Trip Report Plenty of Fish in the Sea (of Cortez): Cabo Pulmo Trip Report, September 2020

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Ironborn

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Introduction

I thoroughly enjoyed my first dive trip to the Sea of Cortez at Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort in late September 2020. The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park has an extremely high fish density. Both the schools of fish and frequently the individual fish were numerous, large, and diverse. The resort's dive shop provided high-quality and very accommodating service. The trade-offs for this otherwise excellent experience are that the park is in a remote, rustic area and has some atypical restrictions, and the reef growths and macro creatures were often sparse. This trip fueled my interest in more trips to other parts of the Sea of Cortez as alternatives to the Caribbean during peak hurricane season. There is a hyperlink to my Instagram profile in my signature block, where you can view my photos and get an idea of what I saw. I have also added hyperlinks for relevant images below to illustrate specific points.

Why I Went There

The Sea of Cortez has been on my radar for quite some time, as I like to sample different types of underwater environments. Having done most of my diving in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, I have been interested in exploring the Pacific waters of the Americas as a way to experience richer Indo-Pacific marine life without flying half way around the world. The fall time frame for my trip was also reportedly the best time to dive the Pacific waters of North America. The combination of the inaccessibility of most dive destinations outside the U.S. and Mexico due to travel restrictions and the peak of the Caribbean hurricane season in those few that were open to me left me with few alternatives.

It was originally La Paz that had fueled my interest in the Sea of Cortez, with its whale sharks, sea lions, and other big animals. Neighboring Cabo Pulmo only came to my attention by accident as I was reading about La Paz. I ultimately decided against La Paz for this trip for several reasons, including: my non-flexible September dates that would have made me miss the beginning of whale shark season in October; and the long, expensive boat rides of La Paz dive shops, which led me to consider a La Paz liveaboard (specifically the Valentina, which was not running trips during my non-flexible time frame due to the pandemic). Cabo Pulmo's much shorter boat rides (5-15 minutes) would make it more enjoyable and cost-effective and also enabled as many as 4 dives per day, in contrast to 2-3 per day with La Paz dive shops. I also thought that the reduced volume of dive travel during the pandemic would yield better conditions in which to appreciate the pristine quality of the strictly protected Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, which already limited the volume of dive traffic under normal circumstances anyway. I figured that I would save La Paz for a future trip, when I could either enjoy its urban environment more thoroughly, or when the Valentina runs a normal schedule. La Paz also had very limited flight options compared to the Los Cabos airport (SJD), the airport closest to Cabo Pulmo.

Having decided on Cabo Pulmo, the choice of Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort was much easier, as there are few other options in such a small market. Their “eat, sleep, and dive” package, with lodging, dining, and diving all in one location, was convenient and reasonably priced. As a solo traveler, I liked that this resort does not charge a single supplement (a pet peeve of mine). Another key factor was their willingness to provide a two-tank afternoon trip, in addition to the usual two-tank morning trip. Normally they require at least two divers to run any morning or afternoon trip, but they will go out for just one person if he or she is on an “eat, sleep, and dive” package (as I was). There is literally nothing else to do there but sweat and listen to the cows and the chickens, so this point was important to me.

How I Went There

I got the sense that Baja and the Sea of Cortez draw their U.S. visitors mostly from the West Coast. Perhaps the flight options make it less appealing for East Coast visitors. Getting there from New York and back again was more of a hassle than my typical Caribbean itineraries but still manageable and worthwhile. United used to run direct flights to SJD from Newark, but they were outrageously expensive and then they disappeared due to the pandemic. I could have connected through Atlanta (Delta), Dallas (American), or Houston (United), but I decided against these routes due to: a) their perilously tight connection times to the only SJD flights that day; and b) reports of Mexican customs officials at SJD shaking down underwater photographers for dubious “taxes” on camera equipment.

