APRIL 6-15, 2008

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

To borrow (steal??) from Charles Dickens: It was the best of dives, it was the worst of dives. Actually, the second half of that is a vast overstatement. But it highlights that while we had a really good trip, our journey down to the Revillagigedo Islands was not exactly what we had hoped it would be.

First, some nomenclature. The group of islands is correctly known as the Revillagigedo Islands. It’s comprised of San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida, and - much further out - Clarion. Because it’s almost impossible for a gringo tongue to properly say “Revillagigedo,” it’s very common to refer to the entire area as “Socorro” and that’s what I intend to do throughout this report.

We spent nine days aboard the Nautilus Explorer, a 116’ x 27’ vessel that’s hatched an interesting business plan as the dive industry goes. Rather than just working one area, they move around as the dive season shifts and range from Alaska to Vancouver to Guadalupe to Socorro to the Sea of Cortez and then back again. So if you like the operation - and we did - you’ve got the option of not only diving with them again but diving something you haven’t diven before. More on the vessel and the crew in a minute.

We met the boat in Cabo San Lucas. The flight down from L.A. is an easy two-and-a-half hour jaunt. Our group this year consisted of Susan Beveridge, Mike Doran, John Morgan, Mark Stabb, Charlie Pincus, and myself. We grabbed a cab ($15/person) from the San Jose del Cabo International Airport for the short ride to the Posada Real Hotel, where the Explorer maintains what they call a “hospitality room”. When you hear “hospitality” you may think of drinks, snacks, and perhaps a shower. In this case, it’s simply a large room where your bags can be stored. The hotel’s very nice with a bar and restaurant so you can certainly make yourself comfortable until the 5PM pickup time. And right on time, lead DM Sten Johanson was there to shepherd us to the boat.

The Nautilus Explorer can carry up to 25 divers in 11 staterooms and a 4-person “dorm” room. We had 23 on our trip plus a crew of nine. It was a little snug at times and I’d rather see the boat carry 18-20 divers but the economics probably don’t dictate that.

Before we go any further, we want to heap some lavish praise on the crew, especially the three DMs of Sten, Tricia Kelly, and Buzz Busby. Those three really worked together as a team and were among the best DMs and best-functioning team of DMs that we’ve run across. They were especially helpful when one diver needed some special care because of conditions and they were willing and able to rejigger the dive sked so that he could go off with one them one-on-one between our group dives while at the same time not causing anyone else to have to give up any dive time for that accommodation.

On top of that, the bridge crew (Garry, Doug, and Bob) and the kitchen crew (Shona, Sylvia, and Camila) were always helping out on the deck either driving the skiffs (Garry, Doug, & Bob) or passing out water before the dives and water and fruit afterwards (Camila & Sylvia). We can’t say enough nice things about the crew and they alone are a very good reason why we’d dive with the Nautilus again.

There are three classes of rooms on the boat. Nine of the staterooms are their standard rooms, level with the waterline on the lower deck. Each room has a double bed and a single bed (side-by-side rather than stacked like on many boats) so the rooms are appropriate for a couple or two singles. (Be aware that two of the rooms - A & B - only have a double bed.) There’s a sink and storage cabinet between the two beds, good storage under each of the beds, hooks on the walls for hanging things, and a separate shower stall in one corner of the room (with a great shower head and excellent water pressure - a rarity on liveaboards it seems) and a toilet in the other corner.

Two rooms on the second deck are the Executive suites each with a king-size double bed, the other amenities, and a small desk. On the lower deck in the bow is the Dorm room, which is four single bunks with some shared storage and a head. It’s very similar to the bunk areas on any large California dive boat. This is also the area where the crew bunks (in small staterooms) and there’s a second head that’s used by the crew.

On this trip, there was a $500 difference in the three room prices, $500 more for the Executive, and $500 less for the Dorm. There’s a similar price differential on other length trips and you can decide what level of comfort you’d like and what that’s worth to you..

The marine head toilets worked great but they did occasionally give off a septic smell that could at times be rather noticeable. Each toilet area had a can of air freshener and that certainly helped but occasionally the smell wafted through the hall or the individual rooms (some rooms got it stronger than others) and it would be nice if that could be corrected. Not a deal-breaker by any means but certainly not optimal.

One thing I liked a lot about the boat is that there was a good balance between inside and outside areas. This is especially great for when the boat’s in colder areas (like Vancouver or Alaska). It also made it easy for us to escape the hot sun during the day. At the same time, if you wanted to lay out, there were chairs set around the second deck as well as a third-level sundeck.

