>Scientists labeled this area the Gulf of California, but this geological wonder between Mexico's mainland and the Baja California Peninsula is more popularly known by its Spanish moniker: Mar de Cortez — or, in English, the Sea of Cortez.
>To fully appreciate the Sea of Cortez, divers should explore it in its entirety; multiple land-based options and several liveaboards are available. One liveaboard specializes in traversing the length of the sea. As a photographer, I opted for the liveaboard, as it provided me access to exclusive, remote sites unavailable to land-based operations.
>If your trip calls for more topside sightseeing, a stay in one of the larger towns with dive tour operations, such as La Paz or Loreto, can still get you in the water with outstanding creatures such as sea lions and whale sharks.
>For liveaboards and land-based operations alike, Cabo Pulmo National Park on Baja's southeastern end marks the beginning of a typical diver's journey up the length of the sea. It's a fitting point of origin, as Cabo Pulmo hosts North America's northernmost reef-building hard corals, with as many as 18 different hard coral species in these 20,000-year-old formations.
>Cabo Pulmo National Park
>Overfishing nearly destroyed the few fragile reefs at the southern end of the sea in recent decades. In the 1980s the coral John Steinbeck so richly described in his 1951 narrative, Log from the Sea of Cortez, was all but gone.
In 1995 Mexico established the Cabo Pulmo National Park, a marine protected area covering 27.5 square miles of Cabo Pulmo reef, and the marine life quickly rebounded. The park, as part of the larger Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California, was designated a United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2005.
>A swirling vortex of bigeye jack (Caranx sexfasciatus) at Cabo Pulmo National
>Park is evidence of Mexico’s successful marine management at the fragile
>Park is evidence of Mexico’s successful marine management at the fragile
>When my companions and I rolled into the water, immersing ourselves in a swirling school of bigeye jacks, we witnessed firsthand the park's success. We watched the school's fluid shapeshifting for an entertaining half hour before we drifted down current to see more reef superstars, as groupers, snappers and giant surgeonfish of several genera joined the parade.
>Back on the liveaboard, we congratulated ourselves for completing an excellent wide-angle shoot, but I somberly remembered that Cabo Pulmo National Park's success story is tentative. The area's foundational reefs, which support the fish populations, remain exceedingly fragile and face challenges from illegal poaching and climate change.
>When shooting in the Sea of Cortez, versatility is key. One dive with swirling jacks and large creatures may be perfect for wide-angle shots, while the next dive might call for shooting macro. I learned this lesson at Isla Cerralvo when my roommate processed a stunning headshot of an alienlike clubhead barnacle blenny peering out from its shell. I wanted to add this cool little macro subject, which is commonly found among the rocks at safety-stop depths, to my own image collection. Alas, a 13-day charter leaves little time for delay, so another dive on Isla Cerralvo was not in the cards. Fortunately, the clubhead blenny is quite common at the tropical end of the Sea of Cortez.
>Between Cabo Pulmo and Isla Cerralvo are dozens of dive sites inaccessible by day boats; we found time to explore only a few. Exclusivity diving begins to change near the coastal city of La Paz, so our liveaboard crew shrewdly set us on the popular Fang Ming wreck off Isla Espíritu Santo before breakfast and the arrival of the day boats. The Fang Ming is festooned with trees of black coral growing off the base of the hull at around 65 feet. With the divemasters predicting nudibranchs, moray eels and garden eels galore, we elected macro rigs for this wreck dive.
>At the ship's stern, one diver found a longnose hawkfish flitting back and forth along the length of a particularly large black coral tree. While some divers patiently lined up for a turn to shoot this uniquely tropical fish, I moved on to the garden eel colony in the sand off the wreck to take on the nearly impossible challenge of creeping in for a decent portrait.
>Our captain and divemasters once again got us in the water before anyone else, and we happily had the arch and the underwater residents all to ourselves. Almost as soon as we rolled into the warm, blue depths, several playful ambassadors approached us, giving us a difficult decision: Pass through the arch and navigate the west wall back to our point of entry, or dally with the sea lions?
