Trip Report Make Baja Great Again: La Paz, October 2021

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Ironborn

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Summary

I enjoyed the underwater environment of La Paz on my second trip to the Sea of Cortez. My first Sea of Cortez trip to Cabo Pulmo last year motivated to see more of this body of water and its rich marine life, and the dive sites of La Paz certainly delivered in that regard. The highlights of this trip included high fish density and diversity, close encounters with sea lions, wrecks, and pinnacles. The dive operator that I chose, however, yielded mixed results. Indeed, the main downsides of La Paz as a dive destination are the modest selection of dive operators and the constraints of long boat rides, as well as limited and undesirable flight options for U.S. East Coast residents and photographers. I hope to continue my exploration of the Sea of Cortez next year, but at another place, perhaps Loreto or the Midriff Islands. Most of the hyperlinks in the text are for images that illustrate the corresponding points in my report.

Planning and Logistics

I had considered La Paz as the destination of my first Sea of Cortez trip last year but decided to do Cabo Pulmo due to: the long boat rides in La Paz, which significantly increase their cost and also reduce the number of dives that one can do per day; my non-flexible dates, which were too early for both the whale sharks and baby sea lions that are one of the main fall attractions of La Paz; and the very limited flight options for La Paz airport (LAP), especially if one comes from the U.S. East Coast. Cabo Pulmo had nonetheless impressed me enough that I wanted to see more of the Sea of Cortez, and neighboring La Paz seemed to be the most logical and noteworthy place to do so next. I appreciated the greater richness of Pacific marine life there, compared to the Caribbean/Florida fauna with which I am most familiar, and looked forward to a change of environment from local diving in South Florida. Some highlights of La Paz that interested me were the reliable whale shark and sea lion encounters.

My first choice would have been MV Valentina, which, as far as I know, is the only liveaboard with an itinerary specifically dedicated to La Paz in September and October (supposedly the best months to go there). I thought that a liveaboard would be the best alternative to the long boat rides of land-based dive operations in La Paz. I tried to go to Socorro on MV Valentina last year, but they canceled with an odd explanation just two days after I booked, refunding my money and giving me an extra voucher for the trouble. Lo and behold, I could not use that voucher when I tried to book their La Paz itinerary. They now require all guests to take a PCR test, regardless of vaccination status or previous infection. (Some people should not take PCR tests because residual traces of a previous infection from which they have since recovered yield false positives). They refused to accept a combination of proof of vaccination and proof of recovery as an alternative (as do many governments, airlines, and other businesses, including some liveaboards), which struck me as both unscientific and discriminatory. I should have known better than to waste my time with that company after my first experience with them. Lo and bold, I saw a day boat from that company's land-based dive operation (Fun Baja) when I was in La Paz. Its engine was spewing black smoke, so perhaps I was better off with another company after all.

There are other land-based dive operators in La Paz, but only two stood out in my research: the Cortez Club and Cortez Expeditions. The Cortez Club seemed to be the oldest, largest, and most well-known. Cortez Expeditions seemed to be newer, smaller, and more “boutique,” with more consistently positive reviews. I settled on the Cortez Club over Cortez Expeditions for several reasons, but it was a close call. The Cortez Club has a standard offering for three dives per day, instead of the usual two at Cortez Expeditions and most other operators. It would have been tough to justify the cost and hassle of going all the way to La Paz to do just two dives a day. Cost was another factor: Cortez Expeditions charges as much for a two-tank trip as the Cortez Club charges for a three-tank trip. I normally do not mind paying more if I think it will yield higher quality, but the already high prices of La Paz boat trips pushed the limits of my tolerance on this point. While I value Cortez Expeditions' “boutique” model, they seemed to have a heavier emphasis on instruction, which I did not want (e.g. instructors pitching unsolicited courses, a boat full of OWD students, etc.) I appreciated the high-quality underwater images on the Cortez Club's Instagram account, which I took as a sign that it would be a good fit for photographers. The Cortez Club also seemed to have closer integration with lodging and dining: it is on-site at a resort (where I stayed) and has the same owner as an on-site restaurant (where I ate).

