Speck is a divemaster and owner of a dive center in Baja
California. She has been photographing and diving Baja California
for more that 25 years. Her articles and photographs of Baja and
many other remote diving destinations have appeared ind diving, travel
and nature magazines worldwide.
Although she has a special fondness for Baja, she also leads many dive expeditions to California sites as well as to exotic areas throughout the world. She presently resides in Loreto, Baja California.
At a Glance
Located 220 miles (355 km) south of Baja's tip sits a small group of volcanic islands, virtually in the middle of nowhere. There are four islands in the chain of which Isia San Benedicto is the closest to Baja. Isia Socorro is 22 miles (36 km) further south, while Isia Partida sits to the southwest. Isia Clarion lies the furthest in the Pacific, being 370 miles (597 km) from Baja's tip.
In 1952, Isia San Benedicto erupted, forming a prominent cone about 1,000 feet (303 m) high, along with a large lava flow area, which can be seen on its southern end. In January 1993, Isia Socorro awoke from 145 years of dormancy when a fissure opened on the ocean floor, spewing huge "rocks as large as 10 feet (3 m) in diameter. These rocks were filled with gas and floated on the surface until the gas dissipated. Except for a small Mexican naval base and a village on the southern tip of Isia Socorro, the islands are uninhabited.
This archipelago has been referred to as the Mexican Galapagos. The birds seem fearless and many are endemic to the area, as are several plants. A story by one biologist who was doing research was that when he was napping, a Socorro wren landed on his belly, hopped up to his chest, and looked intently at the folds in his shirt and even up his nose for morsels to eat.
Almost every hurricane that originates in the Pacific and heads for Mexico and Central America moves through this archipelago. Because of the unpredictable weather, these are only visited by long-range boats through May, the weather conditions can, at times, exhibit strong winds and heavy seas. The most stable weather conditions are in November to early December, and in April and May. In the fall, the water temperature is around 80°F (27°C); while in the spring it is about 70°F (21 °C).
A presidential decree in 1994 declared the Socorro Island chain a national protected area. No collecting or fishing is allowed within several miles of the inland waters. There has been much controversy over the commercial fishing here, and after a dive boat videotaped the slaughter of some of the giant manta rays at The Boilers in February of 1994, a public demand to protect the Socorro Islands grew. But the entire Sea of Cortez is in need of more legal protection as well as adequate patrolling to enforce fishing laws,
The best way to get to the Socorro Island chain is by boat. There is a small airstrip on Socorro, but is not commonly used. From Baja's tip at Cabo San Lucas, most dive boats take approximately 24 hours to arrive at Isla Benedicto. Dive boats that make this journey include the following:
The Solmar V, based out of Cabo San Lucas, is a 112-foot (34 m) luxury liveaboards with 12 cabins. The spacious and well laid-out boat can accommodate up to 24 divers. Bookings can be made through Solmar Resorts.
The dive boat Copper Sky is a 72-foot
(22 m) schooner that is based out of La Paz. It can accommodate up to eight divers. Bookings and more information can be
obtained through Baja Expeditions.
The Baja Treasure is a 116-foot (35 m) dive boat out of Guaymas that can accommodate up to 20 divers. More information and bookings can be obtained through See & Sea Travel.
The most visited islands by the liveaboards dive boats are Isla San Benedicto and Isia Socorro because they are closest to Baja, and they are closest to each other. The diving around these two islands is excellent and you can expect to see large schools of the brightly colored clarion angelfish and the elegant redtail triggerfish. Larger pelagic, such as tuna, Wahoo, schools of jacks, a variety of sharks and huge manta rays tend to come more often into shallower water than elsewhere. In the spring months, divers have a good chance to see humpback whales.
Being of volcanic origin and because of the swift hurricanes that move through this area, the topside terrain is quite barren. Likewise, the underwater terrain is void of gorgonians and soft corals.
