Socorro Islands, Mexico

Diving with the Big Boys

by Bruce Watkins

 
 
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There comes a time in the evolution of a diver, and particularly underwater photographers, when you wish to graduate from little macro creatures and yearn for more exciting subjects—that is to say big subjects. Our oceans are filled with seals and sea lions, dolphins, sharks, manta rays, and whales; and diving with these big boys provides a completely new dimension to diving. If you are looking for up-close and prolonged encounters with large animals, in particular manta rays, the spot you want to visit is a group of islands commonly called Socorro.

 

socorro island

Socorro island, a rocky, isolated place.

The proper name for these islands is the Revillagigedo Archipelago, but divers commonly refer to the archipelago simply as “Socorro”, mainly due to our inability to pronounce “Revillagigedo”. There are four islands: San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida, and Clarion, and these are typically dived from a liveaboard charter boat on 9 or 12-day trips departing from Cabo san Lucas. Since Clarion is so far from the rest it is only visited on the longer trips. San Benedicto is the closest and is about 230 miles away, and it takes around 24 hours to get there from the Cabo san Lucas harbor. The bottom around the islands of Socorro is relatively stark with a minimum of coral, invertebrates and plant life. This is not a place for those seeking little critters; it is a place to dive with the big boys. Much of the diving here is “porch sitting”—you find a comfortable place to sit, usually facing into the current, and watch the big animals parade by.

Charter boats typically stop at the massive, volcano-topped San Benedicto for the first day or two. Here are two dive sites that will blow your mind. El Boiler is on the southwest side of the island and is a massive pinnacle that begins at about 20 feet and descends in steps to over 160. The honeycombed reef is riddled with giant green moray eels and lobsters. This is one of the busiest spots for the pacific manta to be cleaned. The Clarion angelfish is the site’s most energetic cleaner and mantas, sometimes 3 or 4 mantas at a time come in to be cleaned. Over the years the mantas have become incredibly comfortable with divers, and view divers with a sense of curiosity and purpose. They seem to have a particular and unique fondness for bubbles. It is common to have a manta hover directly above a diver, and wiggle and jiggle in ecstasy as exhalation bubbles cascade across their belly. Manta encounters may last 20, 30 or more minutes with the mantas passing within a foot or so of divers.

manta ray at socorro island underwater photography

Manta approach divers at Socorro

On the southeast side of San Benedicto is El Cañón. This site consists of a horseshoe or box canyon-shaped group of pinnacles. The offshore side drops to 180 feet or so, and the inshore floor is around 100. The dive consists of making your way to the lookout over deep water at 70-80 feet, and watch the fish go by. Schools of hammerhead sharks patrol the drop off and, unlike many other parts of the world, seem to have little fear of divers. This is a great place for prolonged encounters with hammerheads and for hammerhead portraits. There were also a few, very small and very cute silvertip sharks here. Our divers were treated to close encounters with mantas during their safety stops.

hammerhead sharks in socorro

Hammerhead sharks are particularly curious and will closely approach divers at Socorro.

 

Cabo Pearce is on the east side of Socorro, and is an underwater ridge running from shore out about 100 yards. Manta rays, hammerhead, silky sharks, and schools of bottlenose dolphins are predictably photographed here. In April this year a mother and calf humpback whale passed directly over our heads and gave us a good view of the massive mother along with her tiny, 13-foot, baby.

roca partida

A view of Roca Partida, a great place for sharks.

Roca Partida is a massive pinnacle that sticks 20 feet or so out of the water. This is a relatively small site and divers can easily circumnavigate it twice on a single dive, currents permitting. If the currents are running you will need to stay in the upstream or downstream sides of the rock. At moderate depths there are several deep bowls in the rock that are normally filled with white tip sharks. There may be as many as a dozen, packed like cordwood in the small depressions. Again they are accustomed to divers and will often permit a close approach. Around the rock are silky and Galapagos sharks, and the occasional manta. We saw only individual silkies on this trip, but others reported swimming among a school of hundreds last season.

white tip reef sharks

White-tip sharks lie on top of each other in the depressions in the rock wall at Roca Partida.


The Animals of Socorro Island

Socorro is the best place to have predictable, close-up, and prolonged encounters with manta rays. There is, simply, no better spot. It is also a great spot for hammerheads, white-tip reef, silky and Galapagos sharks as well as bottlenose dolphins. There are also Clarion angelfish as well as most of the reef fish you would expect to find in Mexican waters. There is little invertebrate life.

manta ray underwater photo

Socorro is the one place you can rely on for prolonged, intimate encounters with manta rays.

hammerhead shark underwater photography

Hammerhead sharks are odd-looking with their eyes mounted at the end of flattened stalks.

clarion anglefish

Clarion angelfish are beautifully colored and are the most energetic cleaner fish at Socorro.

 

Why are the Manta Rays so friendly here?