There was literally only one way for me to fly to La Paz from South Florida in one day: a connection from Miami to Mexico City on Aeromexico. I would have avoided connections in U.S. airports on U.S. airlines anyway due to reports of corrupt customs agents at the La Paz and Cabo airports shaking down underwater photographers for unnecessary customs duties on their camera rigs. Clearing Mexican customs in Mexico City instead enabled me to avoid this risk, although the inspectors at the security checkpoint inspected literally every component of my camera rig, down to the silica gel packets and spare o-rings. I might have had a problem if I did not know how to explain these things in Spanish. AeroMexico has a draconian weight restriction for carry-on luggage that is a non-starter for anyone with a substantial underwater camera rig, so I wore cargo pants and a vest with many large pockets with which to bypass this restriction in the event that they enforced it (they did not). There was no way to return to South Florida from LAP in the same day, and the end of my trip coincided with El Dia de los Muertos, so I decided to stick around for it. I flew from La Paz to Tijuana to celebrate the holiday for a few days and re-entered the U.S. via San Diego, bypassing the CDC testing requirement for flights into the U.S. and getting a cheaper and more convenient domestic flight back to Miami.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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The Cortez Club

I had mixed results with the Cortez Club. The most significant problem was that they booked me for a whale shark tour that they knew they could not provide. Whale sharks were one of the two main attractions that had drawn me to La Paz, and one of the two reasons that I went specifically in October (the other one being baby sea lions). The whale shark tour was important enough to me that I might have saved my trip to La Paz for another time if they had been candid with me about their inability to offer it. Whale shark season begins in October. I made my reservation in mid-October for the last week of that month, just before Halloween/El Dia de los Muertos. My reservation, the details of which they confirmed not long before my arrival, specifically included a whale shark tour. The problem, which I only learned about after I had checked in at the dive center, was that Mexican authorities were not yet issuing whale shark permits to local operators for unknown reasons; the best explanation that I got was along the lines of “well, it's Mexico.” The Cortez Club had been aware of this bureaucratic issue when I booked and confirmed my whale shark tour in the preceding weeks but failed to inform me of their current inability to offer it. After discovering this issue, I contacted other operators; all of them were candid and upfront with me about their inability to offer whale shark tours – so why couldn't the Cortez Club do the same? To make matters worse, they left the 16% sales tax from the canceled tour on my invoice, and I had to remind them for a few days to get them to refund it, along with another item.

The invoice for my confirmed reservation stated that I would be doing three-tank trips every day; they had told me while booking that they offer three-tank trips every day. When I arrived at the dive center to check in on the first day, I learned that there was no three-tank trip that day, only a two-tank trip. Under other circumstances I would have suspected a deliberate bait-and-switch, but the look on the manager's face suggested to me that he had simply failed to read my invoice; other experiences also led me to believe that they have internal communication problems. To his credit, the manager assured me that I would have a three-tank trip on my remaining diving days, and he delivered on that promise, even when I was the only one who wanted to do a third tank. (They offloaded two-tank divers to another one of their boats operating in the area to bring them back to the dive center, while three-tank divers remained at the dive sites for our third dives). They did refund me for the missed third dive that day.

Beyond those two incidents, the staff was accommodating, within reason and within safety limits. They provided valet-style service with the handling and rinsing of personal gear. Due to the length of the boat rides, they also include modest lunches from the on-site restaurant belonging to the same owner. They were responsive to requests for specific dive sites if and when feasible, although high winds for much of that week limited our safe options. I had two different divemasters, both of whom were attentive and proactive in pointing out marine life.

One of the DMs was a seasoned and highly capable local who had known the area's dive sites since childhood. I only had this DM for one day though, as they evidently needed him elsewhere, to provide closer supervision for less experienced divers. The other DM was a much younger foreigner who created some issues, despite a sharp eye for macro critters that I appreciated (I never would have spotted these blennies on my own). Examples of these issues included: directing guests to enter the water prematurely, before we were over the proper drop location; using unnecessarily powerful free diving fins that caused other guests to struggle to catch up with the DM's speed and thus burn through their gas supply prematurely; stirring up sand with those unnecessarily long free diving fins; and leading guests against the current, not with the current, on what was supposed to be a drift dive, further causing them to use up their gas supply prematurely. This foreign DM was not a native speaker of either English or Spanish and had some proficiency issues in English, which created some communication problems with both foreign guests and local boat crewmen.

