Rocio Del Mar - Sea of Cortez Midriff - Trip Report & Photos

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bmorescuba

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This is very long. Some people like long reviews. TL;DR: Sea of Cortez is cool!

Background: Early last August, I decided to take my first liveaboard dive trip. I had always wanted to experience a liveaboard, but I get seasick easily and the thought of being sick for an entire week with no way to get back to land was very unappealing. But I tried the transderm scopolamine patch for the first time in the spring and it was very effective for me (much more so than meclizine, the previously most effective treatment). So, I thought, I’ll try this once and if it goes poorly, then I won’t try it again. I wanted to go somewhere generally calm, but not easily dived by land. I settled on the Sea of Cortez, an area where I had never been, but always wanted to dive. I chose the Rocio Del Mar Liveaboard - Sea Of Cortez Midriff Islands itinerary. The trip was run by a photography shop, but this is not a review of that aspect, rather of the Rocio Del Mar experience itself.

Travel: Having thought about taking such a trip for a long time, I had a lot of expectations, questions, and concerns. Getting to the Rocio was easy. There are several different approaches, but the recommended path was to fly to Phoenix and arrange a ride on a shuttle company called "Head Out to Rocky Point". I was able to get a direct flight from BWI-PHX and arrive at 9:15am. The shuttle left at about 11:00am. There were 2 15 passenger vans and a luggage trailer, carrying basically everyone on the boat. The shuttle took around 4.5 hours to drive from Phoenix to Puerto Penasco, Mexico. The shuttle made the entry in Mexico smooth. We stopped once for snacks and drinks, arrived in Puerto Penasco around 4:30, and were on the boat within an hour. Unfortunately, when we took off around 6:00, the tides weren’t quite right and we ran aground. We had to wait for about an hour until we could get going again. That didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but turned out not to be a big deal. Getting back was just the converse, but with a much longer wait getting into the US. You depart Puerto Penasco pretty early, but they still recommend late afternoon or evening return flights.

The Boat & Crew: Since this was my first liveaboard, I could only base my expectations on what I had read online. I’m a very big guy - 6’5” and wide. I found the room size to be adequate, but cramped. I could not lay in the bed with my legs extended. Two people could not stand in the room at the same time. One person in the bunk, and one standing was OK. But, I’m used to beds being too small and I was able to sleep. I could not get used to how small the ensuite was. Many people chose to shower on the deck, but I like a shower in the morning in the room. I could not move or turn in the shower. But, it all worked out and would probably be OK for a normal sized person. I found the food to be plentiful and very well prepared. I’m vegetarian, and I found plenty to eat. Requests were honored. I don’t care about fancy food - I ate a lot better on the boat than at home. The crew was almost embarrassingly good. I don’t like being waited on, but I felt like they were serving us hand and foot. I tried to acknowledge their service, speak to them and thank them in Spanish, and tip generously. There was plenty of space on the boat outside the room and always a place to yourself on some deck if desired. The dive briefing/media room was a nice respite - A/C and snacks each afternoon. We did our photo reviews in this room as well. A little tight with 20 people in there, but fine. I mostly made it through the trip without getting seasick - thanks to the patch. The boat ran large, external port and starboard stabilizers, which really helped the side-to-side motion. The seas were generally calm, but I still got sick, even with the patch and stabilizers, during the long 10-12 hour motors on the first and last nights.

