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Creatures of the Night: Diving in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez

by Mark Dhruv

Taking a hold on a rocky outcropping rising from the sandy substrate, I banged my failing dive light against my arm in a futile attempt to revive its power. Wavering in a strong current 40 feet below a choppy surface, I had little desire to be suddenly plunged into darkness in an area I knew little about.

I was in the little known Sea of Cortez, or the Gulf of California, a narrow body of water tucked between the mainland of Mexico and the ever-popular Baja Peninsula. Known for its sensitive breeding grounds for migratory gray and humpback whales, and for its large population of hammerhead sharks, this over-fished and under-protected sliver of a marine paradise provided an endless number of scuba dive sites for those willing to brave the rough roads and remote destinations of Mexico’s beautiful coastline. At the moment, I was in the upper regions of the Gulf, about three dust-eating hours north of the blossoming tourist town of San Carlos.

About 30 minutes earlier my dive buddy and I separated from the group of two other adventure divers to explore an area of the rocky coast known among Arizona divers as "Joker’s Hole". We descended from our ponga boat (an open, long and narrow Mexican fishing boat) and floated gently to the bottom of the sea, leaving behind the rough swells that were pummeling the boat on the surface. The darkness of the water was solid and all encompassing, our flashlights providing the only sense of presence in this foreign chilly world. Without this necessary tool, the simplest acts such as swimming to the surface could be tricky and sometimes disastrous. Without relying on your vision to gauge your ascent, reach the surface too quickly and you could end up in a hyperbaric chamber for days, trying to rid your blood vessels of pesky little nitrogen bubbles.

After searching for this unique area 40 feet below the surface, I began to ponder the name of this site. Only a joker would search for this hole, because it probably doesn’t exist. And only a fool would continue to do so despite a faltering light. For safety’s sake, I decided to pack it in and I proceeded to swim toward my dive partner to inform him of the busted dive. Though we didn’t find our destination, the rocky outcroppings hid an amazing amount of sea life, most of which were active in the dead of night. From the tasty but tough-skinned trigger fish, hiding in crevices until the light of day, spiny lobsters searching for food, stingrays flying through the water like an alien ship through space, to the striking displays of purple and red sea urchins, sloth-like cucumbers ambling along the bottom, and the undeniable beauty of the blue-and-gold nudibranch, the seafloor bustled with activity under the beams of our lights. One of my favorite activities on night dive was to feed the sea anemones by shining my divelight near their flailing tentacles and watching as they snatched the tiny invertebrates that swarmed crazily around my beam like bugs attracted to a patio light. Except for the consistent popping sounds of ghost shrimp and the steady outlets of bubbles from my own breathing, the silent world around me was soothing despite the intense pressure of the water and the potential danger of being in such a foreign environment.

Both my partner and I broke the turbulent surface in unison where it took a brief moment to gain my bearings on such dark night. I could barely make out the towering rock wall set against a partly cloudy night that was just off to my right. Somewhere at the base of that wall was that undiscovered (at least by me) wonderful dive site. After a moment, the dive master aboard the ponga flashed his light at us from about one hundred yards away. It was going to take longer than I had anticipated to reach the ponga as the rough water hampered our progress.

As my buddy and I neared the rocking and rolling boat, I noticed that the other two divers had already climbed aboard and were staring intently into the water. One of the divers casually waved his hand in the water, stirring up the phosphorescence. The little organisms flashed their homemade lights, giving the microscopic phytoplankton an enhanced presence. Classified in the botanical world as peridinians they produce a heatless light by a relatively simple chemical process. These amazing forms of algae flourish throughout the world's oceans. Known to many as the ocean's "night light",or bioluminescence, a tiny particle of phytoplankton reveals a striking display of light virtually incomparable in the natural world.

As my arms swept through the water, pushing me slowly to the boat, I noticed that the bioluminescence created a fan of light in my arm's wake giving me the image of a wizard casting a spell of fire as he waved his wand through the air. The effect was captivating, occupying my thoughts until I finally reached the boat. Handing my weightbelt to Mike, the divemaster, I struggled in the rough waters to pull off my Buoyancy Compensation Device, usually called a B.C. Suddenly I heard one of the divers exclaim, "What the hell is that?!"

What the hell is that? Is not something you want to hear when you are still in the water, your feet dangling like tasty morsels six feet below, and it's dark with two-foot waves. Freezing my arms in their contorted position, I spun around in the water, scanning the near blackness for any sign of danger- something like a fin.

"It was huge!" The other diver shouted, somewhat excitedly. Behind me was my dive buddy, oblivious to the sudden panic erupting aboard the ponga as he casually began to take off his weightbelt. Seeing nothing, I forced my B.C. and tank off and handed it up to Mike. Practically throwing it aside instead of placing it in the tank rack, he grabbed my arm and hauled me aboard, utilizing strength I didn't know he had. As I rolled out of the way, I heard him yell to my buddy to hand up his equipment. Though his face was one of cool composure, his actions betrayed his panic. The first diver yelled again, this time with a definite edge of panic, "There it goes again! Look at it!"