Pangas not unlike those one might see in Cozumel or Cabo Pulmo seem to be standard-issue for La Paz dive operations, including the Cortez Club. I presume that speed and fuel consumption make them a logical choice for a destination with long boat rides. Their disadvantage is that they pound quite hard when they hit larger waves head-on or can get a bit “tipsy” to either side if a large wave hits them from the side, or if the weight inside the boat is off balance. La Paz and its dive sites are evidently more vulnerable and exposed to high winds than I realized, and we had some rough seas that week. I have been comfortable in rougher seas than that in larger Florida dive boats, but long boat rides in rough seas in such small boats are not fun. They also had the narrowest ladders that I have ever seen on a dive boat; I could not fit both of my feet on the same rung of those ladders at the same time, and my feet are not unusually large (size 11). I fell off the boat ladder for the first time in over 650 dives on this trip.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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Dive Sites and Marine Life

I managed to get to all but one of the most significant dive sites in La Paz, despite unfavorable surface conditions much of that week. The most interesting sites to me were those resembling pinnacles and seamounts (although I think that they were technically islands, since they protruded enough from the water). The most impressive dive site that I visited was La Reina, which entails a long boat ride and is more sensitive to surface conditions due to its exposed position. The highlights of this site included high fish density and diversity, a colony of adult male sea lions, the remains of a broken shipwreck, and the best visibility that I encountered in La Paz (on par with good Caribbean conditions). Manta rays appear seasonally at this site at this time of year, but I did not see any. I also went to neighboring La Reinita, which, as its Spanish name implies, is a smaller version of La Reina. It was enjoyable for similar reasons but somewhat less so and does not have sea lions or a shipwreck. The only major site that I missed was El Bajo, an equally distant and exposed seamount famous for hammerhead sightings.

The sea lion colonies are another highlight of La Paz and were another reason for timing my visit in October in particular. Aside from the above colony of adult male “exiles” on La Reina, there is a famous breeding colony with swimming pups in the fall and another colony of adult females on the island of San Rafaelito. I had only passing glimpses of sea lions and seals in Monterey (California) before this trip, so the extensive, up close and personal encounters with sea lions in this clearer water definitely scratched my itch in this regard and yielded extensive photo opportunities. The pups at the famous breeding colony were still curious about their new world and thus came to check us out, often by gently biting us and our equipment, including fins, wetsuits, and (in my case) camera arms and strobes. The adult females were often in the water as well, perhaps to keep an eye on their pups while we where there. I also saw the colony's breeding adult male, the largest non-shark animal that I have ever encountered underwater. He swam almost directly at me, close enough that I could feel the water displacement from his massive body. I have been kicking myself for not getting a photo of him, but I was simply too stunned when he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and swam towards me, presumably to assess whether or not I was a threat to his colony. The less famous San Rafaelito colony did not have pups, but the adult females showed interest in us nonetheless. This shallow site had the advantage of nice coral growth and lots of reef fish but lower visibility and excessive ambient light (which was not as conducive to quality images of such dark animals).

Shipwrecks were another highlight of La Paz for me, although they do not seem to be a big part of La Paz's reputation as a dive destination. In other words, I think that they are underrated. The Salvatierra ferry has the advantage of being a “natural” shipwreck, not an artificial reef, i.e. it actually sank by accident. It thus still has the chaotic feel of the site of a genuine catastrophe, with extensive damage to the vessel's structure and cargo, such as tires, strewn about the area. The wreck is less interesting from a structural perspective though and is not a good candidate for penetration due to its relatively flat design and the extensive damage to it. This wreck also had high fish density and diversity, even by the already high standards of this area. The two other wrecks, the Fang Ming and the C59, are artificial reefs next to each other in an area with low visibility (think Florida on a bad day or Northern California on a great day). The Fang Ming is clearly the more impressive of the two for both wreck reasons and marine life reasons. The Fang Ming sits upright, has little damage, and is suitable for a limited penetration. The Fang Ming also had more abundant marine life, including the most relaxed and photo-friendly turtles that I have ever encountered outside the Cayman Islands. Schools of small, brightly-colored fish followed or hovered around some of these turtles. Curiously, I did not see any turtles anywhere else in La Paz, even on the neighboring C59. The C59 rests on its side and is thus harder to appreciate and explore as a ship per se. Its most distinctive feature was its large population of these tiny blennies that the macro-oriented DM seemed to find endlessly fascinating. Both wrecks had above-average fish density and diversity by local standards, including schools of baitfish that coronetfish were hunting.

The Sea of Cortez has rich marine life but generally lacks the dense, colorful coral reefs of the Caribbean or tropical Indo-Pacific waters. Most of the sites are rocky or consist of boulders, rather than coral, although the rocks often have some coral growing on them. The major exception in La Paz to this generalization is Suwanee Reef, which had both extremely dense and rich coral growth, as well as high fish density and diversity, even by the already high standards of “fishiness” for the Sea of Cortez. Indeed, it is one of those places where one often loses sight of the reef because there are too many fish in the way. The only other places I have experienced this were in Cabo Pulmo and in Southeast Asia.

