"Swimming With Marine Life"
As beach dwellers, we Lagunans are constantly exposed to the above and below worlds at the edge of the sea. I’ve spent years swimming, surfing, and snorkeling the local waters, but it was just last year that I finally donned a scuba tank and received my Open Water Diver certification.
The underwater world opened to me in ways both extraordinary and unimaginable. There is so much life! Odd sizes and shapes. Brilliant, muted and camouflaged colors. Fast swimmers and slow. Crawlers. Rock clingers. Cave dwellers. Shy and bold.
After my certification dives in Laguna, the bulk of my underwater time has been in the Sea of Cortez. Since I am a novice diver, I can return again and again to the same places and am not at all jaded. There is something new on every dive. Something I didn’t notice before. Besides, the fish do not hold still, and everything but the rocks shift.
Last week I engaged two days of diving with Baja Outpost (bajaoutpost.com) in Loreto, BCS. Leon Fichman, who owns the company, landed in Loreto 12 years ago after searching the peninsula for the perfect spot for an eco-tour company. He and his primary captain, Kiki, know the sea as well as they know the land. Along with well-known local dive spots, Leon has a few ‘secret spots’ .. but he’d have to kill me if I told you more than that.
The first day’s destination was Isla Coronado, a small island to the north and relatively close to shore. It is the remnant of the youngest volcano in Baja California with rocky slopes dotted with cactus and shore birds. Certain times of the year, the north east side is home to families of sea lions and their pups.
Since Steve was on a Discover Scuba excursion, both dives were short and shallow. This worked well for me since I hadn’t been in under the water in seven months and was glad for the easy re-familiarization with my equipment and proceedures. Most of the fish activity takes place in 30’ or so of water, and I was surrounded by an abundance of life.
When we were done with the dives, we circled around the island. On the west side is a wide cove with a brilliantly white sandy beach. I asked Leon if he’d mind showing Steve the beach, so Kiki turned the boat into the bay. The turquoise waters were nearly hypnotic.
Suddenly, there was a “splat”, and then another.
“Mantas,” called Kiki, and eased the boat into their midst.
The white bottom suddenly turned dark blue-black as hundreds of mantas schooled in the shallow water.
“Can I swim?” I asked Leon.
“Of course,” he replied.
Quick as a wink, I was in the water with snorkel and mask, free diving with the curious looking creatures. The slow undulation of their disc-shaped bodies was more beautiful than the most carefully choreographed water ballet. Long yellow horns protruded from the front of their ‘wings’. They seemed as curious of me as I was of them.
I gulped air through my snorkel and dove into their schooling mass. They paid little attention to me, other than to turn their heads to see who was swimming along with them.
A small sailboat motored over to join the fray. Two children on the bow clapped their hands in delight, but I don’t think their joy could match my glee.
I was swimming with mantas!
Day two was a vastly different dive plan. We boarded the boat early for a long ride to Isla Catalina, the most distant of the seven islands neighboring Loreto.
We were four divers, two snorkelers, four children, one dog, one captain, and one dive master. The dog, Leon’s Labrador Cleo, is a seasoned boatwoman. She even climbs the dive ladder to re-board the boat after her numerous swims.
It was clearer and warmer than the day before – 84° down to 50’. Green morays swam freely on sandy bottom. Blue sea stars cradled the rocks. Sergeant majors, Cortez Angelfish, Rainbow Wrasse, Mexican goatfish, Barred pargo, (to name only a few) and a huge school of tuna surrounded me. I was happy to dive with Bob, a dive master himself, who lives part of the year in Tripui, a compound to the south of Loreto.
On the ride to the island, we saw several marlin, a few small sharks, several pod of dolphin, and a variety of sea birds. On the ride back from the island, everyone was tired, and found as comfortable a position as possible to doze.
We were between two of the out islands, when Pat, the only diver sitting up, saw what he thought were dolphin.
“Whales,” explained Kiki, and everyone woke up.
He turned the boat into the midst of a pod of approximately 60 short-finned Pilot whales. They were ‘lolling’, a term that describes an easy slow swimming style.
Kiki cut the engine and the whales swam both toward and around the boat.
Again I asked, “Can I get in?”
Leon nodded excitedly and ‘splash’ … I was in the midst of the Sea of Cortez swimming with black skinned whales. Everyone from on the boat – even the kids - donned mask and snorkel and lept into the water. The 16-20’whales circled us, played with us, swam to and around us. One swam directly to Pat, who put his hand up and the whale gently nudged him before diving under his feet.
I had a pair come directly to me in the same fashion, but wasn’t sure whether or not to touch. When they dove under me, I dove with them, swimming both under the water just above them, and then trailing them on the surface. The pair was a mother and her calf.
Earlier this year, I had written after a trip to San Ignacio Lagoon to see the grey whales, that “to be touched by a whale is to be changed forever.” I can now add to that, to swim with whales … is to find new meaning within oneself.
As we headed back toward the marina, somersaulting mobulas and spinner dolphins continued to entertain us. It is moments like these, that I am fully present to what it means to be alive.
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