Trip report - Sea of Cortez - Club Cantamar - whale sharks & more +

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Posted by jlyle on September 30, 2006 at 19:23:37:

Seņor Big & other wonderful things in the Sea of Cortez (Club Cantamar) - long with many pictures.

When fellow divers learn that we live in Southern California, they frequently ask about diving the Sea of Cortez. We are, what you would call, "been there, done that divers" but for some unknown reason, we have never gone to Baja for the diving. When my buddies, the Webbs, booked a trip to Club Cantamar, I tagged along to see what I had been missing.

Club Cantamar - Pichilingue, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

To get to La Paz, most people fly to San Jose del Cabo and then take a shuttle. There is an airport in La Paz, but the airfare to SJC is usually much cheaper, making the longer trip more economical. So, following the herd, we flew on Alaska Airlines from LAX to SJC, a flight of only two hours duration. It took an hour to get our baggage, go through immigration and customs, because three planes landed one right after another. We met the shuttle driver outside the terminal and waited for some other passengers getting in on a later flight. The drive to Pichilingue, on the Sea of Cortez, north of La Paz, where Club Cantamar is located, took three hours - a very picturesque drive through the desert - green from the hurricane-spawned rains of the previous month. All-in-all, it took us eleven hours from the time we got to LAX until we arrived at CC; next time, I'll look into flying directly into La Paz!

[note: Alaska Airlines is going to start service direct to La Paz at the end of October 2006.]

Sjc airport


Club Cantamar is about twenty minutes north of La Paz, on a peninsula, next to the truck ferry terminal. There is no town or anything else to see there, but it is an hour closer to the dive sites than the boats out of La Paz. The resort is interesting, consisting of several buildings: hotel rooms, dive operation, restaurant, pool/bar, and a small condominium project. There's a swimming pool with swim up bar. The rooms are spacious, clean, with tile floors, a/c, television (mostly Spanish stations), radio, and en suite bathrooms. You can book half or full board; on the full board plan, breakfast and dinner are buffet, lunch is served on the boats. Breakfast consisted of the standard eggs, potatoes, pancakes or French toast, ham, cereal, some fruit, etc. The lunches on the boats were do-it-yourself sandwiches or tacos, chips, cookies, and soft drinks. Dinner buffets items changed nightly: several choices of fish, chicken, beef, pork chops, pasta, with vegetables, salad bar, and a dessert. I found the food to be tasty and filling, but nothing to write home to your mother about.

They have bottles of drinking water in the corridors of the buildings to fill up a pitcher in your room for drinking, brushing teeth, etc. The water tastes "funny," but is safer than the tap water.

Resort shot


Room with a view. I told you it was next to the truck ferry!

Note: bring sandals, the rock pathways are too rough for bare feet.

The dive operation has several large boats that accommodate ~25 divers each. The boats all have marine heads and carry radios, oxygen and other safety stuff. Each diver's gear is kept in a secure caged section just a few steps from the marina and you schlep your stuff to the boat in a milk crate. Tanks are already on the boats and consist of Al-80's, with larger tanks and nitrox available. Entries are giant stride off the sides or back of the boat; returns are via stern ladders - you take off and hand up your fins before climbing the ladders back to the deck where the crew will take your tank and change it out for the next dive. Divers could hand up their weight belts and/or tanks if they told the DMs they needed extra attention. Dives times were normally limited to fifty minutes, but by getting in the water first, I was able to do hour+ dives and return before the last divers arrived at the back of the boat. The dive masters will lead dives or you can do your own thing - buddy diving was not enforced. The DMs all spoke excellent English and gave detailed dive briefings. Pedro, Antonio, and Mitsuko were great. Captain Jorge of the Uno Mas is a real character.

Gear lockers (bring a lock)


Scott schlepping gear



Day one - We were put on the Uno Mas, along with a bunch of other divers and DMs Antonio and Pedro. A large group from Seattle affiliated with Silent World were diving rebreathers. Since everyone was new, we were taken to the sea lion rookery at Los Islotes, about ninety minutes north of the marina. This shallow spot is next to an island with a sloping boulder wall. There weren't a lot of sea lions around, so I concentrated on the fish life. I saw many new species of fish that were obviously not the typical Caribbean reef fish I'm used to. The fauna in the Sea of Cortes are even very different from those in Southern California. Some of the fish, I knew: many pufferfish, many green moray eels, goatfish, grunts, but lots of fish I couldn't identify. In addition to the fish, the inverts were pretty cool, too - colorful starfish stood out on the rocky bottom.

Balloonfish (Diodon hystrix) - "Welcome to the Sea of Cortez."

