Sea of Cortez: Photo Workshop Trip Report

A report on Underwater Photography Guide's recent photo trip to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico

By Todd Winner

 

 
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This year's Sea of Cortez workshop was full of photographers seeking out Whale Sharks, Sperm Whales, Sea lions, and whatever other surprises the Sea of Cortez brough. The trip began in Phoenix, Arizona. We met up with the "Head Out to Rocky Point" crew at the airport, where they picked us up in two passenger vans and two enclosed trailers to hold all our gear. Imagine just how much gear close to 20 scuba divers bring with them, add all their camera gear on top of that, and you'll have a good idea of why they needed two trailers.  It didn't take long for our adventure to begin.

Early Trip Detour

Soon after crossing the boarder into Mexico, a bridge remodel forced us to take a detour through a small river. What is it they say about not crossing running water? (see picture)   It was good we had experienced drivers because I wouldn't have driven my truck through that river. We continued on to Puerto Penasco, where we boarded the Rocio Del Mar.

 

Rocio Del Mar dive boat - preparation

The Rocio Del Mar is a comfy 110ft ship built for diving, but it soon became apparent that they never planned for this many cameras at one time. We had over 20 underwater cameras on board with a mix of DSLR mirrorless and compacts.  We even had 3 housed Canon 5D Mark III's!  To create more space, we converted a large area of unused dive stations into a second camera table. The crew found us a large rubber mat to keep anything from sliding off and it worked out great. Now we were all set for diving *and* underwater photography.

 

There are 10 cabins located on the mid and upper decks.  The cabins are comfortable and all have private baths.  However, some of the bunks were a little short for the taller guests.  If you are tall make sure you get checked into a longer bunk.  There was always plenty to eat with 3 meals and snacks in-between.  The meals were a combination of Mexican and American cuisine.  I especially enjoyed the fresh salsa!  Most meals were served in the dining area down on the lower deck, but the last night we enjoyed a fiesta on the upper sun deck.  

The Search for marine life begins

 

After everything was stowed away, it was time to go looking for big animals.  Everyone was very interested is seeing sperm whales, so we first headed south down to a location known for them and hit a few dive sites along the way. Our first dive was a check-out dive and I wasn't expecting much. When we first hopped in, visibility was only around 30ft, but when I got down to the sand I saw jaw fish and pike blennies everywhere.  Suddenly, my so-so dive was becoming spectacular!  I've never seen so many pike blennies out of their holes and sparing for dominance.  

Sea Lion Madness

For our second and third dive, we hit a couple of sea lion rookeries.  Like most rookeries, we had some playful juveniles and females, but the most interesting part of the sea lions on this trip for me was the large male bulls.  Every rookery we dove at had bull sea lions patrolling their areas.  They swim back and forth, barking constantly underwater.  Often their areas were so close together that they overlapped a bit.  Bull Sea Lions are very territorial and will fight to protect their space.  Some of us even got to witness three bulls battling it out underwater. Talk about exciting!   I've seen bulls clashing on land, but had no idea this occurred underwater.  Even though the bulls were doing their best to scare us away by charging and barking in our faces, that did not stop us from getting amazing shots.

sea of cortez sea lion underwater photo trip
Sea lions playing in the shallow water

Sea of Cortez Sea Lion underwater photography
Sea Lion, with the rocks on the surface visible

 

Sperm Sharks, Dolphins and Boobies

 

We spent a good portion of the next two days looking for sperm whales. We spotted pilot whales, dolphins and even a few sperm whales from the surface. We made a number of jumps in the water with them, but none were very interested in playing with us. We had a few fly bys. and most of us got a chance to see both the dolphins and pilot whales underwater but no incredible photo opportunities. Unfortunately, this some times happens in wildlife photography, but this did not stop us from letting a good photo opportunity pass us by. Many guests did see the Pilot whales underwater, but they would quickly exit the scene.

At one point from the boat we saw thousands of dolphins - more than anyone has ever seen before. They were everywhere - the boat slowed down and for 20 minutes we were surrounded in every direction by dolphins.

