Last year Sam and I stayed in Loreto on our way to and from the San Ignacio Lagoon. We snorkeled on Coronado island and at Playa Santispac and enjoyed such a diversity of underwater life that I vowed to come back.
As luck would have it, six of my snorkeling friends (though, sadly, sans Sam) agreed to try it out when the water warmed up in May. We unspooled from our flight and waited in that long customs line around 1pm local time on a Thursday (they only fly there a few days per week).
When sprung from customs we went for our rental car and were told that the SUV we rented wouldn’t be big enough for four people (our group had two cars). We were considering the upgrade when the other half of our group said, “Oh we can help with your luggage, don’t worry.”
Seeing the jig was up, the smiley rental guy dropped his pretense and just upgraded us for free to a full-size van because he was out of SUVs anyway. I keep running into this trick at the airport rental car spots, so I’m assuming a lot of people fall for it. The only time a rental place didn’t bother to do this was in Hawaii in 2014 when they said: “Congratulations, we’re giving you a free convertible upgrade!” Obviously, it was because they ran out of compact cars and not because we were special… but at least they didn’t try to wring money out of us first like everywhere else.
Our van had tire pressure warnings going off when we started it, but the attendant just noted it and said the sensor was broken. Well, we are in Baja. I did worry about the tires popping when driving on gravel to visit some of the beaches up north, but kept that to myself and hoped it would turn out okay.
We checked in at our hotel and bargained with our concierge for two snorkeling trips on our three-day Sea of Cortez binge. We headed to Orlando’s afterward for cheap tacos and beer. (Where else in the world can you order a Pacifico at a full-service restaurant for under a dollar?)
Friday morning we hopped onto a panga with a 16-year-old captain (yes, we were confused too at first, then realized this is probably a family business and the boy must be related to our concierge) and headed south to Danzante island. Before we reached the island we encountered a large pod of dolphins, mostly babies testing their jumps. Another snorkeler and I jumped in after the boat circled round the pod, but the dolphins scampered away too fast. By the time I even opened my eyes and got my head above water they were already fifty feet away and gaining.
The snorkeling at the island seemed a little disappointing to me after the wild amount of biodiversity I observed last year. A strong green algal bloom covered nearly the entire shallow floor beyond the beach, and where the algae stopped, few fish remained.
That said, I did see an eel in the flesh for the first time, relaxing in the yellow grass on the bottom of a rocky crag. I tried to shoot him with my camera but found I’d already exhausted my batteries.
Back at the hotel after the tour, I discovered the camera battery wasn’t dead, the camera (an original Sony A7) was! Earlier on the boat I just though the condensation inside the camera “bag” was from humidity (as often happens right after getting in or out of the water). After a thorough examination (sealing air in it and putting it underwater in the sink and squeezing) I discovered a pinhole leak in a part of the bag that I’d never opened (the expandable zoom lens extension). It seems because I never used that part, I never cleaned it, but saltwater got in there (as water tends to do) and quietly worked away at the material (vinyl?) year after year until finally breaking through. I dumped it in a jar of rice for the night and hoped for the best. In the meantime, I went all around town asking in broken Spanish for “camera aqua?” Lots of people pointed here and there, but every time I got there the attendant would say no.
Now “hold up!” you say, “why in the hell would you put a full-frame DSLR in a ‘bag’?” Well, to be fair it worked for four years just fine. To be honest, at the time of purchase I’d used one of these “bags” with my NEX (not an inexpensive camera, either) for years without problems as well. But the real reason was because when Sony’s full-frame cameras first arrived on the scene the only underwater (non-bag) enclosures cost more than just buying a new camera. (And that’s still true now. A “professional” underwater enclosure for an A9 or A7III runs about $3,000, more than the cost of an A7 III body) I gambled. I lost. Maybe. I mean it did work for many years. I won’t be using a “bag” again though.
Defeated, I went with some of our group to Orlando’s to drown my sorrows in a margarita or two. While we were there a man came to our table and asked if we wanted some of their baked chocolate clams because they had “too many.” We said “sure thing” and enjoyed those chocolate clams fixed up with cheese and spices. Then we considered ordering more and noticed it wasn’t on the menu. We caught up with the group of guys at the aqua fresca shop next door and they informed us that they’d caught the clams themselves that day and (like many restaurants near the ocean) Orlando’s cooked them up for a fee.