But one thing I didn’t like about these areas is that they felt crowded. It seems like they’ve put something into almost every square inch of open space and that makes it feel cramped. There are 17 deck chairs on the top deck (I counted) when 8-10 would be fine and the extras eat up space. On the second deck (which already has a hot tub which consumes space), their shark cage for their Guadalupe trips is stored and - again - eats up some space.

The dive deck had it pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it’s big enough to handle 23 divers plus the crew. Each diver has a dive station where your tank/BC/reg are bungeed in, with a small cubicle below for mask/snorkel/fins and small stuff. There are two excellent overhead showers (great shower heads and great water pressure) but no communal head on the deck. Not a big deal but it meant you always needed to go down to your room to use the facilities, which meant stripping out of your wetsuit if it was right after a dive.

On the minus side is that the dive deck slopes downward since it also doubles as the cradle for their 30-foot aluminum skiff, which is hauled up in place for the transit to and from Socorro. That also means that most of the dive stations are inaccessible when the boat’s making the crossing or running between islands. Once the skiff’s been set into the water (they also use a rubber inflatable as a second tender/chase boat) you needed to walk gingerly on the sloping deck because it can be slick when wet. A couple of people slipped and fell while fully geared up. No injuries, but again something to be aware of.

Just off the dive area on the main deck is the salon which is nicely set up and can pretty much accommodate everyone. Large windows line each side of the salon make it brightly lit during the day. Better still, each of the windows has blinds so that if the sun is streaming in, you can drop the blind and don’t go blind yourself. There are five comfy couches, some bar stools, and a long table/shelf along one wall with bar-stool-height chairs that’s perfect for setting up laptops to download pictures and the like. Another nice touch in the salon is the fact that there are many sets of binoculars in each windowsill. This was great for when whales would show up or you wanted to take a peek at a bird flying by.

The dining area is just beyond the salon and easily seats everyone for meals. It’s also got windows on each side which makes it nice and bright. Unfortunately (and puzzlingly) it does NOT have blinds of each of the windows so there are times - especially when dinner and sunset coincided - that you get the sun right in your eyes. Blinds would be a nice addition.

Speaking of dining, the food was first-rate. Shona the cook (assisted by Sylvia and Camila) did a great job every day. There was an incredible variety of food, always fresh fruit, all kinds of drinks and snacks, and what have you. It’s was scary stepping back on the scale (+3 in my case). Two touches that were always appreciated were the soups that preceded each lunch and the home-baked cookies that followed.

Meals are served buffet-style and you simply take what you want. In some cases where there were special dietary needs or you simply didn’t like what was being offered (for instance, I don’t like eggs) they were always happy to make up some alternative more to your liking. And when you were done eating a hand magically came in and whisked away your plate.

Meals times were continental breakfast at 7AM before the first dive, full hot breakfast at 10:30AM following the first dive, lunch at 1:30PM following the second dive, a snack at 5PM following the third dive, and dinner at 8PM once we wrapped up diving for the day. Coffee, tea, and non-alcoholic drinks were always available. Beer, wine, and even mixed drinks are available for an extra charge.

Generally, it was a 4-dive day, with the first dive at 8:45AM followed by dives at 11:45AM, 3PM, and 6PM. The dives lasted 30-60 minutes (they ask for a one-hour maximum bottom time) and that generally left about a 2-hour surface interval which was more than adequate whether you were diving air or nitrox (32%).

The very first day we started at 7:45AM but the crew had forgotten that Mexico had just switched over to Daylight Savings Time the day our trip started. So they were used to the old schedule and when we all first got up (after a full day at sea) at 6:30AM, it was pitch black outside. (Sunrise was at 7:15AM and sunset was around 7:30PM.). So we decided to push everything back one hour from that point on and that worked out great.

Diving is done either from the skiffs (about 80% of the time) or from the main boat. When using the main boat, you simply do a giant stride off the back, do your dive, and come back up to a boarding ladder. Pretty simple.

For dives where we used the skiffs, the procedure was fairly straightforward. All divers would gear up at their own pace. For those of us who photo (and just about everyone on this trip had a camera of some sort), you were responsible for putting your camera in the “to be loaded on the boat” area. The back of the Nautilus sits almost level with the water so the crew would pull the nose of the skiff literally up on the back deck of the boat and you’d board.