Moray eel (Gymnothorax castaneus)


Yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius)


The second dive was much better, a site called El Bajito - a rocky reef located in the open ocean. A moderate current was running parallel to the reef, so I dropped down to a wall along the reef and worked my way into the current. Wow, many large schools of different fish feeding in the current or hiding in the crevasses in the rock; I photographed more green morays, a giant hawkfish, and some kind of grouper. Water temperature was a warm 83 degrees F & visibility was a good fifty feet or more.

Scott with snappers

Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus)

Flag cabrilla (Epinephelus labriformis)

Creolefish (Paranthias colonus), aka "gringo fish" - there are millions of them, they are everywhere, and they occasionally turn pink!

After lunch on the boat (sandwiches, chips, etc.), we moved to the wreck of the Fang Ming, a Chinese smuggler that was seized by the Mexican authorities and put down in 1998 as an artificial reef and dive site. She's upright, on the sand at about seventy feet. A huge school of barracuda hung out off the wreck and I stopped to take a few snapshots before moving onto the wreck, itself. A green turtle was asleep on the deck and patiently waited while I took a portrait. Under the wreck were some large groupers, but they were not interested in letting me get close enough for a picture. After circling the wreck and doing one penetration (holes have been cut in the side of the wreck for easy entry/exit), I did a safety stop near the crow's nest and then returned to the dive boat.



Green Turtle

Large banded blenny (Ophioblennius steindacheneri)

In addition to scuba diving, Club Cantamar offers deep-sea fishing, kayaking, and even bicycling!

Club Cantamar from the water

Day two - One of the big draws to Baja California is the opportunity to see whale sharks. For twenty US dollars per person, the dive operation puts up a spotter ultra-light plane. When the plane spots the whale shark, the boat maneuvers into its path and drops some of the snorkelers in the water. The idea is to swim to where the shark will be and try and keep up when it swims past you. Because whale sharks are plankton feeders, they are most often found in murky water; we had about ten feet of visibility and photography was very challenging. My first encounter, I was able to get a picture of the mid-section of one WS and was very, very happy to have that. On my second and third opportunities, I was luckier and have a few keepers to prove I finally saw a whale shark! Yippee!

Margaret waiting for "Mr. Big."

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)

Whale shark

The spotter plane developed a problem with its drive belt and headed back towards Club Cantamar, finally putting down on the water - did I mention it's a float-plane? Our dive boat towed the plane back to the club and then we drove north to the wreck of the Salva Tierra, a ferry that went down in 1978. Most of the mid section is collapsed, but it is home to lots of big snapper, huge pufferfish, and a whole host of other fish & sea critters. Visibility wasn't very good, but it was an interesting wreck, nonetheless. I even found a longnose hawkfish hiding in a gorgonium.

Cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii)

Cortez angelfish (Pomacanthus zonipectus)

Longnose hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus)

Antonio takes a potty break

Panamic graysby (Epinephelus panamensis)

The final dive of the day was at Swanee Reef, a low coral reef with a maximum depth of thirty feet. I have never seen so many fish - vast schools of goatfish and scad flowed like rivers along the sides of the reef. Garden eels poked their heads out of the sand on the flats beside the reef. A family of sealions rafted above the seafood smorgesbord below them.

Garden eels (Taenioconger sp)

Mutton hamlet (Alpestes afer) & soldierfish



Scads of scad (Selar crumenophthalmus?)


Day three - El Bajo! This is a World-class dive site. It's one of the few places where schooling hammerhead sharks are to be found. A sea mount, rising from the depths in blue water, it attracts large numbers of pelagic fish. Strong currents and deep water contribute to its mystique. In addition to Pedro and Antonio, we had an additional DM on board, Misuko. On the way to the dive site, I noticed a black fin off the starboard side of the boat and yelled, "Orca!" There were three killer whales leisurely making their way up the coast, two adults and a juvenile. We stayed with them for the longest time before they sounded and we moved on. The first dive at El Bajo started with a bang - I'm hanging on the anchor line fiddling with my camera and waiting for the rest of the dive group, when the DM taps me on the shoulder and points out a manta ray - of course I'm in macro mode and the ray is long gone before I can even think about changing the camera settings, but that's okay, I have a mental picture - damn! The rest of the dive was a bust, we swam out into the blue in hopes of seeing some hammerhead sharks, but none were to be found. I did find a colonial salp and there are always divers to take pictures of.