I solved these two problems with a Delta-Aeromexico code share ticket (JFK-MEX-SJD), which gave me reasonable connection times in Mexico City and the opportunity to clear Mexican customs in MEX instead of SJD. I paid a very reasonable price of just $505, booking just a week in advance. It worked out well enough in the end, but MEX was a mess, including dysfunctional flight information signs and a two hour delay in my return flight to JFK due to “a paperwork issue.” Equally irksome were the airport security personnel who subjected me to the most intrusive airport security searches that I have ever had, scrutinizing every single component of my underwater camera rig, down to the memory card, moisture muncher, and O-rings. On the bright side, I did enjoy my first flights with Aeromexico, which solicited bids on first class upgrades that I won both times with minimum bids of $25.

Cabo Pulmo is a 90-120 minute drive from SJD, the final leg of which is along an extremely bumpy dirt road. The resort advises visitors against driving there at night due the risk of hitting the cows that are frequently along the road, but a local driver familiar with the road can do it safely. I opted for a transfer service, since I was arriving in the late afternoon and I had no other reason to rent my own vehicle. Transfers in the Los Cabos area are often expensive - as much as $300-400 for a round-trip transfer to and from Cabo Pulmo. A more reasonably priced alternative ($45 each way), if you are willing to share the vehicle with other passengers traveling at the same time, is the Cabo Pulmo Shuttle.

The Resort

Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort is a rustic but moderately comfortable place to stay. It provides pleasant views of the ocean and the surrounding hills. I did not have any interest in the terrestrial aspect of Baja when I decided to come here, but these views made me wonder what it would be like to explore on land. Insects were both large and numerous, for those of you that dislike them. My only gripe would be the large price difference for air conditioned lodging, but in all fairness the air conditioned rooms are also much larger. The accommodations use solar power, but my normal levels of power usage (including charging camera equipment) did not push its limits. The resort has a well water supply, so the tap water is potable. The restaurant serves quality food, some of which sparked my interest in further exploration of local cuisine. I recommend cazuelitas for lunch and molcajete for dinner.

The resort has a high-quality dive operation, despite the many constraints of working in such a remote area, within the the marine park's strict parameters, and after a pandemic shutdown of several months. The guides were competent and professional and demonstrated thorough knowledge of the local marine environment and fauna. They struck a healthy balance between keeping an eye on us and allowing us to enjoy the dives in our own ways. They were highly response to individual requests and proactively sought our input for the selection of dive sites, to the extent that marine park rules allowed. The shop does seem to operate on “island time,” but not to the point of causing any problems or inconveniences.

The boats (pangas) were small (for 4 divers, a guide, and the captain), but not to the point of discomfort, and they had the advantage of keeping the dive groups small. They have to launch the pangas with a truck, tractor, or trailer, since the marine park will not allow them to build a pier. Be prepared to jump out of the boat into the surf so that they can haul the pangas out of the water. During my visit, they were in the process of acquiring the equipment to offer Nitrox. I was still able to do four dives per day on air within the NDLs due to the combination of shallow depths and the park's bottom time limits, even with my extremely conservative computer (Mares Puck Pro).

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

Ironborn

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The Marine Park

The marine park is clearly a conservation success and yields a rewarding dive experience, but it comes at the cost of a few constraints beyond the usual respect for the marine environment typically expected of divers elsewhere. The benefits of the no-fishing zone are obvious, as the fish density is high. Dive sites are divided into two categories: the more popular “limited capacity” sites, and the less popular sites. One cannot dive two of the “limited capacity” sites during a single two-tank trip; one can only dive one of the “limited capacity” sites and one of the less popular sites, or two of the less popular sites. The goal is to prevent an excessive volume of dive traffic at the most popular sites, and the park can close off access to such a site if it has reached a certain high volume of dive traffic. This system probably prevents what might otherwise become an excessive volume of dive traffic at the “limited capacity” sites, as they are truly spectacular, and helps to keep them spectacular. However, I think that these more popular sites are so much richer than the less popular ones not because of their capacity limitations but because of natural environmental factors, such as currents. This restriction can pose complications for the selection of dive sites for a two-tank trip in conjunction with other requirements (e.g. the need to avoid a reverse profile). I still think it is worthwhile at the end of the day; every other dive being spectacular is a pretty good average, and the less popular dive sites have their merits as well.