First out would be the inflatable, so the first 6-8 divers (plus one DM - you’re not required to stay with them but there were always two of the three DMs diving) would load into the inflatable by straddling it and then pulling your trail leg up and over, sitting on the side. Once the divers were in, the cameras were passed out, and then the inflatable left for the dive area. A simple backroll out of the inflatable got you in the water.

For the aluminum skiff (the “tinny”), they’d put the nose right up against the back of the boat so this one - especially if there was any kind of a swell - had to be timed right with well-placed step from the deck of the Nautilus to the nose of the tinny. But the crew was there to help and all went smoothly.

The tinny has two long benches, one down each side, where you sit. There’s even a slightly recessed channel for your tank. One thing to remember about the tinny is that it’s good to sit down quickly and slide along bench to the back because every now and then you hear someone say “Bump!!!” as the nose of the tinny is about to bang into the deck of the Nautilus and the collision can at times send a standing diver flying.

The tinny was okay but there were two things I didn’t like about it. One is that it should be wider (which I realize is impossible at this point in time). You sit on the bench opposite another diver and the space between the two of you where your feet go is about as wide as your fins are long. Again, not a deal breaker but not as good as it could be.

The other thing I found a little uncomfortable (which could be modified) was the entry. There are four entry points, one at each corner fore and aft. But the tinny has a fairly high freeboard and it makes it a little difficult to either get your tank over the side and backroll, or to get your knee on the gunnel (as I do) and do a front roll. This could be solved be simply cutting a section out and lowering side of the boat at these four spots. In my opinion, it would make the entry easier and quicker.

Once the dive is over, whichever skiff is closer does the pickup. For the inflatable, hand up cameras, hand up weights, take off tank/BC/reg and hand it up, and then vault up (many times with the inflatable driver assisting) and flop into the boat like a flailing flounder. It would seem to me that this could be improved and made easier as well with the addition of a small folding ladder (the Okeanos Aggressor uses one on their skiffs). Degree-of-difficulty of getting into the inflatable was something many divers commented on.

For a pickup by the tinny, it was hand up cameras, take off your fins, climb up the ladder in the back, slide down the bench. Most people seemed to prefer this method though either worked fine.

And you didn’t have to wait until a skiff was full for a ride back to the boat. The Nautilus has excellent communications as all skiff members carry radios so they get a head count as they go along. but also making sure there’s at least one skiff at the dive site. Then the other can run divers back to the main boat. They shuttle back and forth like this until everyone was picked up.

Overall, the diving ranged from fair to outstanding but was not as consistently outstanding as we had hoped (through no fault of the Nautilus). Given that Socorro is 250 miles SSW of Cabo, it takes 24 hours to get there. So our 9-day trip was actually 6 days of diving and a day of transit getting there and a little over a day of transit (we were further south and west) to get back. We got in 23 dives and a night snorkel over the course of the trip. Water temps ranged from 69º-72º. (I wore a 5mm with a lycra hood which was perfect for me. Others wore anywhere from a full 7mm to a 3mm with and without hoods.) Daytime air temps were very pleasant, usually in the mid-70s to low-80s. Visibility was something else. It ranged anywhere from 30 feet to upwards of 150 feet. And that seems part of the “problem” with our trip.

I don’t care where you dive but this is always true: Weather is an iffy thing. You can get good days in the off season and bad days in the good season. Our trip was the last one for the season for the Nautilus and although the weather was generally good, the water conditions weren’t optimal, and that affected where we could dive and what we could see.

A good example of this was The Boiler at San Benedicto, one of the “signature” Socorro dives and one of the places where you would routinely expect phenomenal Manta Ray encounters that would include Mantas hovering over you waiting/demanding to be petted on the belly.

The good news was that when we first jumped in from the back of the boat, the vis was around 150 feet and there was a Manta and a Dolphin right beneath us. The bad news was that the swell was running 3-4 feet making timing the entry critical. Once underwater, it wasn’t a problem and we were rewarded with one our most spectacular dives of the trip with the highlight (for me at least) being a group of seven dolphins coming in close and checking out the divers, echo-locating and squeaking, cavorting in the water, circling us, swimming out, and then coming back for more. Really amazing and enchanting.