Later that night, our concierge let me know that he had checked around after my request the previous night to see whale sharks. He said he knew a man named Jorge that knew “everybody” in Mulege and could take us to a captain that would show us the sharks. Awesome! Swimming with whale sharks has been on my bucket list for years.
The next day our group split in two. Four of us headed to Mulege with Jorge to hunt for whale sharks and the other three headed to Loreto Bay. At a strangely deserted Playa Santispac we boarded a smaller panga with a captain that negotiated down to 500 pesos an hour (the same rate Sam and I had last year in the same spot). The captain took us around the coastal beaches slowly, looking for whale sharks – but found none. I started to question whether we’d been hoodwinked a bit by our concierge but didn’t want to let on to my friends who were having a good time anyway.
After that, the captain took us to a small island. So small I swam all the way around it in about fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, the biodiversity here matched the previous day and lots of the corals looked dead. However, the captain captured our attention by diving for clams and scallops. He would cut into them on the way back up and draw a crowd of hungry fish. It didn’t occur to me until later that this might be another example of what Anthony Bourdain experienced while catching “fresh octopus” in Italy. Why later? Well, read on…
In a few minutes, he fed even more of them (with limes and hot sauce) to hungry humans on the boat. I prefer fish to shellfish so I only ate a few bites. One of our friends ate a great deal as shellfish is her favorite thing so this was a dream come true. After eating in the boat we headed to the shipwreck, where a plethora of fish swirled. The captain had said the islands over here were more “bonito” when he heard me complaining that all the coral at the first island (isla coyote?) were dead.
Unfortunately, most of the coral and plants at the second island were still dead as well, but we managed to spend a few hours floating around and having fun.
Back on the road, we stopped by Playa Reqezon where two of our friends walked on the submerged sandbar to the little island. They said at the deepest point (up to your belly button) they saw swarms of stingrays scurrying over the sandbar at their feet to escape the small bay before the sandbar cut it off from the sea again.
Back in town, we went to Domingos for a steak dinner. Before I even got to dinner the scallops caught up to me. And kept catching up to me all night long and into the next morning. So either they weren’t as fresh as we thought, or they were and I might be a bit more sensitive than others (nobody else got sick the entire trip).
Before our last tour a fellow traveler gave me some magic pills that turned the valve off inside my stomach. Our last tour took our entire group to Isla Coronado, where a “bathroom” exists, but in name only. Any clamming up my system was still doing cemented when I took a look at the facilities (more or less open-air pit on stilts).
Underwater the fish too clammed up. Or left altogether. Unlike the last two days, the word about Coronado escaped and the beach was crammed with boats and people. There were more people on the island now than fish. The coral followed the same pattern as the rest of the islands, turning to dust and the majority of the fish disappearing with it.
Despite this, my friends claimed to see a moray eel out there and even an octopus (I cannot tell you how insanely jealous this made me, my desire to see an octopus in the wild is only slightly weaker than my want to swim with whale sharks!). And, more importantly, they all seemed to enjoy themselves. One friend entering the extremely calm, shallow water to snorkel with her husband for the first time. As luck would have it, at that very moment, the coronet fish (or what I call coronet fish, anyway) returned.
On our way back to Loreto (another first for me) we saw a small pod of manta rays leaping repeatedly from the water. Back on dry land, our group splintered again, four of us going to dinner and the other three going to fish (I think).
The next morning the group of four got up a little early to slip down to Loreto Bay, where the other three had gone instead of joining us in Santispac on Saturday. The accommodations at the Bay were much more luxurious than our hotel, and the brown sand beach very calm and shallow. We walked on the volcanic rocks a bit further out into the bay and saw one of the few places where plants haven’t totally blanched yet.
After a while we headed back to the hotel to pack for our flight, stopping at a small (really great) taco shop for lunch called El Rey Del Taco. It was only outside that I noticed they served Cabeza tacos, darn! (that’s often the softest fattiest juiciest meat you can get from an authentic taco stand) Now I’ll have to go back next year just to get the Cabeza taco!
Our flight was delayed slightly when three drunk men were kicked off the aircraft for swapping seats, staying in the lavatory, and making the captain feel “unsafe.” We never received a clearer explanation. We came home to overcast weather in Los Angeles, very strange for that time of year, and urging most of us to start planning our return to the quiet (super cheap) little beach town next year.