One of the most picturesque dive sites at Isla San Benedicto is known as The Boilers, located at the northwest end. It is an underwater pinnacle that starts in 25 feet (8m) of water. This shallow plateau extends approximately 100 feet (30 m) across.
The sides of the pinnacle are vertical walls that drop to a 120-foot (36 m) sandy bottom. The top of the pinnacle is absolutely alive with color as are its sidewalls. The exotic-looking black and gold Moorish idols can be found here in schools of great numbers. Neon orange clarion angelfish, puffer fish, wrasses, hogfish and redtail triggers are also abundant. Whale sharks have been known to linger around the pinnacle during both fall and spring months.
But the main attraction of this seamount is the likelihood of seeing the giant manta rays. With 18-foot (5m) wingspans, these exquisite creatures seem to be as curious about divers as the divers are about them. Being one of the most docile animals in the sea, these eminent beauties seem to really enjoy human contact. After spending a good amount of time with these creatures, it is easy to see why studies are beginning to show their intelligence. It is suspected that they will soon be high on the list of respected and protected animals, as are the dolphins and whales.
Around the seamount are columns of silver swirls; there are hundreds of both amberjacks and horse-eyed jacks. Occasionally solo tuna and Wahoo dart by. Beyond the seamount in deeper water, divers can sometimes spot hammerhead sharks. A little closer to the island, approximately 75 yards (68 m) from the shore is another seamount that comes to within 80 feet of the surface. It is a good spot to find larger fish weaving their way across the reef top.
There appears to be more shark activity at the southern end of this island which is made up of rocky terrain. At 40 feet (12 m), there are some rock formations that descend to over 100 feet (30+ m). Sharks that frequent this area are hammerheads, silky, tigers, white tip, Galapagos and gray reef sharks. The depths range from approximately 40 feet (12 m) at the shallowest, down to below 100 feet (30 m). In the deeper depths is where schooling hammerheads can be seen.
The sharks here at San Benedicto are less spooked by divers, and are fairly easy to approach. The Galapagos, white tip and hammerhead are the most commonly seen. Both the south end and east side are still virgin sites for diving and are a shark photographer’s paradise.
The island of Socorro is larger than San Benedicto. On the northeast side of the island divers can usually find a fair amount of shark activity. The area can get some pretty strong currents, so drift diving is often the choice.
At the north end, there are some protruding rocks that jut out from the island. Underwater at about 50 feet (15 m) and deeper, the terrain is made up o large, flat and oblong boulders. Here, there are great schools of clarion angelfish and redtail triggerfish. As you ascend to about 30 feet (9 m), the terrain takes on a whole new appearance. The incredible volcanic earth formations look like something you might expect to see on the moon. There are great angular channels in the reef to swim through which are doted with pockets. These pockets make perfect homes for eels, octopus, urchins, starfish and large Socorro lobster.
This site on the northwest side of the island has several different names depending on the dive b oat you’re on, but the most common are Old Man Rock and O’Neal Rock. Depths start in about 40 feet (12 m) of water and drop to well over 100 feet (30+ m). There is a large, rocky plateau at 40 feet (12 m) where big lobsters, rays, eels and myriad tropical fishes can be found throughout. On the outer edge of the plateau is a drop-off. Below the drop-off on the wall at 90 feet (27 m), there is a cavern with a large arch above it, which is a dramatic backdrop for photographers. Along the wall is a good area to look for schooling hammerhead sharks. Sometimes they will be seen in pairs or small groups swimming gracefully over the shallower plateau.On the west side of the island high above the water’s surface, there is a double set of rocks, which resemble a manta ray’s horns. Named the Double Pinnacle, or sometimes-called Manta Rock, the great boulders are great places to find large moray eels and lobsters. There also seem to be many juvenile white tip sharks in this area. At a 50-foot (15 m) depth, the boulder covered plateau plunges to over 100 feet (30 m). Along this wall there is an array of fish life, including trumpetfish, triggerfish, large jacks and schools of chubs.