But this was all tempered by the difficulty of getting back on to the boat. During the 45 minutes that we were under, the swell had picked up noticeably to where some were easily over 6 feet. And that made getting back on the boat tricky and almost dangerous, requiring directions from the crew and well-timed kicks from the divers. The boat was pitching enough that when the back end went down (remember that sloped dive deck??) the water ran halfway up. Everyone made it back safely and without incident but the conditions were such that we abandoned our original plan of spending a full day at The Boiler and headed back to a more sheltered spot that had lower vis and less big-animal potential.

Unfortunately, for the first four days, we had not-so-great water conditions (mainly vis). Although we had scattered sightings (and some very good ones at that) of Hammerheads and Manta Rays, we didn’t get the repeated close-in blue-water-background encounters that we had hoped for and which Socorro is supposed to be known for.

But I’m a big believer in the when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade school of thought and there was still plenty to see. It just wasn’t the big stuff. In fact, I’m willing to bet that when most people come to Socorro, they can easily get so mesmerized by the big stuff that they don’t even think about looking for smaller stuff. So I’d like to think that one thing I accomplished on this trip (and don’t worry - there are some Big Animal encounters coming up) is assembling a top-flight collection of Socorro close-up and macro photography.

One animal on my wanna-see list was a Clarion Angelfish. And I got very excited when I descended on the very first dive to find THREE of them waiting for us an the anchor. Of course, I soon learned that hoping to see Clarions at Socorro is sort of like hoping to see Garibaldi at Catalina. It’s more like if you DON’T see them, you need to get your eyes checked. But they’re really pretty, they really DO resemble Garibaldi, and even the juvies look like juvy Garibaldi in terms of coloring.

We also saw a lot of eels, mostly Panamics, but also some Jewels and Zebras. There were Mexican Hogfish with us on every dive (almost like you had your own personal Hogfish assigned to you) and there were many schools of Chubs, some of who were bright yellow. There were many Leather Bass (including juvies) and thousands and thousands of Redtailed Triggers.

That was another one on my must-see (and must-photo) list. It turns out that the ones with the red tails (and yellow dorsal and anal fins) are the males, and the ones with the orange tails (and red dorsal and anal fins) are the females. And they were everywhere.

Another highlight was seeing the Clarion Damselfish. Although you might think they’re related to Clarion Angelfish, the coloration is totally different between the two. I couldn’t find them at first. But finally I encountered one and realized what I was looking for. And then, once I knew what to look for (they farm patches of algae), they were in many places.

They have sort of a dusky front with a bright yellow ring around their eye that has a small blue spec on it. About two-thirds of the way back, the dusky fades and blends in to a very pale lavender, with rear dorsal and caudal fins that are rimmed in yellow. It’s a really pretty fish and once you know to look for the algae, it’s easy to find the fish.

One unique experience we had at Socorro Island was a night snorkel with Silky Sharks. They’re attracted to the flying fish that are attracted to the lights of the boat. It seems the flying fish (like they do in SoCal) will end up launching themselves into the side of the boat, knock themselves out, and the sharks grab an easy meal.

We actually didn’t see that many flying fish, but we had plenty of sharks. You stay right behind the boat and use the line for the tinny sort of and a line of demarcation. (The sharks don’t know this, BTW, and frequently come inside the line.) Jimmy Buffet was playing in my head: “Fins to the left, fins to the right, and you’re the only bait around.” Thank goodness for the flying fish. It’s actually a pretty high-intensity experience. There were definitely a couple of delighted screams from divers through their snorkels, and I had one Silky swim literally between my legs.

So there were definitely fish to be seen. I don’t think you’d ever consider Socorro to be a “fishy” place overall. There are fish here, but at first glance, the place appears non-fishy. It’s not Palau or Indonesia (or even the Sea of Cortez). You just have to work a little bit to find them and see what you’re seeing that’s different than what you saw before.

We planned to spend two days at San Benedicto and two days at Socorro. We were able to do that but the winds, which generally were blowing 15-20mph much of the days, chopped up the water, stirred up some currents, and lowered the vis. But it also gave us reason to look for exploratory spots. On our second day at Socorro Island, we had two so-so dives at Punta Tosca (preceded by an incredible Humpback Whale show on the surface) so Sten suggested that we try a new spot he’d had his eye on and it was actually quite interesting. (We threatened to name it “Sten’s Folly” if it was lousy but that didn’t come to pass.)

But the highlight of the trip was the final two days and being able to spend them at Roca Partida. Many people said that’s what really “saved” the trip for them.

