Diving the Socorro Islands and the Sea of Cortez – an unfinished mission

Written on July 1st, 2014, aboard the Nautilus Explorer:

NautilusExplorer-Day3-140626-IMG_0847

Our time aboard the Nautilus Explorer is coming to a close. Our 12 night trip has been one of mixed fortunes. The parents have already been informed, so we didn’t break the news of Ben’s ‘dive related injury’ via this blog. Yes, Ben got bent (we’ll explain the situation in detail to anyone interested). Unsurprisingly, the initial shock and anxiety of realising he was definitely, undoubtedly, inescapably bent, hundreds of kilometres from civilisation, compounded the symptoms of decompression illness and made the situation appear much worse than it actually was. In the end, it was determined that Ben only had ‘skin bends’ – nitrogen bubbles trapped under the skin causing a rash, swelling and bruising. Thanks to an incredibly helpful and dedicated crew, who co-ordinated with our dive insurance company to make sure Ben was given the best available treatment, Ben was able to make a full recovery on board. Unfortunately, even after the symptoms abated, Ben was no longer able to dive on this trip, and had to be satisfied with snorkelling on the surface for several days at the tail end of our voyage.

In fact, all the guests aboard the Nautilus ended up missing out on some of the expected dives at the Socorro islands due to a hurricane chasing us off the archipelago two days before we were supposed to start.
Still, this trip was a real open ocean, middle of nowhere, high risk, high reward expedition, so you have to accept whatever Mother Nature has in store. The three days we did get in produced some absolutely phenomenal diving. In two days at the volcanic pinnacle Roca Partida, the sharks came in thick and fast – white tip reef sharks, silvertip sharks, Galapagos sharks and silky sharks were almost always within eyesight, along with massive yellowfin tuna and marauding wahoo. On the later dives, cold, dark water in the deep started to push the hammerhead sharks into shallower water, but true to their reputation they were easily spooked and refused to approach us closely. Best of all, on the second last dive at Roca, we finally met the Big Guy – a whale shark! And on our last dive, he came to see us again, with an even bigger buddy right behind him, passing so close we had to back peddle to avoid being hit by their enormous tails. Spending the night moored at Roca Partida, you really get to appreciate just how many sharks are down there. At least 50 silky sharks swarmed around the boat, hunting flying fish under the floodlights – you could even see sharks cruising past your porthole window while brushing your teeth.

We also managed to visit Isla San Benedicto, famous for its giant oceanic manta rays. As soon as we entered the water, the mantas approached within touching distance. Extraordinarily, this particular population of mantas seem to seek out human contact. Over and over again, mantas would swim up alongside us and then hover, absolutely deliberately, benevolently, allowing us to lock eyes, searching deeper for something… After all the divers left the water, the mantas would hang out at the back of the boat, on the surface, waiting for the humans to come in and play with them again. Ben and I couldn’t resist jumping in for a snorkel between dives, and the mantas came to us immediately, swirling around us, performing, dancing with each other, so graceful, so elegant, so big.

Ben spent the two days he showed symptoms of DCI breathing oxygen from a tank, trying to get some rest on a bouncing boat through rocky seas as we burned towards the Sea of Cortez to outrun the storm. We spent our last couple of days diving and snorkelling just outside of La Paz, playing with California sea lions that zoom around all the local dive sites. The last days diving at Swanee Reef I dived inside enormous baitballs with so many fish around and above me they blocked out the sun. Every few minutes, you heard a wooosh as the entire mass of fish turned in unison and a sea lion or bonito swooped into the school and picked off a too-slow stray.

Ben is understandably disappointed to have missed out on some great diving, but at the same time we are incredibly grateful the situation wasn’t more serious, and that the staff did everything they could to ensure he was as safe and comfortable as possible. We’ve had a great mix of nice/interesting/crazy guests from all over the world on this boat who have been more than entertaining. Despite a rather big setback (which we have learned a hell of a lot from), our first liveaboard dive trip has been a pretty epic experience. Socorro may not have seen the last of us.