Sea of Cortez: Enchanting Los Islotes

As we approach the island, barking of sea lions—with the distinctive wail of a male proclaiming his territory—can easily be heard. As we glide towards our anchorage, hundreds of brown shapes on the shoreline move about, eyeing us in anticipation of the encounter that lies ahead. Once anchored, we don our skins and eagerly jump into the 84º water, waiting for the underwater ballet to begin.

Skins? 84º water? Surely, this can’t be Santa Barbara Island. And it’s not. This is Los Islotes in the Sea of Cortez. It’s about 20 miles north of La Paz and home to some of the friendliest and most inquisitive sea lions in the world, not to mention enormous schools of fish, interesting terrain, and the allure of running into Mr. Big.

La Paz is pretty easy to get to. Both Aero California and Aero Mexico fly there from LAX, usually with one stop along the way. Whether you choose a landed based operation at or near La Paz or a liveaboard, Los Islotes is an easy but magical dive not to be missed. It rarely is missed as this is on the itinerary of either of these operations.

Los Islotes offers diving experiences that will satisfy anyone from beginner to seasoned pro. I’ve been leading trips to the Sea of Cortez for 17 years and never tire of Islotes. The sea lions eagerly interact with you (especially in the fall) and we’ve had divers spend their dive constantly surrounded. A few years ago, four of us were accompanied on an entire 45-minute dive by a single adult female who rubbed against us, allowed us to stroke her belly, nibbled at our fins, hovered above us, and generally just acted like she was thrilled by the encounter. In fact, when it was time to end the dive, she loudly barked at us as if to say, “No!! Don’t go!”

Islotes has a lot to offer besides sea lions. Over the years I’ve seen marlin, pilot whales, jawfish, barracuda, manta rays, mobula (a smaller manta), seahorses, and dozens of other species. Last year, we had just started a dive in the sand under the anchorage when a “whooshing” sound caught my ear. I looked up just in time to see a flock of perhaps 100-200 cownose rays go zooming by.

Islotes is no more than a couple of hundred yards long, laying east-to-west, and composed of jagged red rock. The protected south side anchorage is where most of the diving takes place, although the backside can be interesting as well. A sheer cliff—with cracks, crevices, and outcrops— forms the leftmost half of the island, a lower flatter area in the middle provides a great hauling out area for the sea lions, and a huge rock that has a tunnel/swim-through forms the right side of the place.

One of my favorite dives is to start on the south side of that tunnel, swim through it and then turn right to come around the right-hand corner of the island. On this journey, you’ll run into huge schools of fish, see eels sticking out of their holes, watch as curious pufferfish approach you and then turn away, and—if you look you into the blue—you may even occasionally spot a marlin or manta.

Another great dive is to start at the left side (western) part of the island. We usually drop in a small cove that’s just around the corner of the island and then make our way back around to the front of the island. Along the way it’s not uncommon to see schools of barberfish, leopard groupers, or even bumphead parrotfish. Midway down the front of the island, you’ll come to a shallow cave (no more than 10 feet deep) where there are curious juveniles hanging around in the back may venture forward to engage you.

Even diving the sand under the main anchorage area is rewarding. At a depth of about 60 feet, you can find giant jawfish (with heads about the size of your fist), their much-smaller blue-headed jawfish cousins, rays, goatfish, sea stars, and a whole lot more. And if you don’t want to go deep, the shallows of Islotes offer numerous sea lion encounters and the opportunity to be surrounded by the literally tens of thousand of silversides that have taken up residence there.

In short, Los Islotes has something for everyone. Whether it’s your main reason for journeying to the Sea of Cortez or will simply be one stop on your explorative itinerary, Los Islotes should be on your “must-dive” list.

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