The second dive at El Bajo, I opted to dive the top of the seamount while others went with the DM in search of hammerheads. I poked around, taking pictures of blennies and a green moray eel...then, someone pulled my fin and pointed up. IT WAS A WHALE SHARK...A BIG ONE! I adjusted my camera on the way up and took as many pictures as I could. The WS was eating the divers' bubbles and swam around the boat several times as I snapped away. Only later did I realize that I hadn't put on the wide-angle lens adapter, so all of my pictures were 35mm equivalent, but I'm not going to complain. Boy, was I excited. BTW, the other divers didn't find any hammerheads. Captain Jorge said the shark was about 14 meters long (that's almost 45 feet).

Whale shark

Whale shark

Whale shark

Large banded blenny (Ophioblennius steindacheneri)

Moray eel

Killer whales, manta ray, and a whale shark! Wow!

The third dive was a repeat of Swanee Reef with a zillion goatfish. I found a neat eel, a green turtle, and some other interesting critters to photograph.


Zebra moray (Gymnomuraena zebra)

Goatfish & grunts

After a beautiful day on the water, the wind picked up and it started to sprinkle. The bar tender said it was raining in La Paz and said we might get some precipitation in the middle of the night. (We didn't).

Day four - La Reina is a small island with the remnants of a navigation light on top. The sides of the island slope off to about 70 feet on all sides. The water was warmer and much clearer than the previous sites we had dived, exceeding one hundred feet. The major attraction at this site is the opportunity to dive in a vast school of mackerel - zillions of mackerel forming a silver curtain. There are also schools of ballyhoo near the surface, grunts, goatfish, barracuda, and lots of green moray eels - many free swimming. Hawkfish, angels, butterflyfish, and puffers are all abundant. There is even a small colony of sealions on the island.


Curtis - Look Ma, no bubbles!


Hieroglyphic hawkfish (Cirrhitus riculatus)




A crowd in a crack

After two dives at La Reina, we motored over to an island that looks like Catalina! The dive site here is called La Reinita - a pinnacle surrounded by deep water. Pedro mentioned the opportunity to find nudibranchs at this location, so I started the dive looking for them - bingo, four Glossodoris sedna nudibranchs very close together. [This is a common Pacific nudibranch that is now also found off of the Florida Keys.]

Glossodoris sedna

Guineafowl pufferfish (Aronthron meleagris)

Day five - Today's dives were repeats - I don't know if they do a four/five day cycle or it was just the luck of the draw. We did have some newbies on the boat, so maybe that's why they took us back to Los Islotes. We stayed there for the second dive, but drifted around the end of the island for a change. Nothing new or big - I didn't take many pictures - but enjoyed the nice warm, clear water.

Triplefin blenny (Lepidonectes sp.)

Giant damselfish (Damisela dorsalis)

For lunch, the Capt. prepared fish for fish tacos with refries...very tasty. The third dive was back at the Fang Ming wreck with three green turtles and the barracuda school to keep me busy.

Scott inside the Ming Fang

Turtle & Margaret

Turtle & sun

Day six - We bought an extra day of diving and because we didn't want to do the whale shark snorkel - been there, done that - they put us on a boat with only two other divers and one DM. We asked to go back to the wreck of the Fang Ming where we saw the turtles again, a cute little eel, and the resident school of barracuda; it was great having the wreck to ourselves.

The second dive was El Bajito, a seamount that we had done earlier in the week. Scott found another nudibranch!

Barberfish (Johnrandallia nifrirostris)

Hypselodoris ghiselini

The last dive was Colorito, a muck dive on the sand where the GIANT jawfish live. These are great fish, about three inches in diameter and very, very tame. If you put a shell next to their hole, they will pick it up and move it away. They are not in the least shy, in fact, they will let you scratch under their chins. I spent almost an hour with them. There were sailfin blennies displaying all over the place, but I didn't frustrate myself trying to take their pictures - damn shutter lag.

Giant jawfish (Opistognathus rhomaleus)

Our last night, they cooked poolside and served really great chicken and/or beef tacos with all the trimmings, and flan for dessert. The next morning, we took the shuttle to Cabo for the short flight home to Los Angeles.

Bottom line: Diving in the Sea of Cortes is really great, given the opportunity to see whale sharks, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and a vast array of interesting and unique creatures. Plus, it's relatively easy to get to from Los Angeles. Club Cantamar is a pleasant and affordable place to stay near La Paz. A return trip is a definite possibility.

Jim (jlyle)

Links & stuff:

Club Cantamar: www.clubcantamar.com

My web page: Jim's_Web_Page

Camera: Olympus c5050 in an Olympus PT-015 housing with dual Ikelite DS-125 strobes, Inon macro & wide-angle lens adapters.

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