mexican BBQ night, featuring carne asada tacos with fresh pico de gallo and guacamole. After dinner and a few more cervezas, I retire to my cabin to watch another movie, then off to sleep to prepare for the first full day of diving.
Day 3: San Benedicto and The Boiler
Monday morning begins with the most beautiful tequila sunrise that looks more like a sunset. I drink coffee to jump-start the day, then it's off to prep gear and analyze the nitrox mix. A breakfast of huevos rancheros lays down a nice base. The first dive briefing is at 8am, then into the water. Today we’re doing four dives on The Boiler, perhaps the Socorros’ signature and most famous dive site. A set of two pinnacles, one terraced in three steps, forms the backdrop for this amazing site. I'm third into the water, and I get some shots at the surface of divers giant striding in. I dispatch the small waterproof video camera, then grabbed the housed video system and bang down to 80 feet. The whole time, I hear the whistle of dolphins. About five minutes into the dive, two pods of at least seven or eight bottlenose in each pod show up and make their presence known. One comes really close. There's also a nice school of jacks hanging in the shallows, and a whitetip reef shark snoozing on a small ledge on one of the pinnacle's flank. A diver in our group claims to have seen a tiger shark, and Steve, my buddy, says he saw a manta off the bow of the boat. We do another dive at the Boiler, and the manta makes his cameo appearance. It’s a majestic creature, with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan. The dolphins don’t return, unfortunately. After the dive, we lunch on cheeseburgers and fries. After a short nap, it's back to the dive platform for dive #3 and #4 of the day, again at the Boiler. On our 4th and last dive on the Boiler, I spot a yellow and white blur about 30 to 40 feet below me. On closer inspection, I realize it's a group of rebreather divers from another live-aboard and the manta is doing a little show for them, despite the fact that they’re not releasing bubbles. It’s odd to see divers without bubbles, as your first instinct is to think they’re creatures from the deep. After four dives on The Boiler, it’s time to rest and get ready for dinner -- garlic shrimp with cauliflower and mashed potatoes. We drink some Tecates and do a little stargazing, then it’s off to the bunk for a little light reading and turn in. As we sleep, the Solmar V motors 35 miles toward Isla Socorro.
Day 4: The Real Socorro
I wake up at 6:30 and head up to the salon to grab some coffee. Some of the divers say they saw silkies and dolphins circling the boat an hour earlier. We’re all handed a book of tickets, they're our permits for diving the Socorros, and then enjoy a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. Our gear has already been loaded on the pangas, so we know drift diving is in store for us. We enter the panga as we’re called by tank number. We file in until the panga is overflowing with divers, neoprene and rubber. Once filled up, we motor for Cabo Pearce, the site we’ll dive twice before lunch. At the designated spot, the panga captain counts three, and on three, we backroll into the light chop. We all check buoyancy then head into the deep. We make our way to the lip of a small wall, and look around, waiting for action. It doesn't come ... yet. Finally, we head out farther into the blue, and urgent pointing of fingers leads us to the hazy outline of a hammerhead, followed by the appearance of an entire school! We fin out into the blue, ever remaining at the very edge of their tight grouping. We complete the dive, silent with awe, and return to the surface to board the panga for the ride back to the Solmar V. Hot chocolate makes a great after-dive beverage, in case you've never had the luxury of enjoying it. Time to charge and change batteries and swap memory cards. Then back in the water for another dive at Cabo Pearce. We hit the water in roughly the same spot, and are almost immediately met by another school of scalloped hammerheads. We follow the hammerheads for 10 to 15 minutes. Suddenly, the squeaky chirp of dolphins interrupts my voyeurism, and I turn my gaze away from the hammerheads, to be met by a mask-full of dolphins. They stay and frolic for a moment or two, then disappear as quickly as they came. Schooling hammerheads and dolphins in a span of one minute ... where else have I seen this spectacle? Nowhere, actually. The hammerheads disappear again, and we keep finning, hoping we'll see more, until our air thins. We return to the panga, and take a broad sweep by the lava formations of this side of the island on our way back to the Solmar V. It’s an eerie, bleak landscape, which could double for the moon--or Mars--if Mexico’s film industry ever needed to find a worthy location. Lunch consists of fish in a light mustard sauce, cauliflower and rice, followed up by key lime pie. We don’t go hungry on this boat. After lunch, we motor around to the other side of the island, to a protected bay within sight--and gunshot--of the Mexican navy base. After waiting 30-40 minutes, we’re finally boarded by a military unit, consisting of two boat crew, three soldiers and a mustachioed guy in khaki who is very obviously in charge. Two of the soldiers take battle stations at the bow and stern, while the other escorts the jefe around the vessel, from the bridge to the passenger cabins. Passports are checked, sideboards kicked, stern glances are given, and then they're gone. Apparently military personnel spend roughly 15-day tours of duty on the island, and I was left wondering exactly what you have to do to be dispatched to this duty station ... unless you're a diver, of course.