Some of started shooting the brown footed boobies that were landing in the water near us.  They would stick their heads underwater as we approached them and this soon became a game to see how close you could get to one.  This turned out to be a lot of fun and we came away with some great images.

With the sperm and pilot whales not cooperating, we headed off to go dive a few more sites.   We had several more playful sea lion dives.  We dove a couple of macro sites that had giant jaw fish at them.  These guys are huge!  They are about a foot long and as thick as a baseball.  

Attack of the Giant Jawfish

"They told us we would look on the sandy bottom for the giant jawfish. I've seen smaller jawfish before, I'm looking for holes. and then suddenly, I see a cluster of people looking at something. This jawfish came out, it must have been a foot and a half long, I was like "Holy Cr*p!". I did not expect this HUGE jawfish to come out. I practically pushed my way in to see this highly unusual creature. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip." - Judy
 

sea of cortez sperm whale
Snorkelers approaching a Sperm Whale. Unfortunately the Sperm whale soon descended.

sea of cortez dolphin underwater
Dolphin swimming by

 

Underwater Photo Workshop

Typically we give a photo talk each night on our workshop trips, but on this trip we did several lengthy night dives that ate into our workshop time.  We still had a lot of opportunities to do one on one sessions and small group discussions during travel time between sites. Some of the topics we covered were strobe lighting, slow shutter techniques and organizing and editing images in Lightroom.  

Whale Sharks, whale sharks, whale sharks!

On our last day and a half, we went to the Bay of Los Angeles. which is known for whale sharks.  When we arrived there, we were not disappointed.  At one point we counted nine sharks in the water at once!  They ranged in size from a 12 foot juvenile up to the 30 foot adults.  These gentle creatures spend most of their time slowly swimming at the surface collecting plankton in their ginormous mouths.  It still requires a bit of effort to kick along side of them, but we had so many opportunities and got some beautiful images.  Everyone agreed this was the highlight of the trip. Unlike most Rocio del mar trips that only spend a couple hours with the whale sharks, we spend two days with them.

Sharks - The most fun I've ever had!

"Snorkeling with the Whale sharks is the most fun that I've ever had in the water. There were a *lot* of them, and I like the way the boat did it, you could jump in the water whenever you wanted to from the inflatable.In the beginnning, we would all jump in at once, but after a while we each grabbed out own shark. My husband Roger swam with his own shark for over an hour! And this was just the first morning! When we went back in the afternoon, we counted 8 or 9 whale sharks. Twice I didn't see any fins, and then I stuck my face in the water and I saw one. One time a shark swam right underneath me which was amazing" - Judy

Sea of Cortez whale shark
Whale Shark Silhouette, Olympus OM-D, Nauticam housing, 8mm fisheye lens

 

Final Thoughts

 

The Sea of Cortez continues to be one of my favorite locations for big marine animals, and this year proved to be a great macro location as well. The workshops are an excellent place to dive with like-minded people and learn a few things along the way. Please join Bluewater Photo on one of our other exciting photo workshops for your own awesome images.

Jawfish: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/160, F9.0, ISO 100

Pike Blenny Face Off: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm F2.8L Macro, 1/160, F9, ISO 100

Whale Shark with Remoras: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 8-15mm F4L Fisheye @ 15mm, 1/500, F8, ISO 640

Equipment: Nikon D300 in Sea & Sea Housing with Dual S&S YS250 strobes, Tokika 10-17 lens.  Settings:  Zoomed in to 17mm, F10, 1/250 sec.

About the shot: I was attempting to do an over/under shot of this sea lion pup resting on a rock above water.  After going under to readjust camera settings a few times, I noticed the pup was curious and sticking his head under water to see what I was doing.  So I seized the opportunity and took a series of photos of her peeking at me.

