As recently as just four decades ago the southern portion of the Mexican Baja California Peninsula (Baja California Sur) was largely unreachable except by long and infrequent ferry rides from the mainland or a rough and dangerous dirt road trip from the north that took several days. There was no airline service. Population in this territory was so small that Mexico did not deem it worthy of statehood until 1974. Since then a reasonably modern highway has been built and airline services offered along with tourist and diving services. Even so, much of Baja California Sur (BCS) remains rugged desert wilderness.
The Baja California Peninsula was ripped from the mainland eons ago by huge earthquake faults. The semi-tropical Pacific rushed into the gap that is now known as the Gulf of California or Sea of Cortez. With the desert heat, the warm waters flourished with a huge amount and variety of marine life. Steep rugged coastlines, mountainous islands, deep underwater pinnacles, strong currents and frequent heavy winds combine in such a way that they promote powerful upwellings. Nutrient-rich waters from the deep ocean are carried to the surface, attracting an explosion of oceanic biomass and diversity.
Jacques Cousteau called this body of water the “world’s aquarium” and “Galapagos of North America.” While overfishing has taken its toll, divers from all over the world are still attracted by its biodiversity, underwater abundance, and stark surface beauty.
Rugged, But Reachable
Much of the southern two-thirds of the Sea of Cortez is great for underwater exploration but the main focal points for diving take place around La Paz, which in Spanish means, the peace. La Paz has only recently been “discovered” for its tourism value. Although the town is relatively large by Baja standards it retains its Mexican quaintness and charm. Cruise ships have yet to make it part of a regular stop so tourists do not overrun the town. La Paz is the largest town in Baja California Sur and its capitol. Tourism infrastructure here includes regular airline service, good hotels and reputable dive operators. The ocean environs offshore from La Paz hold the most diving opportunities and variety.
Live-aboard diving is available. While this is the only way to reach the outermost pinnacles and islands, there are a number of excellent day-boat operations that can reach excellent reefs in just a few minutes.
Most of the diving activity takes place around Isla Espiritu Santo, Isla Partida and its surrounding rocky islets (over 900) and underwater pinnacles and reefs. In 2005 this area was named to the prestigious list of UNESCO’s Natural World Heritage Sites. Since 2007 the islands, islets and surrounding waters have been the Archipelago Espiritu Santo National Park. The 365 square-mile National Park is home to 38 endemic species, both terrestrial and marine. With the protection that the National Park has provided, marine life is flourishing.
There are over a hundred specific dive sites in the general La Paz area. Here are just a few of the famous, not-so famous, and little known that are rapidly becoming quite popular for their beauty (roughly from north to south):
– Las Animas: This is a small rocky island with spires nearby that drop into deep clear waters loaded with colorful fish life. Far from La Paz, only live-aboard dive boats visit it on a regular basis. Although outside the National Park, its distance from civilization protects its rugged underwater terrain and incredible dive sites.
– El Bajo Pinnacles: A series of three underwater pinnacles peaking out at 55, 85 and 70 feet. With vertical drops into the deep abyss, frequent strong currents, and open ocean location this can be a very challenging dive — but the rewards can be great. The water is crystal clear, huge amounts of colorful life reside on the rock surfaces, and giant mantas and schools of hammerhead sharks have been known to pass through. Pelagic fish are common. This is always on the itinerary of live-aboard dive boats and day boats from La Paz often venture out.
– Los Islotes: This is the second-most famous dive in the La Paz area behind El Bajo but definitely the most visited by not only scuba divers but snorkelers as well. The main event here is the sea lions. Not only are there a lot of them, they are exceptionally friendly and in shallow protected warm waters so dives can be long as well as enjoyable. But also head out into the reefs away from the rock islets into 20 to 40 feet. This part of the National Park has the longest history of strong protection, so the fish here are not only prolific but very friendly as well.
– El Bajito: A large rock extending from the sea floor, this dive is just a short distance from Los Islotes. Huge amounts of fish life populate the reef that is decorated with large clumps of coral. Moray eels are extremely abundant. This is a relatively shallow dive in the 25 to 40 foot range.
– Wreck of the Salvatierra: In the San Lorenzo Channel between Isla Espiritu Santo and the mainland lays Suwanee Rock, a shallow reef that is also a good dive site in of itself. Rising to just six feet from the surface, it was the downfall of the Salvatierra ferry in 1976. She now rests in 60 feet of water and is one of the fishiest dives in the entire area. Diving here and nearby reefs is largely dependent on tides as currents can sweep through reaching up to 5 knots.
– Fang Ming and La Paz 03: Confiscated for illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez these two Chinese long-liner steel fishing boats were sank in 1999 off Isla Espiritu Santo as artificial reefs to foster marine life growth and create new dive sites for divers. Fish life is prolific and photo opportunities abundant.
