Hammerheads
  

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ISNT BAJA EXTREMELY HOT IN SUMMER That was the reaction of other divers when I said I was off to the Sea of Cortez in July. Baja extends south from California and separates the Sea of Cortez from mainland Mexico, a sun-dried peninsula of cactus-strewn desert and blue mountains that is longer than Italy.
Since the 1960s Baja has been a retreat for ageing hippies from the USA who drive their camper vans through the desert in search of lost youth.
For divers, the Baja peninsula offers its own unique appeal, because the Sea of Cortez is a relatively narrow channel that attracts a huge variety of marine life from the Pacific to feed in its rich waters.
Ever since Jacques-Yves Cousteau labelled the Sea of Cortez the aquarium of the world, the area has capitalised on its marine attractions. But, like almost everywhere else on our water-planet, things are not what they were in JYCs day. There are horror stories about illegal fishing, endangered endemic dolphins and increasing tourism development that may have negative impacts on the sea.
At El Bajo, about an hour and a half by boat from the port of La Paz, a sea-mount rises from the surrounding deep water, a natural magnet for shoaling fish and a kind of buffet table for schooling hammerhead sharks.
For many divers, El Bajo is reason enough to visit Baja. On my first dive there, my companions were a mixture of Spanish, Japanese and American and they had all come to see the sharks. We saw them two days ago, said one of the crew, encouragingly.
My own dive guide, Carlos Lopez Ramos, was less confident. We could get lucky, he said quietly, but the water is a little warmer than they usually like it. But dont worry, this is one of my favourite places, he added gleefully. You will enjoy it, but only if you like fish!
Carlos was right. The water was 23C, at least 5 warmer than you get in winter, although not warm enough to make me regret wearing my full-length 5mm wetsuit.
And he was right about the fish. We descended the shotline through a great cloud of yellowtail game fish a good 4ft long. Beneath them, the looming shadow of great rock outcrops could be seen, a dim backdrop to yet more fish.
There were yellow snappers and bristled barberfish, silver tuna and leather bass with their distinctive black and white checkerboard design.
We swam in circles, our guides heading into the fish-filled murk (there were huge amounts of plankton in the water), and practically elbowing fish out of the way. Moby Dick himself could have been 10m away and we wouldnt have seen him.
Back on the boat, the other divers were still obsessing over hammerheads, wishing me luck for my next dive and bemoaning their own ill-fortune in not seeing any. As they got ready for the return trip to the dive centre, Carlos and I transferred to a small skiff for our onward journey to the island of Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited nature reserve. Basing ourselves there would avoid having to shuttle backwards and forth from the marina at La Paz.
As we skirted the islands rich brown sandstone cliffs, I could see small caves from where scruffy brown pelicans watched the Sea of Cortez for signs of an approaching fish-feast. Hundreds of frigate birds stalked the skies, and shearwaters, gulls and blue-footed boobies nested on the rocks.