Roca Partida is a very small rock - no more than 100 feet long and maybe 30 feet wide - that juts out of the Pacific Ocean. It’s actually the “plug” for a dormant volcano who cone sits abut 250 feet below the surface. But Roca Partida lies 80 miles WSW of Socorro Island and there’s literally nothing else around. It’s isolation makes it an oasis for the aquatic life. But if you get there and you can’t dive, your only choice is to turn around for the 8-hour run back to Socorro Island. Fortunately, that didn’t happen to us.

In fact, the crew told us it was some of the best conditions they saw at Roca. The swells our first day were maybe 2-3 feet, and even less the second day. Visibility ranged from 100-150 feet. Water temp was around 72º. And the place was populated by Mantas, Hammerheads, Galapagos, Silvertips, Whitetips, a gazillion fish and even a Humpback Whale who sang to us for two days.

Your buoyancy at Roca had better be good. Pretty much all around the rock, it’s a sheer drop to that 250-foot bottom. And when we saw “sheer,” we mean about a 180º vertical slope with almost no ledges or outcropping to hang on to or stop you. So watch your depth and the air in your BC here.

We had great dives at Roca. The first day the choices were, “Should I go to the north end for the sharks or the south end for the mantas?” And in the middle of the east side were the things I became fascinated with which were referred to as the Whitetip Shark “balconies,” small indentations in the rock wall where Whitetips would pile in on top of each other - sometimes a dozen or more at a time - and rest. Even when they were disturbed (by . . . say . . . an over-eager but well-meaning photographer) they’d flee the balcony, swim around for a while and then return to the same spot. Pretty cool.

Perhaps best of all was the Humpback Whale encounter. (Not me unfortunately.)

Throughout the trip, we were seeing Humpbacks all the time. You’d see them blowing in the distance (that’s when those binoculars came in handy), sometimes tail-slapping the water, fluking, and occasionally breaching.

We’d hear the whales too, almost on every dive. Sometimes it would sound like two whales calling out to each other and sometimes it would sound like only a single whale. But, especially if you held your breath, you could really hear the distinctive high-pitched “whoop-whoop-whoop” of their call, frequently followed by a much lower-frequency “woooo-woooo-wooo”.

We got our best visual show at Socorro Island when perhaps as many as a dozen of them swam towards the boat, approaching to within 100 feet, turned around at the bow, and headed back out, finally diving just shy of where the tinny was setting a mooring line.

Later that day, when we were diving the new spot, I was coming around the west end of the big rock when I could hear a whale quite loudly. I really thought he was close by. And, like Ahab obsessed with Moby Dick, I became obsessed with my Humpback and was convinced he wasn’t too far away. So I kicked out in to the blue, hoping to find my Moby just on the other side of the visibility. But it was not to be.

When we got to Roca, we could once again hear a whale nearby. Once again, I become obsessed with finding that whale. I just KNEW he wasn’t too far away. So once again, I kicked out in to the blue (and taking a compass reading so I could find my way back to the rock). And as I kicked, it seemed to me like the whale sounds were getting louder. For all I know, I stopped 100 feet shy of where he was. But I never saw him.

Bob, the boat’s engineer, was more fortunate.

Shortly after we got back, Bob went out for a dive in the same area. He knew of our experience and he too heard the whale sounds. But his luck was better. He kicked towards where he thought the whale sound was coming from and in a few minutes, came upon a 30 foot calf who was making all the commotion. Bob stared in awe and drifted for the rest of his dive with the whale (no camera, of course), popping up just south of Roca but within sight of the Nautilus. But the picture in his head is probably better than anything he could have taken with a camera.

It’s not like lack-of-whale lessened our opinion of Roca. As I said in my dive log: You know you’re being spoiled when your biggest complaint about a dive day is, “I couldn’t find the whale.”

This was not the Socorro trip we’d hoped for. That does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that it wasn’t good. How could you possibly complain about a trip where you had multiple sightings of Mantas (and I did get to go belly-to-belly with one), five different species of sharks, numerous small critters, animals you had seen before, conditions that were occasionally phenomenal, and you know you’re in a dive area that doesn’t get visited by too many people. How can you NOT savor that experience?

Will we go back? Most likely. Would we do it with Nautilus again? Absolutely. And maybe next time, we’ll not only get the magical Manta encounters Socorro is known for, but maybe next time I’LL be the one who has the whale encounter that right now exists only in my hopes and dreams.

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