The Diving: I was somewhat surprised that there wasn’t more diving, but during the week we did 19 dives. My impression of liveaboards from talking to other people was 5-6 dives/day, but maybe that’s unrealistic. The main areas we dived were Isla Angel De La Guarda, Isla San Pedro Martir, and Isla Salsipuedes. Sunday was 2 dives, Mon-Thu were 4 dives, and Friday morning was reserved for snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Bahia de Los Angeles bay. There were two night dives. All the diving was done from RIBs. The Rocio would anchor near the dive site, and the 20 divers were split into 3 groups. There were 2 RIBs, which were easy to embark/disembark from the stern deck at water level. The 2 RIBs would get each group in the water, with about 30 minutes between each group. Dives were generally 60 minutes. A guide would be in the water with each group - you could follow the guide or go your own way. Since everyone was a photographer, the buddy system was more theoretical than literal. In general, the dives weren’t overly challenging but visibility was pretty limited on some sites, and sticking with the guide was a good idea in those cases. Definitely bring and know how to use a DSMB. I brought a 3mm full wetsuit and a lavacore shirt. I wore the wetsuit on the first dive, but once I saw how warm it was, I just wore the lavacore after that. Temps were upper 78°-81° on every dive. There were thermoclines, but they were generally deep, like 50’-75’, and probably only 5-10° colder. So, if I was checking out something deeper, I would dip into the thermocline until I got chilly, then ascend to warm up. I did wear the 3mm on the second night dive, just to offer some protection from the swarms of krill/shrimp/bugs/whatever it is that swarms around dive lights at night. The one thing that surprised me was the visibility. This was a photo trip, so I was expecting generally good visibility. I would say, on average, we got about 30’. The lowest was about 10’, and the best maybe 50’ in very shallow water. The water was generally green, but more bluish in the shallows. The lower visibility was due at least in part to plankton and nutrients in the water, which attracted the food chain of animals we were there to see. But it made photography much more difficult, even when applying the principles of getting close and wide strobe placement. I spent lots and lots of time editing.

The Flora & Fauna: This is what we were all there for, and it didn’t disappoint. The highlight was certainly the sea lions. We spent 2 whole days diving with them, and it was a huge amount of fun. The sea lion dives were usually pretty shallow - 30’-40’. They would swim up, investigate, pose for the camera, play around, blow bubbles, and were just hugely entertaining. After a certain amount of time, the bull would swim by in a line, barking a warning for us to get back and for all the sea lions in the group to fall back as well. The bulls were seriously impressive. I didn’t have any of the fin/camera biting that I’ve heard about, but I loved the sea lions and would go back just for them. I’m also a huge fan of nudibranchs, and I was able to find different species on every dive. Lots of other macro stuff, too. Octopus, slugs, grouper, several kinds of jawfish. We spent a lot of time with Blue-spotted jawfish and orange-throated pikeblennies, trying to capture their mating colors and displays. Lots of eels, angelfish, blennies, and rays. I saw more black coral than I’d ever seen before, and gorgonians everywhere. In general, there were a lot of species that looked familiar, like the arrow crab, but on further investigation were just a little different. The panamic arrow crab has slightly different coloring than the yellowline arrow crab I’m used to. The last day with the whale sharks was cool, but not what I expected. I’ve never seen whale sharks, so it was great to finally check that box. But the manner in which we did it - where a fast boat scouted out a shark, then we sped to intersect it’s path, then jump in quickly, snorkel with it for 10 seconds, and snap some pics - it felt artificial. I hope to encounter whale sharks more organically one day, but maybe that’s too much to ask. The advertisements and websites for Sea of Cortez show lots of whales and mobula rays. Unfortunately, we saw no whales, and the only mobula rays I saw was a local fishermen in Bahia de Los Angeles bay, who was catching them, finning them, and throwing them back to die. That was a very upsetting way to end the trip.

Conclusions: Any time you try something new, some aspects line up with your expectations, some aspects disappoint, and some things are total surprises. This trip had all of those. I’m certainly not a liveaboard convert. I much prefer the freedom and ease of shore diving. But, I know that I could do another liveaboard, if the seas were calm, without being sick the whole week. The Sea of Cortez is a pretty magical place. The viz could have been better and I would have liked to dive more, but I’ll never forget the time with the sea lions and nudibranchs.

