Swimming with Sea Lions: Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is the perfect place for sea lion spotting.
A golden sun dips down to the Sea of Cortez.

I was just trying to breathe.

I wouldn’t normally think of an expansive sea, over 700 miles (1,127 km) long and connected to the Pacific Ocean, as claustrophobic. But 33 feet (10 m) below the surface of the Sea of Cortez, enveloped in deep turquoise water and breathing only through a small plastic mouthpiece, I felt caged.

As a competitive open-water swimmer, I’m accustomed to waves. I’ve embraced the rhythm of deep, quick inhales and steady exhales. Bubbles trail behind as I cut through the water, and my braided hair stays tightly wrapped under a latex swim cap. Scuba diving was nothing like that.

At first I struggled to sink level with Nelson, our dive instructor. Minutes later, watching him begin to kick away with his long yellow dive fins, I unintentionally sprawled across the floor of tiny seashells.

Floating about like frayed rope, strands of my hair pulled tight, caught on something. Was I about to destroy the coral the divers repeatedly told us not to touch? All this concern about breathing, and I’d forgotten we were swimming with sea lions.

Apparently, sea lion pups like hair. And hands, feet, gloves, toes, just about anything they can get their teeth into. Five or six curious pups nibbled at our wetsuits, and turned circles swimming around us.

They paused to have a look at us pathetic swimmers. The smallest ones, no more than four feet (1.2 m) long, peered right into our masks. It was like being inside the tank at Sea World. The playful pups then continued on, their long gray bodies moving quickly through the water.

Back above water, the sea lions barked in language that sounded more like honking. Pups and burly adults sunned themselves on the jagged red rocks for hours.

Don’t even think about crossing the bulls. What appears an immovable lump of lard can chase young Casanovas away from the females faster than one would expect of an 800-pound (363 kg) animal.

My first scuba experience will be pretty tough to match. But then again, so will the private yacht trip that introduced me to Los Islotes, our Sea of Cortez dive spot and the sea lion hangout of choice.

I, along with three other solo travelers, began my cruise at the newly opened CostaBaja Resort & Marina in La Paz, Mexico. Terra cotta and pale orange adobe-style condos surround the 250-slip marina, which holds everything from 30-foot (9 m) wood-detailed sailboats to 200-foot (61 m) mega yachts.

It was here that we met our lodging for the next few days, a 62-footer (19 m) by the name of Chaos. Suggested on a child’s whim and chosen because of the volatile nature of ocean and weather, the name seemed appropriate. Everybody needs a little chaos, says Bill, the big guy behind Cortez Cruises.

That’s the expanding company’s driving purpose — to make the yachting lifestyle available, if only for a week, to the less than rich and famous. A two-person crew keeps the cost relatively low, but passengers won’t miss out on gourmet meals, deserted beaches and the experience of a personalized trip. Wakeboard, dive, deep-sea fish or just booze on the deck. There’s no set cruise-liner schedule.

We spent the first night exploring the shops, two free museums and variety of open-air restaurants that make up the marina village.

Dockside diners can sip wine in the orange glow of a fading sunset and choose from contemporary dishes like banana leaf–wrapped whitefish with coconut glass noodles or traditional French and Italian fare.

Though we slept our first night docked at the sheltered marina, it didn’t stop a cool breeze from sweeping through my cabin’s two tiny windows. With toilets flushing, anchors lifting, motors revving and water draining, docked boats can be a bit noisy for sleeping. But I was far from disappointed when I awoke to see cerulean water in every direction. The blowing palm trees lining Marina CostaBaja disappeared swiftly behind us.

After a light breakfast of lox and bagels, I grabbed my espresso and parked above deck, beneath a movable awning. A thick sweater helped shield me from the salty sea splash and sprinkling rain. Relaxed at the helm, Captain Paul Noury first guided us to a swim spot, but with our urging, decided to move on and head for a large cove better suited to snorkeling. That’s what’s nice about a private yacht trip. If we want to snorkel, we snorkel.

By mid-morning, we anchored at the spot where we’d spend the night. Two volcanic islands stood side by side, their white-sand beaches separated only by a narrow passage of water. Giant saguaro cactus grew from the rocky red cliffs. Below, one-room fishing shacks were scattered along the beach. Most appeared deserted, but the shacks serve as home when mainland fishermen are out here on work.

The morning’s thick cloud cover had mostly burned off, and blue sky began to take over. Antsy from sitting around all morning, I took a cue from Paul, who donned a swimsuit and back flipped off the deck. Small puffer fish expanded like balloons painted with silly cartoon eyes. Blue and white starfish draped their long, skinny arms across the rocks. Happy to be swimming outside in the middle of winter, I swam and snorkeled for the rest of the morning.

Sea lions attract visitors trying to catch a look.
Los Islotes is a popular dive spot because of its large number of sea lions.

Paul pulled up in the dinghy and hauled some of the tired snorkelers back to the yacht. Though I thought the water clear, he explained that a recent week of windy weather had stirred the bottom and clouded the sea. Tomorrow we’d be in store for even better views. We used a warm shower on the back deck to rinse the salt from our skin and Adam, first mate and chef extraordinaire greeted us with fluffy towels.

After a sundeck lunch of lightly curried chicken salad, it was time to make use of the sit-on-top kayaks and get a little closer to the small fishing village. Paddling by, it was easy to see that the shacks weren’t abandoned. Shiny locks, glinting in the sun, held the wooden doors closed.

Miles from the mainland, boot prints marked the sand and coolers had been carefully stacked under shelters. A red roof matched the color on the rocky hillside and a turquoise shack mirrored the tones of the shallow water.

Sunset brought a dinghy ride to an island frequented by fishermen for its natural spring. We chose not to hike all the way back to the spring, but had a chance to inspect tiny crabs and glossy, soft-pink seashells. On the return trip, we stopped at a favorite feeding spot of local water fowl.

All around us, California pelicans dive-bombed in search of dinner, water splashed high with each attempt. It’s surprising the large birds don’t break their necks in such shallow water. As the pelicans got their fill, smaller birds joined the meal. Blue-footed boobies, whose, you guessed it, blue feet and bills make them easy to spot, dove from greater heights than the pelicans.

We finally made our way back to the boat, where we indulged in grilled fish, and berry pastries. I hadn’t been at sea for long, but already I’d done so much. The next few days would bring diving, and more swimming, snorkeling and sightseeing. And none of it on a schedule.

I often have a hard time relaxing. Unless, of course, you consider obsessive workouts relaxing. But that first night, with the full moon rising higher into the sky, I sat for hours watching the quiet sea and the moon’s reflection, like candlelight on a black satin sheet.

If You Go

Cortez Cruises



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