Loreto is located almost 600 miles south of the border on the Gulf coast of Baja, but less than two hours by air from Los Angeles. Due in part to Mexico’s creation of a National Marine Park surrounding several islands in the Sea of Cortez, scuba divers comprise an ever increasing segment of Loreto’s visitors.
The Loreto National Marine Park encompasses an area approximately 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, and includes five major islands. Between Isla Coronados in the north, and Isla Santa Catalina in the south, lie Isla del Carmen, Isla Danzante, and Isla Monserrate.
Isla Coronados is about five miles north of Loreto, and only one mile off shore. On the opposite end of the park, Isla Santa Catalina is approximately 44 miles south of Loreto, and 18 miles out.
From Loreto, a significant portion of the horizon is occupied by 18 mile long Isla del Carmen, by far the largest island in the park. By contrast, Isla Danzante is the smallest of the islands in the park. Danzante is composed of reddish-brown volcanic rocks, and appears as though it was sculpted by an artist. It is particularly stunning because the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains rise to several thousand feet, with a particularly jagged profile, close to water’s edge just a few miles away. Isla Danzante is located between the mainland and the southern end of Isla del Carmen, with less than a mile separating the two islands.
Isla Coronados, only slightly larger than Danzante, has the appearance of an eroded volcanic cinder cone. Parts of the shoreline are relatively rocky and other portions have beautiful white sand beaches. Because Coronados is so close to Loreto, it is frequented by the less adventuresome kayakers and snorkelers.
Isla Monserrate and Isla Santa Catalina cannot be seen from Loreto, as view of them is blocked by the southern end of Isla del Carmen. A dive trip to Danzante reveals their presence. The southernmost island in the park is Santa Catalina.
Although diving is excellent throughout the park, it is best in the area of these southern islands. Particularly good dive spots are located at a seamount just north of Monserrate called La Reinita, and at Santa Catalina Island.
The Loreto National Marine Park represents the northernmost range of a number of tropical marine species, whose southern range extends all the way to South America. A few of those, such as the Moorish Idol angel fish, range no farther north than Isla Santa Catalina, and they are not found in the more northerly islands of the Marine Park.
The clear, warm waters around the islands are home to an incredibly diverse and colorful array of marine organisms. The water is too warm for giant kelp growth, but not warm enough for coral reef formation. As a consequence, the marine life seems to reflect a transition zone between tropical and temperate Eastern Pacific ecosystems.
Although there are no coral reefs here, the waters of the Loreto National Marine Park are “Sea Fan Heaven.” The sponges, soft corals, gorgonians, and sea fans which predominate the otherwise rocky underwater landscape are widely diverse in their shapes and colors. While not as spectacular as hard coral reefs, these sea fan gardens can be quite colorful and impressive, especially on vertical rock faces.
The fish are plentiful, spectacularly colorful, and astonishingly diverse. Many of the tropical fish in the Loreto National Marine Park seem typical of those that inhabit coral reef systems worldwide. But there are also fish which appear similar to California’s familiar temperate water species, except that they seem to have donned colorful clown suits and make-up. For instance, the rainbow wrasse looks like a multi-colored version of the common rock wrasse, and the indigo wrasse resembles a colorfully striped version of California’s familiar señorita.
One fish species, the Cortez damselfish, looks and acts like a garibaldi, except that, despite being electric blue as a juvenile, it is a drab brown color in adulthood. But the bright red blue-banded goby is at home here, exactly the same as it is in temperate California waters.
Some eel species, like the zebra moray and jewel moray, appear similar to the California moray, but they have amazing spots, stripes and colors. There are also a number of slender, free-swimming eels, such as the tiger reef eel, which look and act more like sea snakes than eels.
It is the invertebrate marine life which seems to reflect the transition between tropical and temperate zones most clearly. Sea cucumbers, sea stars, anemones, urchins, and other organisms can easily be recognized, but their appearance in the Sea of Cortez is radically different from that of their temperate water cousins. Christmas tree worms, for example, are common off Southern California, but here they are “giant” Christmas tree worms. The array of shapes, colors, and marking patterns of the many species of sea cucumbers, sea stars, and anemones simply has to be seen to be believed.
Some of the urchins found in the park are worthy of special mention. The flower urchin has a sparse array of short spines, interspersed among a covering of flat, round sucker-like tentacles. The suckers have a pink rim and purple center, like a bunch of miniature flowers coating the body of the urchin. The slate pencil urchin would appear to be the creation of a cartoon artist. It resembles a dark purple golf ball, with a handful of bright orange fingers sticking out of it.
Sea turtles are common in the Sea of Cortez, as are several species of porpoises, dolphins and whales. Although not common in the waters of the National Marine Park, there sometimes are seasonal visits by such larger denizens as giant manta rays, whale sharks, and blue whales.
Visibility is at least 25 to 30 feet, is usually 40 to 50 feet or better, and is occasionally more than 60 or 70 feet, depending on location and time of year. Currents can be strong at times, but in most locations they are not a problem, and can set up good drift dives. Although occasional winds can whip up white caps and chop, the Sea of Cortez in the Loreto National Marine Park tends to be like a giant lake.
Air temperatures tend to be in the 60s to 70s during winter, and over 100 during the summer. Summer water temperatures in the Loreto National Marine Park can get into the mid- 80s, with a thermocline that drops into the 70s at about 90 feet. Water temperatures dip into the mid-60s during winter.
There is no “shore diving” to speak of in the Loreto area. Fast pangas serve as the primary means of access to the fishing, diving, kayaking, and all other activities of the Marine Park. There are a handful of resorts in and around Loreto that offer packages for divers.