– La Paz Bay: Snorkeling with the whale sharks in La Paz Bay is a “must-do” ocean experience. While visibility is generally only fair (about 20 feet average) and the sharks small (20 to 30 feet) you can get quite close to watch their feeding activities. There are also mobula rays (they look like small mantas) and various jellies.
Biodiversity is the name of the game here. Colorful tropical fish are everywhere. Moray eels are especially prolific and are seen on nearly every reef dive. There are parrotfish, triggers, stonefish, angels, hawkfish, blennies, and bright butterflies. In the sand environs you will find jawfish, garden eels, rays and flounders. Massive schools of grunts and goatfish pass through.
Big animals, as previously mentioned, include whale sharks, sea lions, as well as mantas and hammerheads on the outer pinnacles.
Invertebrates include a variety of sea fans, brightly colored stars as well as tropical nudibranchs and arrow crabs. Coral types are limited but clumps large and small are common on the rocks providing excellent habitat for the animals. In the area around La Paz there are no true reef building coral colonies but you’d think there was by the proliferation on some of the rock structures.
On many of the deeper rocky points and wrecks black coral bushes are often several feet tall and wide. It actually does not appear black underwater but rather bright yellow. A slow grower, it has been protected for many years. If offered do not purchase any coral jewelry.
The Sea of Cortez
Conditions are generally very good in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz. Even if the wind comes up, which it usually does in the afternoon, there are numerous coves and islands to tuck into for protection. Hurricanes occasionally make it up from the south during the late summer and early fall, but this is rare. High season for travel is in the summer, but during the fall months diving remains excellent, crowds thin and water is still warm and very clear.
Being a desert climate with rain rare, water clarity is nearly always excellent. The rocky structure of the islands and cleansing currents also keep the water a beautiful turquoise blue. Divers can expect water clarity that averages 50 to 80 feet with outer reefs and pinnacles running easily 100+ feet.
Depths of dive sites vary considerably although it’s generally easy to get into deep water quickly. Snorkeling is, however, very popular in the National Park as there are a lot of calm clear shallow bays with abundant marine life including coral heads, morays, octopus, and colorful fish.
There are generally two seasons in the La Paz environs — hot and hotter. Like most desert environments, from late spring through summer and well into fall, daytime surface high temperatures can be quite hot — 90 to 110° F. But with a nearly constant breeze (and an ocean in which to immerse) the desert heat does not seem to be quite as oppressive as it sounds. And you know what they say about the desert, “it’s a dry heat.” During the winter the climate is still quite comfortable (with a rare chilly snap) but cool in the evenings and early mornings.
Water temperatures vary during the year. Summer and well into fall the ocean runs 84 to 86°F, so a 3-mm wet suit should suffice. Winter and early spring can bring temperatures down to as low as 68°F, and more exposure protection might be necessary.
Diving services in the La Paz region are now excellent. Live-aboard adventures and day boats are plentiful and rental equipment is available if needed. Tanks and weights are, of course, provided on all dive boat trips.
There are few, if any, direct flights from US cities to La Paz. You’ll likely have a brief layover in Mexico City. There are direct flights to Los Cabos, which is less than a three-hour drive from La Paz. Shuttle vans are affordable and readily available. No special visa is required when entering Mexico, but you will need a valid passport.
The airline offering the most flights is Aero Mexico but other carriers are available.
Unfortunately much of Mexico has received a great deal of negative press lately regarding drug wars and occasional tourist muggings. These incidents are, however, in relatively small isolated areas. Least impacted is the southern area of Baja. Travel to BCS has been and is still quite safe. La Paz, as a matter of fact, is considered one of the safest cities in all of Mexico.
While diehard divers will likely opt for a live-aboard charter, there are plenty of land-based options, including a new twist to a dive/adventure trip that offers travelers a comfortable yet rustic way of enjoying the raw desert wilderness of Baja. Guests are transported to a deserted beach on a remote island. Tents are set up complete with cots, bedding, lighting and towels. (And yes, there are restrooms and freshwater showers). Basically it is everything you need for a camping trip. It’s not “glam” camping, but it covers all your basic needs, including tasty and filling Baja-style meals.
Small boats transport you to nearby dive sites. One dive and it’s back to camp for lunch. Out you go again and you can dive another nearby site and then back to camp for a nap or a hike or paddle boarding or whatever, until dinner and your choice of a night dive or a relaxing evening under the stars. This particular way of diving is a great option for those traveling with children or a non-diving partner.
Baja gives you more ways to experience exciting diving than many other similar destinations. With the variety of different travel options, diving activities and marine life, you can visit a different La Paz time and time again.