Diving on the Socorro Vortex

Our adventure on the Socorro Vortex was awash with good people, good food, ample amounts of adventure, and great white sharks
By Nirupam Nigam

In the depths of the pulsating, blue matrix of the Pacific, few things are ever certain. Creatures of the deep come and go as they please, winds have no master, and water seems to infiltrate even the most secure dry bags and camera housings. One day can bring swaths of life, and the next barren wasteland. 

Nevertheless, a trip aboard the Socorro Vortex taught me that a few things at sea can be certain – good food, kind people, and camaraderie in a shared adventure.


The Socorro Vortex

The Socorro Vortex is Mexico’s newest luxury liveaboard dive boat, operated by Pelagic Fleet – one of the most trusted dive operators in the industry. The former Canadian Coast Guard vessel was redesigned and outfitted with divers and underwater photographers in mind, by none other than the famous Peter Hughes and a “dream team” of designers. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for a maximum of 14 guests. As a 140ft vessel, that’s 10ft per guest! How many dive boats can boast that kind of ratio? The Vortex has everything one might expect from a boat in this class from an endless and always accessible supply of food and drinks to a Jacuzzi to a spacious sundeck. Did I mention complimentary wifi? Yes, it works.  

It is needless to say that when the Vortex invited me out to go cage diving with great white sharks in Guadalupe Island, I was giddy with excitement. 


The Destinations

There are two very different destinations to consider when choosing a trip aboard the Vortex – Guadalupe Island and Socorro Island. Socorro Island is increasingly becoming one of the most popular dive destinations in the world. It is known for unparalleled encounters with large animals – anything from whales to whale sharks to dolphins to manta rays and more! The diving can be advanced and it’s a trip geared toward experienced divers. 

Guadalupe Island, on the other hand, has one attraction – Great White Sharks! Guadalupe Island is all about cage diving, and it’s a different experience entirely. This is a trip that can be done by non divers and certified divers alike. However, this does not mean it’s any less adventurous. In fact, I found it to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had the pleasure of having in my short life. There’s something special about staring out into blue nothingness watching shadows materialize into the most majestic creatures that travel our seas. 

One thing, however, unites the two destinations – the Pacific Blue. Both Socorro and Guadalupe are gifted with the endless, deep, pelagic blue of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a color I dream about. If you want to see blue water, these two Islands have the best shade of it. 


The Crossing

The Socorro Vortex was built to withstand the whims of a tempestuous Pacific. Indeed, the Vortex’s current two destinations include long and sometimes brutal crossings. The Vortex is a slick, swift, and stable ride, capable of traveling hundreds of miles over Open Ocean. In fact, it is currently the fastest boat in the region to either destination. This means less time battling Mother Nature, and more time diving. Having personally lived on no less than 15 boats, many of them in the Bering Sea, I can say with confidence that the Vortex is not only a sea worthy boat, but one of the nicest boats I’ve had the pleasure to ride in rough weather.  On our crossing back from Guadalupe, the wind decided to churn the water resulting in a sizeable swell and spray. Despite this, the crew managed to layout a nice breakfast during the crossing, and I was struck by how few objects moved around on the boat. It was clear to me that Pelagic Fleet considered every kind of weather when planning for the trip. 


The Socorro Vortex for Underwater Photographers

When I boarded the Vortex I was struck by just how well equipped the vessel was for underwater photography. I immediately understood why it seemed like half of the guests were professional crews and creators. This boat has it all. In the main living area next to the galley, each guest is provided a large cubby space for storing equipment (i.e., photo gear). Each space is equipped with a charging station as well as workspace for setting up camera equipment. I had an extensive assortment of equipment I was testing, including the new Sony A7R IV, and I was able to easily put together and adjust my kit every morning and evening in my allotted space without worrying about getting in the way. Because you’re inside of the air conditioned vessel, there’s no reason to worry about humidity, salt water, or any of the elements that could affect your system. 

After coming up from the dives, there is a large rinse tank and a camera table on the dive deck. The camera table is equipped with compressed air that you can spray on your camera to dry off your housing completely in case you need to make any quick changes to your system or go back inside with it. I found the compressed air to be extremely useful and firmly believe that all liveaboards should be equipped with it. 

I should also mention that the crew are extremely amicable and helpful when it comes to camera assistance. Many of them are underwater photographers themselves so they understand your needs as an underwater photographer. I never had to worry about how people handled my camera, as I have on boats in the past. 


Amenities and Accommodation

I boarded the Vortex with high hopes, and it almost goes without saying – they were surpassed. The vessel is nothing short of paradise at sea. The moment we boarded the vessel we were greeted by kind people, a wide assortment of gourmet snacks, and a limitless supply of alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks. It continued unabated until we returned to the dock.