In 1994, the Mexican government established the Revillagigedo Archipelago “biosphere reserve” to protect this unique ecosystem. Since 2002 no fishing is permitted within twelve miles of the islands and visitors are not allowed to set foot upon the islands. This was my third trip to the Revillagigedo Archipelago, and it has certainly changed for the better since my first dive there some 20 years ago. The mantas are still there in great numbers and have not lost their curiosity of divers and their affection for their bubbles, but the other sharks are more plentiful and more curious of divers. In the old days we only saw a few hammerheads or silkies form a distance, now we comfortably photographed them at close range. It is wonderful to observe a large animal at a distance, but it is magical to encounter one who chooses to interact with you up-close and personal. It should be noted that the crew and owners of the Solmar V played a pivotal roll in creating these protective laws, and continue to play a roll enforcing them.

manta ray seen from the solmar V underwater

Underwater Photography Tips for Socorro

On my last trip I limited myself to one lens, a 10-17-mm fisheye. The 10mm setting was great for mantas and whales, and the 17mm setting was optimal for head on shots of sharks. Two strobes on long arms are a must. Bring a 60mm lens if you want to shoot the Clarion angelfish. On my most recent trip we had a bit of cloud cover and a bit poorer visibility than previous trips. This was unusual for Socorro, and is typical to have clear water and lots of sun. These seemed to make the animals more curious, but it made underwater photography challenging. I shoot with a Nikon D300 in a Sea & Sea housing; so shooting wide-angle images at ISO 400 to 800, f5.6 and 1/125 second created crisp images with a barely discernable touch of digital noise. Under these conditions I shoot with two small Sea & Sea YS 110 strobes with long arms, or no strobe at all, to minimize backscatter.

Socorro Visibility, Water Temps, When to go

November through May is the time to visit Socorro for the best weather and big animal action. Humpback whales are calving and mating from November through April - you can see Humpback whale underwater photos from Socorro.

Visibility is often well over 100 feet, but on rare occasions can be around 50 feet. Water temperature is in the low to mid 70°s F.

Going There

Just south of the US border is a land that specializes in fun, sun, exciting diving, and trouble-free travel. Cabo san Lucas at the southern tip of Baja is a great place to begin an adventure. Cabo is a resort town with all of the creature comforts and nightlife a soul could want, yet is a gateway to the wild, unspoiled wilderness of southern Baja. Many travel to Mexico and never leave Cabo, but many divers think of it as a waypoint for the big animal action of Socorro.

Travel to Mexico requires a valid passport. Numerous airlines offer convenient service to Cabo san Lucas from the Pacific Coast including Alaska and United. At this time exchange rate is about 13 pesos to the dollar, although all businesses prefer to be paid with US dollars.

Diver Review—Solmar V

The Solmar V (www.solmarv.com) is my choice to visit Socorro. From the moment you step foot aboard the Solmar V you know you are entering a happy place. The friendly crew greets you with a big smile and a cold drink as they help with your gear and describe your accommodations. The vessel is attractive with a warm wood interior and polished brass and cut glass décor, and has all the diver needed and diver friendly infrastructure you should expect in a modern dive boat.

Solmar V Liveaboard boat

The dive deck has ample space for divers and their equipment, and each diver gets a large bin under each dive station for gear. The vessel has a membrane Nitrox system. I highly recommend getting Nitrox certified prior to a trip to Socorro due to the depths and the four dives you will typically make each day. The boat is very camera-friendly and has US standard 110 volts throughout (220 is available) for charging batteries, and plenty of room for storing, maintaining and charging camera equipment.

Staterooms are ample and comfortable. Each room has its own shower, toilet and DVD player. Then there is Chef Tony’s great food. Tony serves up quality fresh ingredients with a Mexican flair. Fruit and cereal are out early, followed by a full breakfast—eggs any way you like, pancakes, bacon, huevos rancheros, etc. Then there is the mid morning snack, three course lunch, mid afternoon snack and three course dinner with wine. I particularly liked the Mexican barbeque, fish courses, and the freshest sashimi I have ever experienced. There is always fresh fruit for snacking.

The Solmar V’s crew have dived Socorro since 1992, and the vessel has experienced a very low turnover of crew. Their experience is clearly evident as dive sites are selected and dive operations are conducted. Diving from the Solmar V is done from pangas. These two inflatable pangas are large enough to easily accommodate all the divers aboard the Solmar V and are very comfortable. There is an easy-to-use ladder to climb out of the water into the panga. Divers may encounter moderate currants at Socorro, but this is a good thing—the large animals thrive in a bit of current. Normally divers enter and exit the water at nearly the same time. This is not as restrictive as it sounds considering the nature of the “porch sitting” diving, depths, currents, and distant proper medical facilities.

socorro diver

Peter Critchell shows off his images to Richard Bradley

happy Socorro diver on the solmar v liveaboard

Tony Perez’s expression clearly describes how he liked diving with Socorro’s mantas

 

Before and after your dive trip

I recommend arriving a day before your boat trip to relax, catch some rays and give plenty of time for delayed luggage to catch up. I choose to stay at the Solmar family of hotels at Lands End (www.solmar.com), The owners of these hotels once owned the Solmar V, but they no longer do. These hotels are a short walk to town but are adjacent to a pristine, uncrowded beach, and are very quiet—perfect place to slow down before your boat trip or relax afterwards. Solmar Suits is being refurbished and should be complete in 2011, and promises to be very luxurious. Playa Grande, down the street from the Solmar, is spectacular with multiple pools, great restaurants, spa, and marble-adorned rooms, and yet is affordable. If you have time do stick around and enjoy the local diving. There are many dive operators in Cabo san Lucas and I recommend diving with Amigos del Mar (www.amigosdelmar.com). There are several dive sites a few minutes from the Cabo marina and the marine life is very impressive. On my last trip we had 20 minutes with a whale shark, about 10 minutes from the Cabo harbor.

playa grande

 

Further Reading

Guide to diving the Socorro Islands for Underwater Photographers

Guide to diving La Paz, Baja, Sea of Cortez

Liveaboard diving versus resort diving