MANY PLACES WE VISIT as divers can offer varied excursions to see reefs, wrecks, macro-life, shoals, pelagics and so on, but few can offer as wide a variety of differing dives in one location as La Paz on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
The Sea of Cortez is home to countless marine animals and forms a unique eco-system dubbed by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s “the Aquarium of the World”. No doubt the currents of time have initiated small changes in the region, but its main residents and passing visitors continue to thrive in the waters surrounding La Paz.
Why such diverse species in one area The Sea of Cortez circulates massive seasonal currents of nutrient-enriched water through an underwater topography of canyons and plateaus, producing dense plankton blooms that support a wealth of tropical and pelagic fish at different times of the year.
Plankton is the core of the region’s wealth of marine diversity, as it serves to support its smaller species of mackerel, anchovies, scad jack and sardines. These form massive shoals and bait-balls that simply block out all available light should you have the chance to dive through them.
But if you do, beware – these shoals ultimately attract larger predators such as jack and grouper, soon followed by dolphins and various species of shark, including hammerheads.

WITH SO MUCH TO SEE, we needed to research the seasons and find out what we were likely to encounter before departure. We explained our wish-list to the dive operator, the long-established Cortez Club on the bay of La Paz, and were told that everything could be managed if we came in August.
Frequented by divers from the USA and Canada, La Paz sees few visiting divers from Europe and Asia although, as we found, more divers from all over the world are beginning to travel to this underwater region.
The dive centre sits next to La Concha Beach Resort, a two-minute stroll along the beach that overlooks the bay.
The resort runs up to 12 well- equipped hard-boats with powerful outboards that take you to the local sites very quickly and carried no more than six divers at any given time while we were there – the maximum is eight.
The size of boat changes in relation to divers and destinations according to sea conditions, and overall we found the operation very flexible and accommodating to all.
Off we go, down the slipway, past the pelicans that stand guard on the stanchions and into our boat. First stop is Swanee Rock, a reef in mid-channel that just breaks the surface at low tide.
To our surprise we saw our first sea-lions as we approached, basking on their backs in the morning sun. This family of four seldom stayed around for photos but it was a teasing start to the day.
The reef wall is covered with small gorgonians and teems with a variety of resident reef fish of the Eastern Pacific. Moray eels abound and it’s an easy dive, as the entire reef can be circled in the time.
On the surface stop we again glimpsed the sea-lions, checking out whether we were going to leave so that they could continue their lie in the sun.
We set off around the headland to dive La Salvatierra in the San Lorenzo Channel. This 98m cargo ferry wreck sank in 1976 after hitting Swanee Rock.
The wreck is in reasonably good condition, despite being struck by Hurricane Lisa later that same year, and a few of the partly intact trucks that made up the cargo can be seen from the exterior. This thriving artificial reef is a must-dive.
Setting off for the final dive of the day nearer the dive centre provides a perfect illustration of the flexibility of the crew, as they spot a manta ray on the surface.
Decision made – to see if we can have an unplanned encounter with one of nature’s greats, visiting the bay to feed on the gathering plankton.

WE’RE QUICK TO KIT UP and get over the side. Hanging around in the same spot pays dividends, as the manta comes ever closer and circles the area feeding while we enjoy the spectacle.
Good choice, it doesn’t get much better than that, we think – only to find out that it does.
The 20-mile trip out to the resident sea-lion colony of Los Islotes takes 1-1.5 hours depending on conditions, but can bring added benefits.
On our initial trip we see a humpback whale breach not once, but twice! A Pacific manta trails its wings on the surface, and three bottlenose dolphins come along for the ride.
On approach it’s clear that Los Islotes is made up of two craggy islands connected by an archway that will later prove to be a great dive in itself.
Pelicans, cormorants, brown boobies and fever-soaring vultures fill the surface intervals with awe-inspiring sights.
This is where the sea-lion pups learn their sea-craft from the females of the groups, venturing out on their own as and when their skills develop.
It’s a noisy place to be, as separate family groups compete for space on the rocky outcrops, voicing disapproval when other sea-lions get too close for comfort. Their barking on land and, as we soon find out, under water, is very penetrating, and the warnings should be treated with respect.

AS WE TIE THE LINE on the fixed mooring buoys, the experience unfolds. The pups come circling around the boat to have a look at the latest arrivals and test the lines by taking hold of them and diving down to twist, turn and surface, hoping for applause from those above.
Once the initial encounter has been carried out, we enjoy a closer inspection from the more daring characters.
Anything you’re wearing is fair game, and games are what this is all about – fins, hoses and hoods are all good items to have a nibble at or a good pull on, and to pull and twist away is mostly seen as a trigger for more play.
The only problem is that they come from all directions, and you don’t necessarily see them until they get hold of something that belongs to you.
It’s all taken in good fun and there is no time limit to how long they stay, though they can vanish as quickly as they came.
Our first dive with sea-lions will always stay among our fondest memories, but we are fortunate to have several more dives with the colony that are no less special.
We decide to take a day off diving, which is unusual for us, but the crew has asked if we want to risk a day searching for whale sharks in the bay. Why not
Armed with snorkels, as scuba kit is discouraged during such encounters, we set off on the search.
An hour, a tortilla and eye-strain later, the crew have seen a “big spotty thing”.
There is only one at the start, true, but how do you describe spending a day snorkelling with nine whale sharks, interspersed with squadrons of mobula rays Exhausting is one word for it.
This is a photographer’s dream destination that ticks so many boxes, and makes you feel spoilt for choice of subject. Apart from sea-lions the island (and its nearby reefs) hosts many beautiful reef-fish and diverse macro life.
Our concentration on the main residents exceeded our expectations both as divers and as photographers, and we would recommend that this destination be added to anyone’s wish-list.
La Paz is a great town with excellent facilities for dining out and excursions. Of interest to many divers is that it is situated only a two-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas, the furthermost point of the peninsula and gateway to the Socorro Islands – but that’s another story.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly to La Paz via Los Angeles or Mexico City
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Cortez Club Dive & Resort Centre, www.cortezclub.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but David & Debi found that August suited their comprehensive wish-list.
MONEY Mexican pesos.
PRICES Divequest can arrange a week in La Paz from £1850 per person. This includes return scheduled flights via Mexico City with British Airways and Aero Mexico, transfers, seven nights at La Concha Beach Resort on a twin/share room-only basis and five days of three-tank diving, www.divequest.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmexico.com