Trip Highlight: The Rocio del Mar trip was a great opportunity to dive and photograph,  both wide-angel and macro, with a great group of like-minded photographers.  My highlight was photographing the whale sharks in the afternoon with magic light.  The conditions in Bahia de Las Angeles were like glass and the surrounding desert mountain scenery was stunning. - Ron

Equipment: Canon 5D Mark III in Ikelite housing, Sigma 15mm fisheye, precision 4" dome.  Settings:  ISO 800, Aperture priority F/8, Centre weighted average metering, 1/1000 sec, ambient light, camera RAW, Auto white balance with some correction in Aperture

About the shot:  The sperm whales didn't want to play, but this brown boobie was curious and kept looking underwater to see what I was doing.  Out of the water my go-to birding lens is a 600mm f/4, but I was able to get close enough here to use a 15mm fisheye to capture full frame images.

Trip Highlight: Aside from the incredible encounters with wildlife on this trip, I would say the highlight for me was the camaraderie between a group of strangers who were so willing to share and learn from each other about underwater photography.  Friends were made! - Jeff Sheppard

 

Bull Sea Lion taken at the Sea of Cortez

Equipment: Canon 7D with Hugyfot housing, Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye, dual INON Z240 strobes.  Settings: F8, 1/250, 17mm, ISO 250

About the shot: This bull sea lion was hanging around me and I tried to take as many shots as I could, which wasn't so easy.  he was biger tan me and I was quite scared when he approached me.  It's a lucky shot and I have no idea how I took it to be honest.

Trip Highlight: I've never seen sea lions before, so this trip was special and exciting for me just being able to see lots of them.  It was quite challenging to take photos of them because they were swimming around so fast.  It was an unforgettable trip, getting to know many kind people who are awesome and talented photographers. - Lea

 

Equipment:  Olympus OMD E-M5, 8mm Fisheye lens, Nauticam housing Settings:  F10, 1/320, ISO 400

About the shot: We swam together for over an hour, covering the whole bay. No one else around. We'd swim pretty fast where plankton was thin, then stop and vacuum where it was thick. From time to time I'd pick my head up and look around to see where I was. There were times I practically swam into the boat, there were times I couldn't see the boat. Beat of all, it let me stay on the well-lit side. With the flat water, it was really peaceful. It's one of the best times I've ever had in the ocean, and that photo captures it. 

Trip Highlight: On this trip, the highlight for me was swimming with that whale shark. It liked me, or tolerated me, and I could keep up with it.  - Roger

Sea Horse

Equipment: Canon S100 Settings: ISO 125, F8, 1/800

About the shot: I found a seahorse and took several pictures, correcting strobes until I got one that was good enough.  I don't like to take too many shots of a seahorse as lights are bad for their eyes - they can't blink.

Trip Highlight: The highlight of the trip was swimming with whale sharks in warm, calm water for as long as we wanted. - Dan

Whale Shark

Spanish Shawl

Equipment: Nikon D300 in Sea & Sea housing with Sea and Sea YS250 strobe with fiber optic snoot attached, Nikor 105mm lens, subsea +5 diopter, L&M Sola 800 focus light.  Settings: F32, 1/250

About the shot: Although this is a common subject in California and Sea of Cortez, I was trying out a new lighting technique with super macro on this small nudibranch.  I was using a subsee +5 diopter and a new fiber optic snoot attached to the strobe.  Fortunately, this Spanish Shawl wasn't moving too fast so I was able to adjust the snoot to light the subject and took several shots. - Ron

 

Arrow Crab

Equipment:  Nikon D-200, Micro Nikkor 105mm 1:2.8G ED  Settings: ISO: 200, f9 @ 1/200,  2 Iklite strobes set on manual @ 1/2 power

About the Shot:  I discovered on this dive that the lens was set on manual focus not auto, thus I had to move in and out (bodily) to find the focus point.  Fortunately, the focus point was at a distance which was ideal for the small critter subjects, such as this arrowcrab.

Trip Highlight:  What I loved about this trip was that the Sperm Whales, Dolpins, and Whale Skarks were there. The whales and dolpins didn't stay up for us to photograph, but that's life. Maybe next encounter on the May 1st Socorro Island trip! - George

 

Join us on the July 2013 Sea of Cortez trip!

 

About the Author

Todd Winner is the technique editor for Underwater Photography Guide and an instructor and trip leader for Bluewater Photo Store in Santa Monica, CA. You can see more of his work at www.toddwinner.com.

 

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