It was harder for me to appreciate the value of the 45 minute bottom limit for all dives within the park. It is unclear to me how another 15 minutes or so in the water would make a significant difference from a conservation perspective once divers have already been in the water for quite some time. Perhaps such restrictions might mitigate the impact of underwater photographers of the kind that go to Lembeh or Anilao to spend a whole 75-minute dive on getting that perfect shot of the same pygmy seahorse, but Cabo Pulmo is really not conducive to that particular approach to photography anyway. On that note, photographers must register their cameras with the marine park; it was a simple one-page form.

From a geographic perspective, I would divide the park's dive sites into three groups: the north, the center, and the south. The northern sites are clearly the richest in marine life, which I would attribute primarily to topography, currents, and other such factors. There is just something about that area that the fish seem to prefer over the other parts of the park. This area includes the Los Morros and El Bajo de los Meros natural reefs and the Vencedor shipwreck, all three of which are among the more popular “limited capacity” sites. The north is also where they usually find the enormous schools of jacks for which Cabo Pulmo is famous; they showed up during our dives at Los Morros twice.

The southern sites have less marine life but more striking topography. This area is rocky, with many large boulders and more relief in general. Key points of interest here include: the pinnacle-like and “limited capacity” El Islote, a tiny, rocky island that barely sticks out of the water; Las Casitas, where rich reef growth is visible in the swim-throughs between clusters of boulders that have come together in sandy flats; and the sea lion colony. The central sites have simpler, flatter topography but more reef growth and schools of smaller fish. These are probably the least interesting sites overall but make for an easy, relaxing dive experience after the stronger currents or the more striking sights elsewhere.

The Fish

The marine park had what struck me as a high fish density – certainly higher than anything I have seen in the Caribbean. The only comparisons I can make are with certain spots in Indonesia, the Philippines, or Thailand. I am curious if this extreme “fishiness” is a result of the prohibition of fishing and other restrictions in the marine park, or if it is typical of other places in the Sea of Cortez. I remember reading Jacques Cousteau's famous description of the Sea of Cortez as “the world's aquarium;” I used to think that it was hype, but now I know what he meant. One of the guides remarked that the fish density at recreational depths during the peak fall season is at its lowest; the warmer water temperatures and less plankton and krill may be more comfortable for humans but are less appealing to fish, who head for deeper water. I am curious as to what the Sea of Cortez is like outside the peak fall season.

What struck me was not just the numbers of fish but also their size, diversity, and social behavior. For example, I saw many new different types of groupers and snappers, such as: this golden variant of the leopard grouper, which had been totally unknown to me; or the enormous dog snappers, which were even bigger than groupers (roughly the size of a German shepherd). The fish were also in sizable schools more often than I would see elsewhere, occasionally even schools of mixed species. The enormous schools of jacks for which Cabo Pulmo is famous are the most extreme example. These huge schools seemed to attract other animals, including mobula rays and even a dolphin. I did not even know that fish like groupers and puffers socialized in schools; I am curious if such schools are a quirk of the Sea of Cortez, or if this is just what these fish would do anywhere if humans would allow them to rebuild their numbers. Even the green moray eels, which were far more numerous and more likely to be free-swimming in the open than anywhere else that I have seen them, seemed to be more social here. I must have seen at least a dozen of them on one dive before I stopped counting; these moray eel “conventions” evidently happen from time to time on various sites, only to disappear the next day.