After the Mexican Navy inspection, we motor to a site called El Acuario, or The Aquarium. We are initially put off by somewhat low visibility at the site, but this turns out to work in our favor. Dropping down the bow line, we land on a horseshoe-shaped reef system composed of sponge-covered rock, that has a marbled, granite-type appearance. An octopus breaks its silence, moving from cover out into the open. We chase it with cameras in hand, and he quickly situates himself into a crack, taking on the marbled, granite-like appearance of the surrounding rock. This goes on for 10 minutes. A scorpionfish comes into view, its well-camouflaged body meshing perfectly with its surroundings. It has frilly appendages around its mouth, much like the splendid toadfish of Cozumel, but this is no toadfish. After playing with the local residents, we return up the bow line to the stern to do our safety stops. A silky shark stops by to check us out, weaving in and out of our legs, zooming in close then darting out of sight, only to return. We stay half an hour in the water column, snapping shots and observing the spectacle.
We begin a slow motor toward Roca Partida. Time will tell if it’s too rough to make the crossing--and it does. We get out past the farthest point of land of Socorro, and the captain finds conditions too rough to make it, so we turn back. We find a nice little protected bay in the lee, and anchor for the night. After a few cervezas on the top deck, we are greeted in the salon to dinner of steak, baked potato and veggies. We quickly return to the top deck for cigars and more beers. Spotting a fin, we go down to the side deck to watch as a dozen or so silkies return to the boat, lured by the lights and tempted by table scraps from the crew. A pair of dolphins swings by, making the sharks’ feeble attempts at grabbing grub almost Neanderthal compared to their seemingly effortless nabbing of chow. This goes on for more than an hour. When I awake the next morning, I still see the occasional fin circling the boat, as if they're still trying to eat.
Day 5: Socorro and Cabo Pearce
Today's breakfast consists of eggs benedict and fries. It takes me three cups of coffee to get jump started this morning. After prepping gear, we head back to the dive deck and get suited up for our next dive, back to trusty Cabo Pearce in the pangas, a site we'll do twice this morning. A dolphin frolics with us for at least a minute, hanging vertically in the water column as if to try to communicate with us. Within the first five minutes of our second dive at Cabo Pearce, I see a silky and a hammerhead shark. We spend most of the dive chasing silhouettes, finning and finning through the blue. After a lunch of chicken in mushroom sauce, rice and veggies, we go to a site called Punta Tosca. We pile in the pangas and head for a jagged stretch of coastline with eerie lava formations, that almost look as if sea lions are observing us from shore. We exit the panga and drop down a rocky wall, shot through with cracks and crevices. Morays dwell in the cracks, and urchins inhabit every square meter of the rock's exposed face. Up over the wall and into the shallows, a jumbled maze of boulders creates a Hollywood film set atmosphere. Shelter created by leaning rocks protects lobster and octopus underneath. Our second dive at Punta Tosca takes place in the shallows, which also is a scene of sandy channels coursing between enormous boulders. A thick school of triggerfish clouds our view. On the ride back to the Solmar, we skirt the ironshore to look for mantas. We find one and drop in with it for five minutes. It’s mildly curious, but soon bores of us, and hightails it out of there. Back on the vessel, the decision is made to head toward Roca Partida, and we get underway. Swells are moderate as we knock back iced Tecates and enjoy the golden late afternoon sun. Dinner convenes at 7pm, and we dine on green enchiladas, rice and frijoles. After dinner we watch movies and call it a night.
Day 6: Hola Roca Partida!
The Solmar V has motored all night toward Roca Partida, and we arrive around 5am. We moor at the Rock, and I watch the sunrise over the twin pinnacle, which looks a bit like the head of a manta. We enjoy a hearty breakfast of eggs, tortillas and beans, and then work our way to the back dive deck for the morning’s briefing. We suit up, gear up and pile into the pangas. We motor half a kilometer over to the north side of Roca Partida, all the while circled by sharks. We backroll in, into the best visibility we’ve encountered the entire trip (150 feet? 200 feet? I can't even guess-timate), and the thickest fish life yet. We are greeted by schools of jacks, tuna, wahoo -- all the big stuff. Sharks include Galapagos, silkies, and hammerheads, as well as whitetips snoozing in the grottoes along Roca’s sheer face. Octopus slink through the shadows, healthy green morays dwell in the cracks, and trumpetfish align themselves in the crooks of the wall. Urchins and cup corals bristle along the rock surface.
This is an electric, dynamic site, and I realize why they don’t talk about it too much -- they don’t want to get our hopes up if the seas aren’t cooperative and you can’t make the 70- to 75-mile voyage from Socorro. Roca Partida is a rocky pinnacle, no bigger than two large houses side-by-side, and it’s the only structure within 75 miles. Imagine the marine life it attracts because of its sheer desolation alone! The twin peaks are covered in what appears from a distance as snow, but on closer inspection is only bird droppings. We do the Rock one more time before lunch. This site offers as much, if not more, marine life than most of the other dives we’ve done this trip. We return to the Solmar V to offgas, and prep our gear for the next dive. We’re back in the pangas at around 10:30am and then it’s back out to The Rock to get back into the middle of the action. A bit more of the same -- Galapagos, silkies, a manta that enjoys hanging around. Near the wall, whitetips looking like gaunt nurse sharks snooze in the grottoes of the wall. Jacks, tuna and wahoo are thick out in the blue.
