Divernet

In the unrelenting heat and almost permanent drought around La Paz, only the tall Santa Fe cacti survive. Without these to provide a clue, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the shores of the Red Sea. Which is perhaps why the three British partners in the Cortez Club feel so comfortable about the place. It was while they were living in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt that they decided to set up a diving business together in Baja California.
Baja (pronounced ba-ha) California is Spanish for Lower California, the peninsula which the Americans failed to wrestle from Mexico in 1848. It stretches south over 11 of latitude from Tijuana on Mexicos northern border into the Pacific Ocean, enclosing a stretch of water called the Gulf of California but more often known, after the leader of Spains conquistadors, as the Sea of Cortez.
La Paz, not to be confused with the capital of Bolivia, is a typically impoverished, somewhat inauspicious Mexican town nestling beneath the red-rock mountains at the southern end of the Bay of La Paz, in Baja California Sud. It was almost washed away in the last flash-floods and will probably go the same way again if there are any more. It is a cheap place for a holiday; you can buy a meal from a street-vendor for around the equivalent of one US dollar.
James Curtiss and Andre Tomba (who has famous Italian skiing family connections) have been friends since they were toddlers. They met Martin Hoffman and decided to set up from scratch in this relatively unexploited part of the world. Their spacious premises are next to a four-star hotel called La Concha, a $5 taxi-ride down the coast from La Paz. This is the Cortez Clubs first year of operation and everything is new. It has a wide range of hire equipment and a large staff of helpful young men to take the hard work out of your diving.
The nearest good-quality dive sites are near the island of Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit), around 50km from La Paz. You can either plod out there at six knots in a local hardboat for a few hours or fly there in the Cortez Clubs own boat at a memorable 60mph-plus!
Rampage is a big yellow RIB powered by 400hp of Black Max outboards. Its as unsubtle as any powerboat, with twin Mercs sending it howling through the water and leaving enormous rooster-tails of spray to mark its progress. To ride it feels a bit like taking off in a float-plane without ever permanently leaving the water.
Rampage takes up to eight divers, each straddling console seats with their feet held in stirrups and the diving gear stowed away in lockers beneath them. Some find it a little vulgar but it is an experience. If you decide to go for it, wrap up well. The 60mph cooling breeze can be seductive, but every part of your body exposed to the ruthless sun is burnt to a crisp. After that I opted to travel in my wetsuit, with a sun-hat tied down with a scarf. It didnt look elegant but it gave my scorched skin a chance to recover. I was there in June and the water was cold. I could have used a drysuit, or a good two-piece 7mm semi-dry. I ended up wearing my 4mm semi-dry over a thick Lycra suit, topped off with a 7mm jacket and hood! At depth I recorded a constant 17C, which lifted to a less chilling 23C at the surface.
This water, nutrient-rich, is full of marine life. The Sea of Cortez is famous for whales, which come to bear their young in January. Greys, humpbacks, and orcas are common. The orcas prey on the indigenous Californian sea lions, which are permanent residents off the smaller islands such as Los Islotes, off the remotest corner of Espiritu Santo.
We kitted up below the guano-stained rocks of Los Islotes, our ears assailed by the perpetual calls of the bull sea lions guarding their harems. Most of the females were suckling very small young. If the noise was a little unsettling, it was even more so to hear the bulls, more than three times the size of the females, honking underwater beside your head as they attempted to round up their families.
The females were more confident, and reminded me of circus performers. They would stare inquisitively into my mask before flitting away. The juveniles nearly made my heart stop as they hurtled down like Stukas without warning in the murky springtime plankton bloom, taking the occasional nip at my fins.
The star of the show was not, however, a sea lion. It was Ellie, a solitary elephant seal anxious to find a friend. Despite her massive build (elephant seals can weigh in at 2 tonnes), she was always driven off by the bull sea lions and so was attracted to the more passive attitudes of visiting divers. What do you do if an elephant seal wants to hug you You let it, of course! Its a bit like being engulfed by an over-sized and over-stuffed sofa with exceedingly large teeth. Ellie doesnt take no for an answer, and if she takes hold of your arm with her mouth, albeit ever so gently, there is little you can do about it.
Ellie likes having fun with snorkellers too. She is inclined to wrap her flippers around their legs and give them an affectionate cuddle. The people to whom she did this were not necessarily amused but, I noted, she was never tempted to drag them under.
Sometimes Ellie would creep up on unsuspecting divers and take them by surprise. I took several photographs of such ambushes but drew the line when I saw her open her mouth wide and try my buddys head for size. I had to resort to clouting her with my underwater flashgun; she looked at me reproachfully with her enormous eyes and went off in search of more receptive playmates!