The craftsmanship, detailing, and interior design of the Vortex is modern and classy. The vessel is centered around a shared “living room” with a massive flat-screen TV, a sitting area, tables, and a large assortment of books and movies. It was wonderful spending late nights watching movies with friends or afternoons relaxing with a nice book. Moving beyond the living space, the galley is spacious with very comfortable seating. It never feels crowded, and I almost felt like I was eating at a restaurant. During the day, the sun deck is a beautiful place to hang out. I often used the upper deck to eat lunch under the sun with views of the blue ocean and towering island. Perhaps my favorite experience of the trip was lying down on the sun deck at midnight, chatting away with the guests, and watching the Milky Way rotate in stark relief around the Island. It was a magical view. 

My accommodation was in a luxury stateroom on the lower deck, the most basic level of accommodation aboard the ship. I was impressed with the amount of storage space available in the room. It made sharing the space with another photographer seamless. The beds were quite comfortable and I was gifted with heavy, dreamless sleep after each day in the cage. The highlight of the rooms was the head (bathroom) in each one. The detailing and tiling in each bathroom was unique and beautiful. In fact, I felt the artistry in each bathroom was the zenith of the luxury aboard the vessel. The showers were comfortable, warm, and spacious – perfect for relaxing after a long day in the water. And the porthole windows in the shower and room were a welcomed final touch to the experience. I spent hours staring through them watching water lap the shores of the island. 

For some people, complimentary WiFi might just be the most exciting aspect of the trip – especially for someone who needs to stay connected in between dives. Often, in such remote locations at sea, it can be close to impossible to access the internet, and most boats don’t offer WiFi. So I was a little skeptical when I first boarded the Vortex whether or not they could follow through on their promise. They did, and I was thrilled. While some of the crew apologized for the speed of the internet, I couldn’t have been happier. Yes, it’s difficult to stream videos or upload photos from time to time, but I was easily able to check emails, facebook, work on the guide, and more! I recommend accessing the WiFi at night when less people are using it. At one point, I was even able to make Skype call to my wife – not bad for being 150 miles off the coast of Mexico! 


The Food 

Let’s face it – the only thing people truly care about is food. The food was scrumptious. Lalo, the cook on our trip, never disappointed. Breakfast was usually a buffet with a variety of Mexican and American style breakfast cuisine. Setting up a buffet in stormy seas is an impressive feet. My hat is off to the crew for that. Lunches aboard the Vortex were my favorite. I used lunch as an excuse to eat on the upper deck with spectacular views of the ocean and the island. It was different every day and ranged from sandwiches to poke bowls – each dish perfectly spiced and often including an appetizer as well. Dinners were an occasion for the crew and guests to get together and have an amazing three course meal. I often felt as if I was eating at a nice steakhouse and was thrilled with each meal. Did I mention endless drinks? 


The Diving

For those of us who don’t go on liveaboards just for the food, the diving was second to none – cage diving that is! One of the top benefits of a trip aboard the Vortex is the lack of other guests. Even though our trip was full, the most time I waited for a cage in three days of diving was 10 minutes – and I was in the cage the whole day sans lunch. So time with sharks is never a concern. You’ll have as much as you want. Another benefit to cage diving with the Vortex was the limit of a maximum of three people per cage. That’s plenty of space, even if everyone is a photographer. I never felt claustrophobic or like I didn’t have a good angle to photograph the sharks.


The process of attracting the sharks and setting up the cages is impressive to watch. At all times during the day, two of the crew are assigned to be shark “wranglers.” These crew members are trained to drag bait through the water to attract sharks and move it in time when the shark lunges. This yields an impressive spectacle where sharks will sometimes breach completely out of the water. Because the crew is so well trained, the practice is safe and the sharks aren’t harmed. 

The Vortex has two surface cages, one submersible cage, and one self propelled ocean cage (SPOC). The SPOC is something out of a James Bond movie. A trained operator drives the cage like a submarine and one guest can ride and film with the ability to move around the ocean to get closer to sharks. This cage is the only one that needs to be reserved and rented ahead of time. The submersible cage is for any certified diver who wants to use it. It goes down to 30 ft for 30 minutes at a time with surface supplied air and enables you to have a different view of the sharks. However, the two surface cages were my favorite for shark action. After all, that’s where the bait is! I spent hours at a time in the surface cages. Some hours I could stare into the endless blue for hours, watching light rays dance through the water. Other hours I would watch up to four sharks at a time taking turns breaching for the bait and circling close to the cage to check out the divers! You never know what you’re going to see, each time you enter the cage.


The Crew

The highlight of the trip for me was the people. By the end of the five day trip, everyone on the crew was a friend. They were some of the kindest, most experienced individuals I have met in the dive industry, and even now I feel immense gratitude for having their presence on the trip. They worked extremely hard to make sure everyone’s needs were met – not a small feet on a boat half full of professional photographers and videographers. Most importantly, by the end of the trip there was a feeling of camaraderie among the guests and the crew alike – like we had done something truly wonderful, and we had. 


Images from the Trip








Nirupam Nigam is the Editor-in-Chief of the Underwater Photography Guide and the President of Bluewater Photo - the world's top underwater photo & video retailer. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. After receiving degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, Nirupam worked as a fisheries observer on vessels in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. Since then, Nirupam has been a full time underwater photographer and photo gear head. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!


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