Baja Big and Small

It is long past a lazy lunch of tamales, refried beans and beer before our liveaboard finally slips its berth in La Paz and heads north on a leisurely hour-and-a-half run to our night anchorage. By the time we’ve unpacked and made our way back up on deck the peaks of Isla Espiritu Santo fill the sky. Wild and red in the late afternoon glow, the raw rock island epitomizes Baja: a primal piece of the world long celebrated for adventure. We’re here for marine animals, and we’re eager to see everything the Gulf of California has to offer. We plan to begin our trip in traditional Baja fashion — with some big animal action.

Sea lion is doing an underwater somersault and its body is curved
A scene from the sea-lion ballet near the rock island of Los Islotes in the southeastern Gulf of California

Our morning dive plan works to perfection. We’re up and in the water by 7 a.m., which gives us more than an hour with the mantas before the armada of day boats arrives from La Paz. Our guide positions us in the lee of an underwater pinnacle across a sand chute from the tumbled rocks of La Reina — a traditional parade route for mantas. The current is manageable, the visibility exceeds 200 feet, and the great winged fish sail into view on schedule. Big, graceful and friendly, the mantas make long, slow passes and occasionally hover above our heads to enjoy the novelty of our bubble streams.

For the remainder of the day we hunt for obscure, less-celebrated creatures, but as we learned long ago, every species, no matter its size, has a story to tell. In the space of two dives we find 87 fish species including tiny skillet-shaped clingfish welded to rocks and a jawfish the size of my forearm. Riding a mild current across a patch of rubble, a tiny head disappears inside a worm tube. It looked like a pikeblenny, but there is no time to make sure; my friends are rapidly disappearing in the distance. Aboard our pick-up skiff I crow about my sighting, but as usual Anna is ahead of the game, having spotted several pikeblennie

The following day we’re back with the big animals; this time it’s sea lions. We couldn’t have hit Los Islotes at a better time — this year’s crop of pups is weaned, curious and in a high state of mischief. The big bossy bulls mind their manners, and the cows are fat, content and bored. A colony of maybe a hundred very loud, very clumsy and very smelly sea lions occupies a sea-smooth shelf 50 feet from where we tumble out of the skiff. Once underwater everything changes. It’s like walking off a busy street into a hushed theatrical presentation of Swan Lake. But the tranquility doesn’t last. Within seconds we’re discovered; the cows surround us, pirouetting, somersaulting and pleased as punch to have tourists to show off for. The pups, not far behind their mothers, zoom in close, staring into our masks, tugging at our fins and having the time of their lives. By the end of the day everyone is worn out from the fun.

Being critter hunters, we’re big believers in exploring alternate habitats. Anna talks the captain into taking us to a lagoon that John Steinbeck mentioned as a particularly productive specimen-collecting station in his 1951 classic The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The following morning we drop anchor a quarter mile from the entrance of what looks like a mangrove swamp. Although a bit murky at low tide, the shallow water is alive with animals, especially along the seaward shoal. Eels, rays, scorpionfish and signal blennies are all over the place, and there are pikeblennies galore. By chance we have arrived at the peak of a population cycle, when the blennies’ world revolves around attracting and choosing mates. Most magnificent are the testosterone-addled males dancing like demons in the entrances of their shelter tubes. Often the suitors become so competitive they challenge rivals to ritualistic mouth-to-mouth size comparisons. If this benign ploy fails to work, they go for the throat, lifting and slinging opponents like limp noodles. But disappointingly, after watching two days of nonstop melodrama we have yet to see a spawn.

Male and femal blenny pop heads out of rocky bottom
A female pikeblenny emerges from a male’s den after depositing eggs.

Our last dive of the trip takes place early in the morning on Suwanee Reef just inside Bahia La Paz. Trailing behind the others as they tear off toward a cloud-size school of jacks, I’m waylaid by a pikeblenny displaying with unusual vigor. Moving closer I see an egg-laden female perched inches away. It appears that I’m finally going to see a spawn — until the male gives the female a nasty nip, stopping her advances. I’m dumbstruck and disappointed, but my disappointment doesn’t last. Moments later a second female emerges from the hole, pauses briefly beside the male and scurries away. The male graciously moves to the side, allowing the waiting female to take her place.

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© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2014