We return to the Solmar once again, get out of our wet stuff and hang out in the sun to get warm. You can smell the food cooking. Lunch is extravagant today -- fish and shrimp tacos, lightly battered and served with coleslaw, a mayo-mustard sauce and a homemade picante sauce. Steve and I compete to see who can eat the most, and it’s a draw. After lunch we’ve got two hours until our next dive -- spent sunning, reading, chatting. At 3:30pm we’re ready to roll and it’s back to Roca Partida for #3 dive of the day. Ho hum, yawn, more of the same -- behemoth yellowfin tuna, wahoo, Galapagos and silky sharks, schools of triggers, clouds of wrasse, the occasional hammerhead, big, dark jacks, lobsters and morays on the rocky wall. Visions of yellowfin tuna and wahoo make us hungry. Back on the boat, we swap diving stories, drink Tecates and wait for dinner. The meal is awesome -- fish sautéed in butter and garlic and served with pasta. We spend the rest of the evening watching Galapagos sharks circle the boat, then it’s sleepy time.
Day 7: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
I'm excited about my last day of diving, and this adrenaline wakes me up at 6am. Before the sun rises, we suit up and pile into the panga for the short ride to the Rock. We’re in the water by exactly 7am, and it’s a zoo-topia of everything we’ve seen before, just thicker and in deeper blue water. There is bioluminescence everywhere, and the jellyfish seem to be out in greater numbers. We see the usual cast of characters at this incredible dive site--jacks, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, trumpetfish, triggerfish, Moorish idols, Clarion angelfish, octopus, lobster, and morays in the rock face, some kind of wrasse, grey-beige in color, that form clouds so thick they’re the biggest impediment to good visibility. Hammerheads, Galapagos and silky sharks are de rigeur here. Back into the panga, we make the rounds to pick up straggling divers, then back to the Solmar to offgas, eat breakfast, and get ready for the next dive. This morning’s breakfast is pancakes and bacon--woo hoo! We’re back in the water again by 9:45, and do the same, great dive all over again. We’re always hoping for something bigger, and I constantly keep an eye out in the blue for god-knows-what. The drill continues: suck tank dry taking in the multitudinal marine life, ascend, get picked up by the panga, pick up stragglers, return to Solmar, disembark panga, dunk gear, rip off wetsuit, dry off, eat something, then wait for next dive. One dive left before returning to civilization, so I’m really, really hoping for a whale shark. I’ll be happy with the one the other panga saw on their surface interval. We head back out at 12:15 and we’re in the water by 12:30. We drop in and are immediately greeted by a pair of mantas. Normally, I’d be happy with a manta sighting, but we’ve been spoiled. We observe the normal cornucopia of marine life for our third dive of the day. As my air runs out, I work my way back away from the wall, out in the blue, to do my safety stop and wait for the panga to pull up. The pair of mantas we saw at the start of the dive are back, and they’re friskier than ever. They make close passes by me, and some of the other divers. I can look into the mantas’ eyes and peer into their soul. This is their rock, and I like to think they know this is our last dive. This is their way of saying goodbye, but not farewell, for I know I will return to this desolate rock someday. This is some fine diving.
Back on the panga, we spy a small helicopter circling the water half a kilometer away. This is a long way from land -- more than 250 miles! -- and we soon realize It’s a spotter chopper for a fishing boat. Commercial fishing vessels aren’t allowed to operate within 12 miles of these islands, but they go unchecked, especially at Roca Partida, because of it’s great distance from anywhere and everywhere. Back on the SV, we do a last good rinse of the gear, and hang it all--wherever we can find room on railings--for the long ride back to Cabo. The one good thing about the long ride back is that all of our gear is bone dry by the time we return. The helicopter now rests atop a fishing vessel, which comes within a kilometer of our live-aboard. It’s making a pass close to Roca Partida, and the Solmar’s crew attempts to radio the Mexican navy base on Socorro, to alert them of their illegal operations. Nobody answers at the base, but the fishing vessel can overhear the crew’s attempt to call them in. It works, at least for now, and the trawler peels off and disappears over the horizon. Perhaps they’ll be back later, as I’m sure they know as we do, how prolific these waters are. We begin the long steam back to Cabo at 2pm, and the seas cooperate, at least for now. Underway, we have smooth sailing and clear skies. Many divers enjoy the sun on the top deck, others review their photographs from the week.
Day 8: Back to Civilization
The divers are up at 7am for coffee and breakfast, then back to doing their own thing for the remainder of the day, which involves a whole lot of traveling back to port. Divers spend the day reading, watching movies, packing, prepping gear for their return home, etc. At around 5pm, we all start cleaning up and preparing ourselves for our return to civilization. About an hour from Cabo, we start to get cell phone service, so we spend our last moments of the voyage checking a week's worth of voicemails, emails, and calling home. We arrive in port at 9pm, plenty of time to head down to the Baja Cantina for margaritas and to get our land legs back. Even though I'm back on dry land, my legs -- and the rest of me for that matter -- feel as if I'm still out in the Socorros. And a part of me wishes I were.