What else is there to experience The cold upwellings of water in the Sea of Cortez, caused by its proximity to the great mass of the Pacific Ocean, result in unexpected contrasts in the marine life. It is interesting to see amberjacks alongside multitudes of spiny and guinea-fowl puffers, with green morays lying in bundles below shoals of Spanish mackerel. The undersea terrain appears more like that of a temperate than a tropical sea. There were corals growing on the boulders but I also saw seaweeds. I am told it resembles the Galapagos.
Humpheaded parrotfish looked strangely out of place. Port Jackson and horned sharks lay concealed in sandy patches alongside southern rays and angel sharks. There were shoals of grunt and goatfish sheltering in the shadow of our boat. I witnessed an octopus wrestling with a zebra moray, and a pair of groupers spawning, one with its colour changed to that of a slightly ridiculous giant goldfish.
In the poor viz allowed by the heavy plankton it all reminded me of zarzuela - a thick Spanish fish soup.
El Bajo is probably the most famous dive site in the Sea of Cortez. These three adjacent sea mounts lie a 25km from Los Islotes, well out of sight of land. During our journeys there we might pass sea lions feeding on hordes of angry red squid, or be surrounded by endless schools of bulky-headed pilot whales with their dolphin escorts. Once we passed through a great gathering of mobula, animals not unlike manta rays, leaping and breaching. Every journey seemed punctuated by spectacular surface activity of some sort.
Vast schools of hammerhead sharks congregate at El Bajo at all times of year. If you see them it will be in open water, and only for a moment before they melt away - a stimulating experience. In heavy plankton there is no chance; we were unlucky with the visibility and had to satisfy ourselves with a very large mobula, wheeling and feeding on the plankton near us while we made a decompression stop. El Bajo is a decompression-stop dive, whichever of the sea mounts you choose, and there is usually something of a current running, but this also means there is plenty of pelagic life about. El Bajito is, as its name suggests, a smaller sea mount. It too has a current running over it but its top comes to within 5m of the surface. You will not see hammerheads here (they are always at El Bajo) but it makes a good second dive if you dont go too deep.
There is also the wreck of a truck ferry in the San Lorenzo Channel between Espiritu Santo and the peninsula. Its plates have been well crushed and little of the vessel is recognisable now, but the still-inflated truck tyres are easily spotted and it makes a very effective artificial reef. The boys from the Cortez Club tell me the Mexican government has plans to sink the vessels from its now obsolete shrimping fleet to build a chain of similar artificial reefs in the Bay of La Paz.
The island of Cerralvo lies further south down the Baja California coast, nearer to the very deep waters. This is a good place to see spectacular pelagics like whale sharks. At around 100km from La Concha it is something of an epic journey, if reasonably quick in Rampage, and I would not have enjoyed it in anything less than the glassy seas we had on that day.
The Sea of Cortez is surprisingly unexploited from a divers point of view. Most Americans who travel down from Los Angeles and San Diego go there for the big-game fishing. Businesses like the Cortez Club put a new perspective on how a poor country can exploit its natural assets, and with luck we will soon see planeloads of fishing buffs replaced by those who want only to take photographs of the vast wealth of animal life.
Flying with British Airways via Los Angeles and making the last leg of the journey to La Paz with Aero California, a two-week trip, including ten days of diving, costs£1594.

  • John Eastman travelled with Harlequin Worldwide Travel, Harlequin House, 2 North Road, South Ockendon, Essex, RM15 6QJ (tel. 01708-852780)