I appreciated the opportunity to see unfamiliar fish species, lending credence to Jacques Cousteau's famous description of the Sea of Cortez as “the aquarium of the world.” For example, I have seen plenty of angelfish before, but I had never seen these Cortez angelfish before, even in photos. I have seen plenty of pairs of butterfly fish before, but I had never seen this species of schooling butterfly fish before. I was surprised to see a local variety of rockfish, which I had always assumed to be a cold-water fish of California and the Pacific Northwest. I had never even heard of or seen photos of these giant hawkfish before. I still cannot identify these small schooling fish following the Fang Ming turtles.

As was the case in neighboring Cabo Pulmo, La Paz seems to have a lot of moray eels – like turtles in the Cayman Islands, or sharks in the Bahamas, but more so. I might have seen at least one moray eel on every single dive. They were easy to find, even for an untrained eye – just look in a crack between boulders, and there is a good chance of finding one. I even saw them out in the open during the day a few times. Most of them were green morays, but I saw several from other, more exotic species as well.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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The Future

I enjoyed this trip, and it motivated me to dive in the Sea of Cortez more in the future. I nonetheless doubt that I would make a point of returning to La Paz in particular, unless my liveaboard options change, or unless I pass through the area on one of those longer liveaboard trips that go up and down the Sea of Cortez. The selection of dive operators and the long boat rides make La Paz less competitive as a dive destination for me, and I have already experienced the majority of its highlights (“been there, done that”), except its whale sharks and one of its seamounts. The underwater environment of La Paz gave me great experiences, but I can probably have similarly great experiences in other parts of the Sea of Cortez with fewer terrestrial obstacles. The next Sea of Cortez destinations on my list are Loreto (with one highly reputable land-based operator, Blue Nation) and the Midriff Islands (on a liveaboard trip for which I would have a more convenient direct domestic flight into Phoenix).
 

drrich2

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Great report; especially appreciate the breakdown of why someone would want to go there, how it stacks up against other regional options, the potential dive count on offer, the logistical hurdles of getting there and the hassles one may need to navigate. Also appreciate the discussion of the live-aboard option. Curiously the MV Valentina gets very few reports on ScubaBoard that I can tell; I did some quick searching, and from a 2017 thread, came up with a Feb 2017 Undercurrent article MV Valentina. Sea of Cortez, Baja, Mexico, which I think is now free access. Things change over time, but it might give interested divers some idea of the offering.

The Sea of Cortez has rich marine life but generally lacks the dense, colorful coral reefs of the Caribbean or tropical Indo-Pacific waters. Most of the sites are rocky or consist of boulders, rather than coral, although the rocks often have some coral growing on them. The major exception in La Paz to this generalization is Suwanee Reef, which had both extremely dense and rich coral growth, as well as high fish density and diversity, even by the already high standards of “fishiness” for the Sea of Cortez. Indeed, it is one of those places where one often loses sight of the reef because there are too many fish in the way. The only other places I have experienced this were in Cabo Pulmo and in Southeast Asia.
Thanks for this. When someone mentions the Sea of Cortez, what I mentally envision is based on photos I've seen, such as a diver watching an underwater tornado of jacks in the water column over a sandy bottom.

I don't know what species those 'green' morays are; it's different from what we see in Florida and the Caribbean.
 

Jake 10

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Great report. I also appreciate the comparisons, dive counts on offer, and logistical hurdles.
 

Pat85

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Great report! Thank you for this!
I should update my thread here too, but I only can confirm your experiences...I saw the Fang Ming and Salvatierra Ferry wrecks, Swannee reef and San Rafaelito.
Sadly all the turtles where nowhere to be found when we did the dive at Fang Ming.
 

Chavodel8en

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Thanks for the report. I will be in La Paz early Dec. My wife, a non-diver, was the one pushing La Paz, as her friend recommended it, but I am excited for the diving - not excited for the boat trips. I note La Paz is even hard to reach from the West Coast (we're taking a red-eye from OAK - GDL - LAP), although return trip is same day.

Im hoping the whale shark season is open, as I have reservations (apparently not enough sharks were around earlier, so the season opened late this year).

I knew the boat rides will be long, not looking forward to it, especially after reading your report. Will need to prepare. I really hope Swanee Reef is one of the sites we visit.
 
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