I woke up early that morning with some jitters in my belly. I would be snorkeling with sea lions today. And while I’m never one to say no to adventure, I always find myself asking “Is this going to kill me?”.
The sea lions of Isla Espiritu Santo are famous for being as playful as dogs, except they’re also lumbering heaps of muscle, fat, and blubber. They are ultimately still wild animals, despite how nice and fun they seem to be. I was beside myself in anticipation seeing them swimming with me in their natural habitat instead of doing tricks in depressing aquariums. And so with a deep sigh, I calmed my nerves and got into full adventure mode (always my favorite mode).
The trip started in the northern coast of La Paz, where we boarded a small boat. There were about 20 of us, plus the tour guide and boat captain. Our tour guide from Eduardo’s Tours was pretty amazing, easily switching between Spanish and English for the benefit of all his guests, shooting information one after the other but not in a robotic, scripted way. He shared facts and stories about the evolution of the volcanic islands in the Bay of La Paz and the Sea of Cortez. It was a pretty impressive start to a spectacular day.
Then mobula rays started breaching, leaping well up into the air, and our tour guide was quickly forgotten. Mobulas are basically mini-mantas, but from a distance you can barely tell the difference. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen – at that point in my life.
We also made a quick stop to an island inhabited by frigates. They’ve been swooping overhead throughout the trip, but I never realized how large they were until I saw them up close. They’re sea birds, just like pelicans, and this particular colony owned this little islet in the middle of the sea. It reeked of their poop, but it was still pretty cool to watch them interact, hang around lazily, and do their thing. They were constantly squawking at each other, exchanging screeches and flapping around, obviously inhabiting the island as a community with their own set of functions.
Surrounding bird island are also the most turquoise waters I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if its the sun’s intensity hitting the surface, but there was a certain brightness to the water that I rarely ever see. It was especially unique because the surrounding land masses were unlike anything I’ve seen before. This was the first time I’d seen completely arid volcanic islands dotting the sea. I’m so used to lush tropical enclaves that I found the harsh formations beautiful in an enigmatic way.
And then the dolphins showed up and the whole boat immediately forgot about the stunning landscapes. Dolphins enjoy a special place in human hearts, thanks to their unbelievable cuteness and impressive intelligence. Some people even say they should already be classified as non-human persons because of the intricacy of their societies, the presence of language, culture, individuality, and their heightened awareness. Seeing how the tens of dolphins played around the boats, it almost seems like they know they’re being watched and are intent on putting on a show!
I estimated at least 50 dolphins swimming around us for a good several minutes. They would circle the boat, stay underwater for a while, then emerge elsewhere. Once the boat made its way to them, they’d swim around again and do the same thing. It’s like they we were playing chase. It was thrilling seeing them in such big numbers, that I went nuts with my camera. Thankfully I got a few decent shots to accompany my bragging rights.
When they started swimming too far away to follow, we finally went back on course and proceeded with the tour. We “entered” Isla Espiritu Santo by going through the heart-shaped tunnel where our guide encouraged the couples to kiss. On the other side, we were met by a sunbathing sea lion with his flippers up in the air, who couldn’t give a rat’s ass. It was the cutest thing.
When we turned the corner the full effect of the island’s sea lion community hit. They were all over the craggy surface, sleeping or drying off after a swim. Watching them and hearing them communicate was so cool. And yeah, they’re just too adorable.
The boat anchored a little ways off to give the creatures some space, then the passengers prepped for an hour or two of snorkeling. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), they no longer allow people to play with the sea lions. It turns out that a few years back a man was “playfully bitten” resulting in severe injuries. To avoid another situation, all tour operators were forbidden to let their guests come near the sea lions or else it was game over for everyone.
That’s when I realized that despite my initial apprehensions, I really wanted to play with them too. I was a little disappointed by this new rule because I had heard so many stories from diver friends about their experiences with the animals and I wanted my own stories. One had his GoPro “examined” by a sea lion with its mouth, and was returned to him cracked and broken. Another had his GoPro “borrowed” before it was dumped in the sea floor and lost forever. I didn’t want any damages, naturally, but a personal encounter with these guys would have been just really, really cool.
All that said, when this big guy made his way towards me in a seeming beeline, my heart skipped many beats. My thoughts at that moment ranged from “Holy shit this is AWESOME he’s so close!” to “Can I touch him?” to “Is he going to eat my face??”.
He made his way past me and continued swimming into the gathered group completely unperturbed. Truth be told, he might have been waiting for someone to pet him so he can play!
The rest of the time I just watched them twirl around in the water, chill, and do their thing. And while that wasn’t as exciting as interacting with them, I still had the time of my life.
All too soon we were called back to the boat and our time with the sea lions was over. We headed to a sheltered white-sand cove for lunch and some down time before continuing with the tour. It was probably the most conflicted beach experience I’ve ever had. The noontime sun was boring down on us and reflecting angrily on the white sand beach. It was probably around 40 C on the surface with unrelenting sunshine. However, the water was so cold that I started to shiver after a few minutes, and had to get back in the heat again. Eventually I found a spot where I could half submerge and half stay out of the water.
We visited a few more islands after that, each with more interesting rock formations and bluer waters than the last. Look at all the faces in these rocks, for instance.
By mid afternoon we made our way back to La Paz, kinda tired from the sun and all the swimming, but happy from all the epic things we saw. Of course, the Sea of Cortez wasn’t going to let us off the hook that easily. We encountered a large female humpback whale along the way to bid us a proper farewell.