When I gained a sitting position in the cramped boat, I looked out over the water for any sign of something... huge. What I saw fascinated and frightened me at the same time. It was a glow about twelve feet long and about half again as wide. The illumination moved underneath the boat, from one side to the other, similar to the dive lights from multiple divers except at an amazing speed. For a moment I thought, spooky, until I realized that the glow was just the phosphorescence stirred up by whatever was down there. But what exactly was down there? In hindsight we probably should have stayed calm, watched the light show with fascination and leisurely made our way back to our beach camp. But when the wind is whipping up the waves, you’re cold and tired from a difficult dive in strong currents and throw in the powerful presence of a dark night in a foreign place, well… things can get a little distorted.

Mike had finally pulled my partner out of the water and then scrambled to the back of the boat. As the vessel's dive master, his impeccable rescue training kicked into action. He was thinking only of the potential danger to his clients. Ignoring his own curiosity he yelled for me to pull up the anchor, which I immediately started to do. As the boat's six occupants hung on to the sides of the rolling ponga, Mike hit the electric start button on the always-faithful Mercury motor.

I'm still amazed that out of the twenty or so times I had been in that boat, this cold, wet night was the only time the engine did not start on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. Maybe in his panic he was releasing the start button too quickly. Or maybe the motor was cold. But what-ever the reason, the horror movie cliché of the victim’s car not starting as the killer advanced seemed to be happening to us- and this was no movie.

I finally got the anchor aboard just as the motor roared into life. The weird glow had once again passed by the boat, this time chased by another apparent sea monster. This one had a fin.

"Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" The divers were now a bit frightened as most of us watched the fin sink below the surface. With my background in marine biology, I felt I had a little better handle on the situation and shark! was the first thing on my mind. What was on their’s, I didn’t even want to consider. Mike hit the throttle and the Mercury shot us forward into the rising swells. The second time the monster with the fin appeared, I finally realized what it was: a vaquita. The porpoise, whose name means "little cow" in Spanish, snorted out a spray of water from its blowhole and dived back beneath the surface, giving me a good look at it. Being approximately five feet long, the dark colored marine mammal was once a common sight in the gulf.

The vaquita had been following a school of fish, which was causing the eerie glow but now latched onto our wake, curious about our presence. As the world's smallest porpoise, it is an endangered species found only in the northern portion of the Sea of Cortez. Its threatened population has been declining due to heavy commercial fishing. The incidental catch of these mammals in gill nets, and other changes in the ecology of the gulf due to human interference, have decimated its population. How many of the small porpoises exist is not known for certain but estimates place them at around 200 to 500. Though protected by the Endangered Species Act, its preservation cannot be ensured unless adequate law enforcement is implemented.

As we neared our campsite, the protective cove smoothed out the waves and reduced the wind, bringing our heart rates back to normal. The vaquita followed our boat to within a couple hundred yards of the beach before turning back to the deeper waters of the Sea of Cortez. We all watched it go, its occasional breath audible for a few more minutes as we tried to catch a glimpse of its fin in the partial moonlit darkness. We all appreciated the presence of the vaquita. Though our dive had been a bust, our companion back to the beach was a pleasant surprise. None of us could possibly know if future generations would have this same experience. At the rate of decline (about 50 per year are accidentally caught by fishermen) it is entirely possible these amazing creatures may not be around in the next ten to twenty years.

For those living in the desert southwest, Mexico’s little sea is a wonderful escape. Trips are taken frequently from virtually any dive shop in Arizona, some offering the added enjoyment of camping on a remote undisturbed beach where new sites can be found by anyone who has the sense of adventure to explore those perfect blue waters. The Sea of Cortez was once a paradise for an incredible amount of marine species and terrestrial life written about by John Steinbeck, that is now being reduced from over-fishing, poor enforcement and unabated development. Only an increased awareness of its plight and increased conservation efforts can help return this perishing habitat to the gem it once was.

Of course increased awareness usually brings out an increase of tourists, which results in hotels, roads, increased water usage, and garbage. The Sea of Cortez is in a delicate state and hopefully it will be managed with the benefit of its natural residents in mind, including the numerous fishing villages that occupy its coastline. As for me, I’d take a tent on a beach over any hotel to keep this struggling paradise from the dangerous grip of development in the name of conservation.

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Email:  Mark Dhruv

Mark Dhruv  holds a degree in marine biology from Texas A&M. He has tried to take advantage of what he describes as "the adventurous lifestyle of a researcher." From braving 50-foot swells in the Bering Sea to analyzing tiny critters in the depths of the Sea of Cortez, his travels have just begun. An avid backpacker and outdoor enthusiast, he has trekked through India’s northern states on a shoestring budget and floated the maze of rivers in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin.

While living in Arizona, Mark divided his time between carpentry and working as a diver in the Gulf of California. Now he spends his time in the Pacific Northwest, drinking lots of coffee, kayaking the Puget Sound, and exploring Washington and British Columbia’s numerous ski resorts for that perfect run. (More about this writer.)


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