I do a double take as a cormorant wings right by me. It banks toward me as I try to fire a few shots. I'm so stunned I miss the photo op. If I'd been on land, this would be no big deal. But I am 30 feet underwater, in an underwater canyon just minutes from the bustling harbor of Cabo San Lucas, getting buzzed by a bird.
It has been almost a decade since my last dive trip to Cabo, and I am astounded at the change. It's like a colossal edition of Extreme Makeover has invaded this once-sleepy resort town. The marina now boasts more than 500 charter boats alone, and a shopping mall, complete with a cineplex, fills just one part of the new complex. It takes most of a day to explore the waterfront, which 10 years ago took only minutes. With such massive development, I wonder how the nearby dive sites have withstood the impact of construction runoff, dredging and cruise ship traffic. After all, this area was once so unique that Jacques Cousteau devoted an entire show to it in the mid-1970s. Over the next few days, I'll find out how the waters have stood the test of time.
Aboard a sleek new dive boat operated by Amigos Del Mar, I join a group of divers at our first dive site, a sea lion-shaped rock named Anegada, which, incredibly, is within sight of the marina. The sandy bottom starts shallow and quickly plummets more than 3,000 feet into a submarine canyon that's reminiscent of Monterey Bay. The canyon attracts big open-water pelagics such as tuna, dorado, mantas and green sea turtles. Today, however, I am most interested in the schools of fish surrounding me. Surgeonfish, Mexican goatfish, mullets and yellowtail snapper loiter in the chasm and are easily approached for portraits. Although I am shooting wide-angle, macro photographers will be thrilled to find a variety of brown and yellow seahorses, purple frogfish and several species of vivid nudibranchs. The haunting sounds of singing humpbacks, plying their Pacific routes, are loud and clear throughout the dive. These massive leviathans have been known to venture into the canyons on occasion, thrilling divers lucky enough to get close.
I am pleasantly surprised to find the near-shore diving is well preserved, despite the recent land renovations. This area, however, serves as a convergent zone for the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, creating massive surge and flushing. Although this can cause challenging diving, it also helps wash the coastal areas of waste and debris.
After testing the local waters, I get ready for my next adventure: a week of diving the Revillagigedo Islands, an isolated offshore archipelago some 250 miles off the tip of Baja. Commonly called the Socorro Islands, the archipelago consists of four islands: San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida and Clarion. Often described as Mexico's "Little Galapagos," these submerged volcanic mountaintops possess a distinct ecology. Equally unique is the incredible diving, known the world over for jaw-dropping pelagic encounters.
In the evening, I load my gear on the live-aboard Solmar V, which runs trips to the islands from November through May. We head out to sea and soon find ourselves submerged in a marine paradise, where underwater ballets of terrestrial and nonterrestrial mammals are everyday occurrences. Here, five don't-miss sites for divers interested in hitting these action-packed waters:
This legendary location at the northwest tip of San Benedicto is known for some of the best manta experiences on the planet. The mantas cruise several cleaning stations in the area, where barberfish and clarion angelfish offer preening services to passing pelagics. These are some of the biggest mantas you will see anywhere, easily reaching 20 feet from tip to tip. It's tough to look past the manta encounters and see anything else, but there are also some amazing schools of steroid-sized jacks and trevally, almost double what you usually see in the Pacific. There are schools of redtail triggerfish, too, which are curious and can be approached within inches. Expect to hear humpback whale songs at this dive site. After diving the Boiler, I returned to the boat and overheard several people exclaim that this was the best dive of their lives. Enough said.
Named for the frequent sightings of large tiger sharks, this dramatic site offers close encounters with everything from bottlenose dolphins to mantas. And during surface intervals, it's even possible to snorkel with humpback whales. False killer whales and groups of yellowfin tuna make frequent appearances here as well.
This dive is best done at sunrise, and I am lucky to be the first in the water. I cruise along a sloping rocky ridge to a cleaning station in 95 feet of water. A large group of at least 50 hammerheads hovers in the distance and are the primary attraction. Bottlenose dolphins frequent this location, and some of our group see them harassing a large school of silver jacks. Tiger, Galapagos and silky sharks frequent the deeper areas near the cleaning station.
The stadium-sized rock called Roca Partida is like an iceberg that only reveals its tip on the surface. Above water, all you see is a tiny guano-flecked rock, but underwater it expands enormously, offering a remarkable diversity of life. At 100 feet, the visibility seems endless, and large groups of hammerhead sharks always seem to be just out of range. Galapagos and silver-tip sharks can be easily approached. Swimming out into the blue brings you in range of yellowfin tuna that run the gamut from predictably small to human-size beasts. It usually takes a full tank of air to work your way around the entire rock underwater. This is a dive that seduces you ever deeper, so paying close attention to your depth is imperative. I spend two heavenly days diving this location, and each dive offers something different, from clusters of white-tip sharks resting in recesses in the plunging rock faces to fast-moving schools of hundreds of juvenile skipjack tuna.
Located 28 nautical miles from San Benedicto, Socorro is the largest island in the group. It rises more than 3,000 feet to the summit of Mount Evermann, a shield volcano that erupted most recently in 1993. Unusual lava formations are found underwater, and it's not uncommon to see silky, hammerhead and Galapagos sharks in these parts. However, one of the best dives in these waters happens to be a macro dive called the Aquarium. Expect all kinds of interesting small fish (hence the site's name). It's a top spot to sight clusters of blue and gold snappers, curious octopus and zebra and tiger eels. In springtime, this is also a gathering place for humpback whales, which you can observe breaching, surfacing and tail-slapping.