>We chose the swim-through, expecting the sea lions to wait for our circumnavigation of the small island; we made the correct decision. Passing through the arch we discovered a reef bustling with schooling barberfish, blue and gold snappers and shoals of schooling baitfish, which were flashing under constant assault by sundry species of marauding jacks and groupers. With the cavalcade of wide-angle-worthy subjects, it was tough to leave and ascend to our safety stop. At a usually uneventful 15 feet, I suddenly attracted the attention of a pair of sea lions who elected to use my fins as a play toy. I'm not sure how long we entertained each other, but it was likely the longest safety stop I'd ever made.
>With a heavy diving schedule and precious little time to download and process images after hours, it can be difficult to tear oneself away from the computer for topside tourism. But by midweek we packed the coolers and began our sunset cruise at Isla Danzante. Our destination was Honeymoon Beach, a secluded area in Loreto Bay National Park that offers a short climb up a hill to a stunning overlook.
>This is a beautiful late-afternoon view of our liveaboard from above Honeymoon Beach at Loreto Bay National Park.
>Encouraged by the beautiful vista, we climbed to the overlook to take in the breathtaking view of the liveaboard quietly at anchor far down the bay. The climb and descent were so invigorating that we could not help but linger under a fiery sunset.
>The next day we arrived at Isla Las Animas to dive a rocky wall in a small, protected bay
>The subtle change in water temperature seemed innocuous as we had traveled north, but the afternoon dive around the exposed point of Las Animas, outside of the bay, offered a more drastic change. We entered the comfortable 77°F water just inside of the point's tip and followed the tide offshore. Crossing an underwater ridge, we entered a current that pushed cool, green 72°F water into an adjacent bay. What a transition!
>As we moved north, we replaced our 3/2 mm wetsuits with 5 mm hooded vest kits. Yet while the water cooled, the photo opportunities did not. At remote Isla San Pedro Mártir we dived with wide-angle rigs to photograph the curious and swift sea lions rocketing around us. Perhaps the chilly 69°F water made them so energetic. Whatever the reason, I was thankful for their antics, which took my mind off the unusually cool upwelling.
>For nudibranch diversity, El Caballo ("The Horse") in the Midriffs is unparalleled. El Caballo is an undersea ridge of rock running perpendicular to the tides, the pull of which can be quite strong around the new and full moons. Regardless of the current, once you tuck in behind the wall, the micro world opens to a diverse array of nudibranchs unlike anywhere else.
>The star of El Caballo is the sea tiger nudibranch (Roboastra tigris), a cannibalistic species with a voracious appetite for other nudis. These colorful carnivores are quick to smell a nearby meal, outrace their prey and swallow it whole.
>Pikeblennies and signal blennies are usually small, cryptic, benthic fish living in tubes over rubble and sand bottom. They mostly go unnoticed until the urge to spawn has the males flashing from their protective tubes, with colorful fins flared, to attract female attention. To capture this display, be patient, find the rhythm of their flashing and anticipate when to pull the camera trigger. You can use a similar technique with the much larger burrow-dwelling bluespotted jawfish, which follows a similar pattern of flashing. A colony of resplendent nuptial males can seem like a game of whack-a-mole.
>The shallow bay is warm — perfect for snorkeling in just a T-shirt. The whale sharks generally ignore the snorkelers, likely from a strictly enforced "no touch" policy coupled with a mandate that each shark encounter is limited to no more than four snorkelers at a time. Our energy and anticipation were high as we found and swam with our first shark of the day. What initially seemed like a rare and epic encounter became routine. One by one we photographers and snorkelers got our fix. The panga operators eventually took us back to shore or to the liveaboard, tired but happy.
>On the overnight haul back to Puerto Peñasco, our debarkation point at the northern end of the sea, I reviewed my images. With many subjects left to shoot, I promised myself to book another trip next summer, this time starting in the north and following the sea to its southern reaches.
>See more of "the aquarium of the world" in Mark Hatter's online bonus photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2018