Little footprints
At Ensanada Grande, a deep, secluded bay fringed with white sand, we found our campsite. My tent was a small dome just big enough for a camp-bed, and only a few feet from the waters edge. Behind me a cactus-strewn canyon led upwards into the desert interior and there were red-necked vultures patrolling the sky.
A ring-tailed cat, something like a small raccoon, crept from the brush to sniff at my tent door, and crept away again, leaving little footprints in the sand. As dusk fell, the perfect silence of the bay was interrupted by the pelicans. Pa-wumpsh. Pa-wumpsh. Time and again they splashed into the shallows, emerging with a wriggling sliver of silver fish skewered on their long beaks.
Just after sunrise, Carlos woke me with a cup of tea, and after a traditional English breakfast (Mexican- style to include refried beans), we were ready to set out for an early-morning dive.
We headed north to the tip of Espiritu Santo and a rocky outcrop known as Los Islotes. Across the water came a high pitched ornk-ornk, the unmistakable cry of sea-lions. The noisy mammals were sunbathing, their slick brown fur turning golden as it dried.
They raised their heads from the jumble of guano-encrusted boulders to watch our small boat as it dropped anchor not 30m from their roost.
As I prepared to roll backwards into the gleaming water, Carlos issued a warning. The sea-lions are breeding now, and the males get upset easily. If they blow bubbles at us under water, you know were too close and need to swim away.
Under water, I understood why the birds like it here. Drifting plankton made the water dark, and there were distinct temperature changes as we descended - sometimes cooler, sometimes warmer, a sure sign of currents mixing the nutrients that provide a rich diet for fish.
A great shoal of yellow snappers obscured the seabed, parting gently at our progress and revealing a warren of large boulders studded with cushionstars covered in luminescent orange spots. Parrotfish with buck teeth plucked at the hard corals, and dozens of porcupinefish busily patrolled the crevices between the boulders.
An electric ray, smaller and squatter than a sting ray, caught my attention, an endemic species distinguished by a curious patch in the middle of its back that looks exactly like a bullseye. Concentric dark rings mimic the eye of a larger fish to warn away predators, and only if they persist will the ray deliver its electric charge.
Like the plankton, Carlos and I drifted with the current, until a swift shadow streaked between us.
The first sea-lion was investigating our alien presence. It was a female, her large dark eyes appealing and her soft tapering shape giving her the grace of a furry mermaid.
She looped the loop above my head and swooped away, bored by our slow progress.
Seconds later, we saw the male. He was 2.5m long, his head a great dome. Large teeth were visible in his very dog-like snout, but he moved slowly, patrolling his territory as we watched his movements closely.
Carlos told me later that he had only once seen someone bitten, a pushy diver with a camera who insisted on swimming towards one of the males. I was happy to keep a respectful distance.
Other dives included the wreck of the Fang-Ming, a Chinese trawler confiscated for illegal fishing and sunk as an artificial reef. The wreck was host to the largest aggregation of fish-fry I have ever seen, every inch of the superstructure and hold filled with a shifting, dancing multitude that made the ship seem lost in an underwater snowstorm.
On shallower dives there were fine-scale triggerfish, Panamic fanged blennies using their snub JCB mouths to pluck invisible prey from the coral-encrusted rocks, and elegant Cortez angelfish cruising sedately over the reefs.
On the way back to the island, we saw more evidence of the richness of Bajas sea-life. A marlin leapt from the waves, its skin glimmering in the late afternoon light.
Then, a curious splashing alerted us to the presence of a sea-monster. Four curved fins fluttered above the surface, a great black shape just visible below.
At close quarters it turns out to be a pair of manta rays, so engrossed in mating that our boat could approach to within a metre without interrupting their dance.
It was hot on land, around 31C, but not so warm that I didnt interrupt the diving to trek through a canyon with Carlos, who turned out to be an expert on cacti as well as fish. He guided me through thickets of flowering prickly pears, low-growing cholla and stout woody cochal, all with their own distinctive shapes. My favourites were the great Cardon cactuses, straight out of a Western film-set, with massive branches bent like arms to the sky.
Carlos wanted to show me the best that Espiritu Santo had to offer, and on returning from the afternoon dives he encouraged me to take a kayak and explore the bay.
In the shadow of the sandstone cliffs, I could study the scruffy pelicans at close quarters and marvel at their keen aim, as they almost always returned from under water with a fish.
Between dives, Carlos and the Fun Baja skippers always provided cold drinks and a selection of snacks. Lunch would be taken on the boat or on a beach, and I will always remember eating cold watermelon and burritos watched by a dozen envious white-headed pelicans.

Balloon puffers
Almost all of my dives were in fairly low visibility, making me study the macro-life that was so abundant on the sites we visited. There was always too much to remember when I reached the surface, whether it was dozens of nervous balloon puffers creeping into cracks in the rocks, or a strange-looking nudibranch that had somehow acquired a limpet shell as added protection.
When it was time to leave, Carlos was keen to persuade me to visit Baja in winter, when the hammerheads would definitely be schooling around El Bajo. Its a tempting prospect, but I think Id rather return in high summer, to share a peaceful campsite with those scruffy pelicans.

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Rocky shores of Baja California.

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Divers can enjoy the outdoor life on Espiritu Santo

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A Californian sea-lion investigates a diver

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Surface interval

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Surgeonfish

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Queen angelfish

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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Flights to La Paz, Baja California via Los Angeles.
DIVING:Safaris to Espiritu Santo from La Paz with Fun Baja (0052 612 1252366, www.funbaja.com)
ACCOMMODATION : The colonial-style Posada de las Flores Hotel is on La Pazs coastal promenade.
MONEY : Pesos
WHEN TO GO : Any time, but fishlife is more prolific from June to September. Pelagic species, including hammerheads, are often spotted in November. You can camp on Espiritu Santo from June to December.
COST : Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can arrange all of the above, including flights from £563 including taxes and B&B accommodation at the Posada de las Flores from £45 per person per night. Dive safaris cost from £435 for two nights/three days camping with guided walks, use of sea kayaks, all meals and up to 10 dives. For a two-tank dive to El Bajo, expect to pay around £75 including lunch.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmexico.com