Whether kayaking in SE Alaska or scuba diving in La Paz, Mexico, being close to sea life in its natural habitat can make you feel so alive. (Updated from the original post in 2010.)
I was floating in a fold-boat kayak paddling away from the cabin on the little bay just north of Sitka, Alaska. It was a cool, late summer day and we had 21 miles of calm channel water ahead of us. As my muscles warmed up and the motion worked into a rhythm, I was able to open to the world around me. A mass of dark green mountains swept overhead and into mist. Below was clear water. It was as though I were suspended on a sheet of glass, air above and liquid below. In the 10 or so feet beneath each sweep of the paddle, I could see salmon and kelp. Other creatures darted between rocks. The long moss on the shore boulders slipped into a swirl as it dipped beneath the water. The variety of life was stunning in this buffer between worlds. I couldn’t have known then that one day I’d be exploring that transitional space again but looking up at the surface, as a scuba diver in La Paz, Mexico.
Now, I’m reminded of that abundance in the seam between worlds. On my first trip to La Paz, our dive boat left the dock with a load of excited photographers. Within 20 minutes, a small cadre of vessels was circling an area not far from the harbor. A small spotter airplane spiraled overhead and we knew luck was with us. The boat coasted near a shadow. It was an adolescent whale shark feeding at the surface. Slowly we drew closer and as it swam alongside, a few snorkelers slipped into the water at a time, cameras ready, paddling for all they could.
The shark was gulping slowly as it fed on plankton in the shallow water. It circled and scooted away, then turned back and swam past – teasing us to continue the chase. We had been coached not to swim over or across and to avoid its tail. Whale Sharks are not true whales or sharks, but the largest fish on the planet. This juvenile was spotted head to tail. It bared its creamy belly once while feeding vertically, just a foot from the surface. I was entranced to be close to this rare creature. The busyness of my regular life continued far away and so distant from this primal connection with the powerful world just beneath the surface. (There are other primal connections celebrated in La Paz during the Dia de los Muertos Festival each year as well.)
There are many other ways to experience that connection in the vibrant waters of La Paz and you don’t have to be a diver to get close to sea life. Snorkelers only are allowed in the waters close to Whale Sharks and can visit several spots around Isla Espiritu Santo which is home to the largest sea lion colony in the Sea of Cortez. It’s an easy day trip by tour boat which leaves La Paz regularly.
Check out this video about wildlife encounters while Scuba Diving in La Paz
Encountering sea lions while scuba diving in La Paz
My first trip to La Paz culminated at the pinnacle of Los Islotes on the northern tip of Isla Espiritu Santo. The guano-mottled rock juts out of the sea and below the surface are sheltering boulders for young sea lion pups with their commanding elders nearby. The island is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site as well as a National Park since the early 2000s. There’s evidence that humans lived on the Isla dating back 9000 years and I imagine the sea lions have been there much longer.
We pulled in near a boat of snorkelers and back splashed into the warm water. Once the bubbles cleared, I floated down between careening pups. One pulled a scarf off a diver’s head. Another took advantage of my dive buddy extending his gloved hand and chewed his fingers for a few moments before, bored, the youngster spun away. I loved watching it all as the visibility was incredible coupled with the calls and the deep-throated barks from the biggest sea lions.
There’s so much to see in the Sea of Cortez, the waters that Jacques Costeau called the “Aquarium of the World.” Luckily we were there at the right time of year to night dive with schools of Mobula Rays. The dive boat left the northern dock as long shadows grew in the waning sun. After we arrived at a small bay and anchored, our captain pulled a large spotlight up from the deck, checked the fittings, and slung it over the side of the boat. As we pulled on our gear in the dark, he switched the light on and a glow illuminated the bottom. The light attracted plankton, the tiny fish that rays feed on, and sure enough, they started schooling.
Mobula Rays while scuba diving in La Paz, Mexico
By the time I slid into the water rays were swimming in a wide arc up from the sand and then circling back, their mouths open. Like bats in a cave, they naturally slid past me but more than one slapped a smooth wing across my arm. We, divers, were merely traffic meridians to navigate during their dinner.
We weren’t that deep. Overall, I’ve learned that the depth doesn’t matter, the variety of life is greatest nearest that zone between worlds, air above and water below. I’m grateful for the reminder and look forward to doing more scuba diving in La Paz.
Copyright 2010/updated 2023, All rights reserved, Elaine Masters