Divernet

A HOT WIND BLOWS OFF THE RED DESERT. It makes us feel as if we are standing by the open door of a pizza oven. The sea looks oily calm. The red mountains make a dramatic back-drop and the sun scorches down relentlessly.
Sounds like summer in the Red Sea, doesnt it But it is not. Those who know the Red Sea coast will find that of the Sea of Cortez to be uncannily familiar, but that is where any similarity stops.
This is a temperate sea with the biggest range of water temperatures youll find in the world. At the height of summer, the water can be icy cold. Or it might be comfortably warm. Who knows Thats the Sea of Cortez. At times the sea-dweller needs a thick layer of neoprene, or blubber, to keep warm - at others not.
Youll find the Sea of Cortez on the map, south of California. In Mexican territory, the long peninsula that stretches south from the American border and forms a natural barrier between this stretch of water and the mighty Pacific is called Baja California (Lower California). The Sea of Cortez is also often known as the Gulf of California. It all harks back to the days when all of California was in Mexican hands.
La Paz is the town, located near the southern end of the Baja California peninsula, where you will find any number of diving operations. The Cortez Club is a modern dive centre, set up by Brits, where you will encounter several old hands from the Red Sea.
These are people who are diving enthusiasts first and for whom running a business takes second place. Jamie Curtiss, the young English owner, made his money from trading and put it into what he wanted to do - diving. Hes hyper, hes charming, and he has imbued his helpers with his overwhelming enthusiasm.

There is little in the way of coral in the Sea of Cortez but the ever-changing water temperatures and copious amounts of sunlight combine to produce, at times, plankton levels that support massive amounts of marine life. Whale sharks, manta rays and even grey whales are almost common. But its not that easy to find and dive with them. They are pelagic animals forever wandering the vast emptiness of the oceans. You need good luck to enjoy an exciting midwater encounter.
So with no coral reefs to speak of, where are the territorial animals to form a reliable and permanent attraction for divers
Rocky sea-mounts and islands attract those animals that do not simply wander in the blue. Such names as El Bajo, Los Islotes and Los Animas have become bywords for great diving experiences among those who have been and seen.
Todays dive site is 50 miles from the Cortez Club. We hold on tightly in the panga as it skips across the calm surface of a sultry sea. Fifty miles might sound a long way but we are at Los Islotes in just over an hour.
Some ragged rocks tower from the water, looking like a rough red cake capped with guano-like icing-sugar. And whats that noise
Once the little boats massive outboard engine has been stilled to silence, we hear the gentle lapping of calm water on the rocks, and then the unmistakable sound of barking. Los Islotes is a California sea-lion colony, or rookery.

Sea-lions are from a group of animals collectively known as pinnipeds. They are all fish-eating mammals with flippers instead of arms and legs. Sea-lions are quite different from seals. They have clearly visible ears and can walk on their flippers, while seals merely crawl.
California sea-lions have thick fur in a range of shades of chocolate browns. The bulls are usually darker than the females and can weigh in at a massive 450kg. Females are much smaller, at a petite 150kg. They have a long life-span of around18 years. Pups are born in midsummer. Their mothers suckle them for between six months and a year.
A successful bull will breed with as many females as he can. It has been known for one male to service 40 females, but it all depends on his size and strength.
Each bull has his own clearly defined territory which he has fought off other bulls to win. The males seem to devote most of their time to maintaining a dominant position in that territory. They are large and powerful and will aggressively defend their harem against incursions from other males.

On land, sea-lions are mobile and can run quite quickly. They sometimes extend their territory up to a kilometre from the coast. The narrow ledges of Los Islotes allow them no such luxury. There is all the angst and conflict of the close confines of multi-occupation living and constant disagreements between neighbours - hence all the barking.
We drop into the water among the massive
submerged boulders that mark the shallows. My companions swim off after a group of spiny puffers that are obviously intent on some uncomfortable courtship.
Three female sea-lions perform a quick ballet routine above the divers before they head off. Im left near a natural underwater pool.
A graceful young female quickly investigates what she clearly thinks is a strange air-bubbling creature. She appears in a moment, and in my face. A pirouette, a brisé, two arabesques and shes gone. Theres hardly time to get a successful picture.
Its soon apparent that the different sea-lion territories are what an estate agent would call bijou. I find a shallow cave near my pool, full of fat round matrons lounging like divas, rubbing their blubbery sides on the rough surfaces.
Special contracting nasal muscles allow sea-lions to keep their noses closed when under water. They can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes, but they are mammals, so must surface for air from time to time.
It would be like a scene from the Sanctuary were it not for the unwanted and licentious attentions of a lone big bull, desperate for love. He lolls lugubriously in the shallows and looks covetously down into the ladies boudoir. But his attentions have not gone unnoticed by their official protector.
California sea-lions propel themselves through the water using their long front flippers. They can swim at up to 25mph in short bursts, and the Big Boss arrives in a hurry, his head covered in scars from countless previous battles.

A shoal of surgeonfish sensibly moves out of harms way. The Big Boss barks loudly as he hurtles through the water, faces off the intruder, and hurtles back to wherever he came from. He makes his position clear. Its a moment of open savagery, nature in the raw.
I, too, am a voyeur. I jam my camera to a convenient crack in the rock and watch this wonderful world of effortless relaxation, Rubenesque women at their toilette. Some venture out into the pool for a quick paso doble, flaunting themselves out in the open water. But the Peeping Tom is back, and so is Big Daddy.
There is something about half a tonne of muscle and fat hurtling close by and barking in your ear. Call me old-fashioned but I find it rather startling.
I try not to exhale. Exhaled bubbles are a sign of aggression among pinnipeds, and the last thing I want Big Daddy to think is that I am being aggressive.
It is wonderful how you can mould yourself to a rock under such circumstances. I want to say to both bulls: Leave me out of this!
A routine seems to have developed. Tom peeps in from above and Big Daddy hurtles round from the other side of the rock, pouring bubbles and barking furiously. Tom withdraws.

Back to the beginning. The action continues, following a well-defined script. It has a timeless element to it. The routine happens again and again. The body of a sea-lion is so flexible that it can bend over backwards and just about touch its nose to the tips of its back flippers. No sumo wrestlers were ever so gymnastic.
All this aggressive activity takes place within a remarkably small area of water, hardly larger than an indoor swimming-pool, and I am there, right in it with them.
I soon decide that I want to see the face of the animal that might end my days, and withdraw from my window on the harem, repositioning myself with my camera in the now well-defined path of Big Daddy.
He moves fast but is so consistent in his behaviour that I can anticipate his every move. I feel sure I can get a good shot as he pursues his mornings chore.
His relentless repetition gives me time to study him. He is not beautiful, more magnificent in a torn and scarred sort of way. He spares me a bewhiskered sideways glance each time he passes.
I muse that these animals have no natural predators - except for orcas and great white sharks.

  • John Bantin travelled to La Paz via Los Angeles (one night). A one-week (eight-night) package to the Cortez Club including diving, accommodation and flights costs around£1391 through Harlequin Worldwide Travel, 01708850330.



  • Divernet
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    An aggressive bull sea-lion jealously guards his territory
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    The guano-encrusted island of Los Islotes
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    A bull sea-lion after seeing off an intrusive rival