Link to SoC photo gallery: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmLxDXsE

Samples:
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Trailboss123

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That was a really well written and expressed report @bmorescuba
I appreciated your detail and that you qualified your expectations and your personal traits. That is really helpful for people to put things into context for themselves. Something I need to be more conscience of in my reports.

Liveaboards and locations are so varied. Your report was very informative and I love your photos.

Thanks again.
 

Trailboss123

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Also, your photo of the Spanish Shawl nudibranch brought an instant smile to my face. They are some of my favorites.
I have been fortunate to do lots of dives in the Channel Islands of Southern California where we see them often. This is probably my favorite and best photo-- but it has been a while since seeing one, which is why your pic elicited such an immediate smile and reaction.
 

Trailboss123

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Actually, I think this is my favorite and I forgot about it. The eggs in the background make the difference.
 
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bmorescuba

bmorescuba

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I've only been able to do a small number of dives in Monterey and Catalina, and I had never seen a spanish shawl - but it was always top on my list of nudis to see. Thanks for sharing your pics and for the feedback on the trip report. The spanish shawl pic I posted here in the best one I got photographically, but I got two other shots that I really love. The first one shows the shawl eating hydroids, and the second shows how small it is in comparison to the gigantic tiger dorid.

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peeweediver

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Thanks for your report and the great pics. We were on the Rocio in October for the "Explore Baja" trip. Temps were a bit colder so a 5 mm with lavacore was my choice...I'm a lot smaller and a baby about being cold. FYI, the number of dives offered per day was the least of any live-a-board we've been on except maybe the Sea Hunter in Cocos after night dives were ruled verboten. Destinations and boats are different when it comes to number of dives. Glad you enjoyed the trip and taking the good with the not so good is the best way to approach live-a-boards and life in general.
 

Shasta_man

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Thanks for the report and very nice pics. Helpful.
My experience as to some of your comments:
- I think most liveaboards are 4-5 dives, with 4 dives during the day and an optional night dive.
- I think you will find lower viz from particulate in the water is closer to the norm for these types of places. It's the food chain that attracts the critters we want to see. Not necessarily to 10 feet but on the lower end of the scale.
- I like liveaboards because I think you can get a lot of bang for the buck (which isn't cheap) but I structure my travel to first dive dive dive then do everything else. That's partially due to limiting exposure to sick people since getting sick wipes out the trip you paid thousands for. I've been doing the "don't touch your face with your hands" for many more years than coronavirus.
 

Manuel Sam

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Thanks for your report and pix. Seeing the title caught my eye because some years ago, Rocio was doing this same itinerary and had reported occasional sightings of Sperm Whales and also Humboldt Squid. I was hoping that you might have seen them. Maybe they are seasonal - who knows.

In any case, if it is of any help to you for future considerations, as it relates to sea lions, I have found Los Islotes off of La Paz to have some of the best sea lion encounters and interactions. I think that the key is to try to hit the time - if there is such a thing - when there are a lot of juveniles in the water, since they are the most playful and will want to playfully chew on almost anything: your fins, your wetsuit zipper drawstring, your hood if it is not worn on your head, any piece of rope that you bring down with you, etc. My most recent experiences at Los Islotes have been in November - 2016 and 2019. I would check with the local dive operations.

As for whalesharks, La Paz also offers snorkeling with these creatures but at least the time that I went in November 2016, the viz was awful, and the mode of encounters followed the same general protocol as what you described. These whalelsharks are not huge - maybe 20-25 ft max, and when you can see the head but not the tail due to the lack of viz, the resulting pix or videos are rather blah.

To me, a much better whaleshark experience can be had in Isla Mujeres, where the water is blue. When the time is right (in my opinion, the full moon in July and perhaps August, plus a couple of days before and after) there are enough of them in the water (over 100) that you do not have to swim in a mad chase after them. Altho if you are willing to swim, and since you are a shooter, you can try to position yourself such as to get a nice head-on and 3/4 shot, and kick like mad to stay with them as long as possible when it is not a real fast-swimming one.
 
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