Cabo Top 10
Before and after most live-aboard trips to Socorro, you'll likely have a day or two in Cabo. With the following insider's guide, you can turn those pre- and post- trip days into adventures of their own.
At the very tip of Cabo San Lucas is a scenic series of monster rock formations. Lover's Beach is the water taxi drop-off point, and a wonderful sandy beach the size of a football field separates the photogenic boulders. You'll be only a few fin kicks from snorkel sites filled with California sea lions and thick schools of snappers, goatfish and sergeant majors. Water taxis from the Cabo Marina average $8 round-trip.
Cabo is known as the marlin capital of the world (there are said to be more striped marlin caught within 20 miles of Cabo San Lucas year-round than in any place in the world). Dorado, yellowfin tuna and wahoo are also plentiful. Full-day charters on large boats run about $400 and include tackle, bait and food. Half-day trips on smaller boats run $80 to $120.
Cabo has five public courses and two private ones, including Cabo Del Sol and Palmilla Golf Club, both designed by Jack Nicklaus. Eighteen holes will run between $60 and $250, depending on the season.
This lovely colonial village, located an hour from Cabo, makes a charming day trip. Famous for art galleries, quaint inns and music festivals, Todos Santos is also a choice spot for viewing migrating gray whales between January and March. Don't miss the Café Santa Fe, a must for lunch or dinner.
Gardenias Tacos, tucked on a side street not far from the center of Cabo, offers Mexican home-style cooking in an unpretentious environment. Taqueria Los Paisas, three blocks north of the main drag, also serves some of the best beef and pork tacos in town.
www.elsquidroe.com). Cabo Wabo gets the best live bands, and Sammy Hagar, former lead singer of Van Halen and part owner of the establishment, can often be spotted at the bar (www.cabowabo.com). For a quieter evening of cool jazz, try the Sancho Panza Wine Bistro and Nightclub (www.sanchopanza.com).A lively crowd congregates at the ever-popular El Squid Roe nightly (
Explore 25 miles of pristine canyons and sand arroyos in nearby Desert Park; the stunning two-hour ATV tours are guided by experienced naturalists. Contact: 011-52-624-144-0127
Day Trip: Whale-Watching in Magdalena Bay
One of the most satisfying excursions out of Cabo San Lucas is a whale-watching day trip to Magdalena Bay. The guided trip begins at Aerocalafia's private airstrip on the outskirts of Cabo. A Cessna Caravan then takes a small group of ecotourists on a 90-minute flight, arriving on a tiny dirt airstrip at Lopez Mateos, not far from the entrance to Magdalena Bay. From January to the end of March, you can board a panga in these waters and observe one of nature's most fascinating phenomena: migrating gray whales, which cover a distance of some 6,000 miles annually. These massive marine mammals travel south every winter from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to bear their young in the warm, shallow waters of several lagoons off Baja's Pacific coast. Here, you can observe them spy-hopping, breaching and surfacing; some of the curious youngsters will even approach the pangas and allow themselves to be touched.
The local panga drivers have mastered the art of getting near the whales without crowding them, offering close encounters with their barnacle-covered heads and intelligent eyes. In addition to all the whale activity, visitors can expect to see pods of bottlenose and Pacific dolphins cavorting around their boats. Bird-watchers, too, will enjoy seeing squadrons of pelicans, blue herons, cormorants and frigate birds. After spending three hours with all the creatures in the lagoon, you are treated to a grilled seafood extravaganza at a thatched-roof restaurant in Lopez Mateos before the return flight home. Price: $365, including transportation, lunch and bilingual guide. Contact: www.aerocalafia.com
The volcanic chain of Socorro, San Benedicto, Roca Partida and Clarion islands is reachable only by live-aboards and other vessels capable of handling the 24-hour crossing from Cabo San Lucas. Strong currents, plankton-rich upwellings and underwater promontories characterize the diving in this protected string of islands. November through June is the optimal dive season thanks to the most manageable conditions, but currents and surge are common even then. While visibility can top 100 feet, pockets of plankton can cloud the water.
International Airports at San Jose Del Cabo and La Paz are served by a number of U.S. and international airlines. You'll take Transpeninsular Hwy. 1 if you're driving.
Temperatures can soar to 110 degrees in the summer, but the average is 95 degrees. During winter, expect daytime highs in the low 70s.
There is year-round diving in the Sea of Cortez off Baja Sur, but the best time is late June to early November. The absolute best months are September and October, when the seas are flat, visibility peaks at 60 feet or more and surface temperatures hit a toasty 85 degrees. It's still cold enough below the thermocline that most divers opt for full 3mm wetsuits. In winter, surface water temps drop to 65 to 70 degrees, so you'll need a 5mm or 6mm full wetsuit with hood and gloves. Seas can kick up to two to three feet, and vis drops to an average of 30 to 50 feet due to plankton blooms. On the plus side, gray whales and occasionally blue whales move into the sea in winter to feed and mate, increasing your chance of an encounter.
110 volts, 60 cycles. Not all facilities have U.S.-style three-pronged plugs, so you may need adapters.
A passport is the best option, but U.S. and Canadian citizens can get by on an original birth certificate and photo ID until Jan. 1, 2007.
The Mexican peso is the official currency, though U.S. dollars are widely accepted in tourist businesses and larger cities. Traveler's checks and credit cards are also accepted at resorts, restaurants and dive shops. You will need pesos for small purchases, gas stations and merchants in outlying areas.
There is a recompression chamber in Cabo San Lucas that's on call 24 hours a day.