Cleaning stations are easy to find here, including one on the Vencedor wreck that attracts bull sharks. When I read about the Vencedor wreck in other reviews and trip reports, I got the impression that the main attraction there was the bull sharks, as it is the most reliable place to find them. I am surprised that other reviewers did not remark on the enormous amount of other, smaller fish there too; it is probably the “fishiest” place in the whole park, to the point that one could almost get lost in them. The wreck itself is broken up and no longer of interest as a boat per se; indeed, there are often so many fish in the way that it may be hard to get a good look at the remaining structures. I appreciated the irony that this former fishing boat, which sank before the creation of the marine park, has now become home to so many fish in a no-fishing area. I did see bull sharks on multiple occasions at several other sites as well, but it was at the wreck that I got the best look at them, as they showed greater interest in us there. Aside from fish, a barnacle-encrusted turtle has taken up residence beneath the boat's engine block. If you only have time to dive one “limited capacity” site in this park, definitely dive the wreck.

There are some trade-offs for this extreme “fishiness.” The reefs did not seem to be coral reefs per se, but rather rocky reefs or boulders that have some coral growing on them. Coral and sponge growth was intermittent and often sparse, where it existed at all. I did, however, develop a taste for the orange cup corals, which were unfamiliar to me and seemed to grow more densely in overhead settings, like the wreck fragments and swimthroughs. The dive sites in the center of the park probably had the best reef growth and topography that made it easier to appreciate, but they also had fewer and smaller fish. I also did not see many macro creatures or other small critters on the bottom, aside from the occasional nudibranch here and there and this small octopus. I had seen so many nudibranch photos from the Sea of Cortez before that I wondered if I was just unable to spot the unfamiliar local species, or if this is just not the right part of the Sea of Cortez to hunt for macro. I soon realized that I was better off looking up and out into the blue most of the time, rather than down at the often empty bottom.

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

Ironborn

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For Further Discussion

I have some questions for those with more extensive experience in the Sea of Cortez, the answers to which may be of interest to other readers.
  • Are the high fish density and the general richness of marine life that I saw in Cabo Pulmo typical of other destinations in the Sea of Cortez? Or is Cabo Pulmo uniquely “fishy” because of the marine park, or some other local factors or quirks?

  • If you have been diving in the Sea of Cortez both during and outside the peak fall season, did you see more marine life outside the peak fall season? If the diving conditions were also less favorable to humans outside the peak fall season, did you feel that the marine life was richer enough to justify diving in less favorable conditions?

  • Is there anywhere else in the Sea of Cortez that you would say is richer in coral and macro creatures?

  • Based on my comments about Cabo Pulmo, which other destinations in the Sea of Cortez would you recommend for my next trip? La Paz? Loreto? The Midriff Islands? Another place?

  • Has anyone been on the Valentina liveaboard, specifically its local La Paz itinerary? Do you think that a liveaboard is a better way to dive around La Paz, given the length of boat rides from the city?
 

horn34

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I love La Paz and plan to be there next month. Cabo Pulmo has some great sites, but has really nothing else to do (and is not exactly fun/easy to get to). La Paz is a great base for a range of diving and site seeing activities.
 

deeper thoughts

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Thnx very informative
 

CycleCat

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Great report! My wife and I have a house in San Carlos across the Sea of Cortez from there but it is pretty accessible via ferry. We will have to check it out!
 

jonhall

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Great report. Hope to go back to Cabo San Lucas in the future. We had hoped to see bullsharks when we dove in Cabo Pulmo but they never showed. Still liked the trip there from CSL and the dives that we did.
 

tarponchik

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You are wrong that there is nothing else to do there. There is excellent snorkeling in the next bay to the south, Plaia Arbolito, and further south if you swim north from the edge of the huge sand beach there. We snorkeled with sea lions and saw wish we haven't seen during scuba diving, like schools of bumpheads and lookdowns.
 

Trailboss123

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Another great trip report and thanks for taking the time to write it up and post it. I really enjoyed it. I do not have enough experience in Baja or the Sea of Cortez to answer any of your questions, but I do know that the diving out of Loreto has lots of Macro and a ton of very colorful and unique nudibranchs that I have never seen elsewhere.
 
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