Diving The Socorros

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The Islas Revillagigedos, more popularly known as the Socorro Islands or simply “the Socorros” are located 240 miles south of Cabo San Lucas in the Pacific ocean. The result of volcanic activity, the archipelago consists of Isla Socorro, Isla San Benedicto, Roca Partido, and Isla Clarión. These remote islands are known as a “big animal” destination just like Cocos island and the Galápagos. Encounters with hammerheads, white tip reef and oceanic sharks, silver tips, silky’s, duskies and large galápagos and sometimes even tigers sharks are common.

But that is not where this diver’s dream ends. The waters around these islands are famous for interactions with giant mantas at a dive site called “the Boiler”.

On top of everything, humpback whales come and visit the Socorros from February to mid-april to breed and calve. Other marine life include whale sharks, giant yellow fin tuna, big eye jacks, wahoo, huge lobsters, moray and zebra eels. You also stand a good chance to see dolphins underwater. This sounded almost too good to be true. I couldn’t wait to get out there.

The trip is not for everyone. It takes 24 hours to get there and diving in the Socorros is recommended only for experienced divers. Surge and currents can be strong and decompression chambers are far away. Currently theres only one liveaboard that offers this trip. She is a spacious and comfortable ship that has been in operation in the Sea of Cortez and the Socorros for 8 years. The liveaboard departs from Cabo San Lucas in Mexico for eight day trips and can take up to 24 divers. Last March I was one of the lucky ones to experience this fantastic destination.

After a pleasant flight from Los Angeles and a night at their sister hotel, 22 divers boarded the boat around 3pm to be assigned to one of the 12 air-conditioned cabins.

I was given a small cabin in the front part which was tiny but comfortable for one person. When you book your trip, I recommend you ask for one of the two front cabins in the middle area. These are larger and situated in the most stable part of the boat. A good alternative is the double front cabin in the bow which is the most spacious one on the liveaboard and fits four people. The private bathrooms in each cabin are small but efficient enough. The most modern electronic marine technology makes this liveaboard in compliance with all safety requirements and twin compressors take care of all the tank fills needed. Two fresh water makers produce more than enough water to fully support the guests. A satellite telephone is available for emergency use at $10/minute. Looks clean and organized and is as comfortable as any liveaboard I’ve been on.

I had wanted to dive with the giant mantas for years and now it was becoming a reality. I had heard great stories of the marine life at Socorros and was looking forward to experience it myself.

We had to first make the long 24 hour or so crossing from Cabo San Lucas to our first island destination: San Benedicto. On leaving the harbor we passed the famous Cabo San Lucas arch and a nice sunset greeted us the first evening on board. The weather was on the rough side however and the Solmar rocked all night. Quite a few divers got seasick and kept disappearing into their cabins.

We passed the time by setting up our dive gear and camera equipment and getting to know our fellow divers and the lively crew.

We had a mixed crowd on board from all ages and walks of life who turned out to be an extremely nice group of people. We entertained each other with life & dive stories. Our Los Angelenos Steve, a painting company owner to the rich and wealthy and Robert, a retired Xerox executive were especially good at this. From time to time we would gather on deck to watch pods of dolphins catching a fun ride along the bow, whales breaching in the distance or catch the perfect sunset on film. Time was flying by. It looked like very promising week….

Before we knew it was time to eat. Liveaboards are known for eating, sleeping and diving and that’s exactly what we did. The food was good. Tasty soups and salads, grilled chicken, barbequed steaks, all kinds of vegetables and delicious desserts. We celebrated two birthdays on the trip and the cook managed a beautiful cakes with candles each time. Breakfasts were hearty with eggs, french toast, pancakes and cereals. There’s was plenty of fruit in the morning and for “in between snacks” so it was easy to stay healthy. We certainly did not go hungry! The bar has a self-serve soda fountain for coke, 7-up and soda water and coffee and hot water are available at all hours. Beer and wine are complimentary and they charge hotel prices for other alcoholic beverages.

The common area is laid out in booth style that fit four people each (we would routinely squeeze in five or more) and a few bar stools and tables for a meal “a deux”. Nice carpet and lots of mahogany wood gives a fancy feel. There are two tv’s and a vcr, a good stereo system as well as a library with lots of books and videos. If you plan to visit, try to bring some new movies as they will be highly appreciated by the crew.

After our first breakfast at 8 am the following morning, Axel, a fun loving dive master from Belgium, gave his first dive briefing. He’s been with for years and obviously loves the Socorros, having fun… and the Macarena! Unfortunately for future quests, this will be his last season. He’s going to study to be a chef in Spain. You can only imagine the fun he’ll have in the kitchen.

Main topic of the briefing: “how to interact with Giant Mantas Rays.”

Rule # 1: don’t swim towards the Mantas, wait and let them come to you. It can be dangerous to keep chasing the mantas and lose your bearings in the process. The dive site can have strong currents making you easily drift away into the open ocean.

Rule # 2: do not wear gloves or knifes nor use lights other than the light on your camera equipment. You’re allowed to touch the mantas but gloves could damage their skin.

Rule # 3: no riding the mantas! What? No riding the mantas? At least we were allowed to rub their bellies which, it turned out, they really enjoy.

Dive Sites

The dive operation was generally well organized and smooth. Dive briefings and gearing up is done on the spacious dive deck which also includes a large, two level camera table and a dive station with storage box each. All three dive masters Axel, Ray and Hector were knowledgeable, helpful and fun. The rest of the crew was great too.

We did most of the diving straight off the boat. When needed, two big and comfortable dinghies (called pangas in Mexico) would transport us to other dive sites. Our panga driver Geronimo was great and took us on a few fun rides around the islands in search of whales. Whenever we would spot a whale in the distance, we’d grab our snorkeling gear and Geronimo would be speeding towards it. Every time we got close however, the whale would make a dive and we would see his large fin disappear into the deep. The trick is to anticipate where the whale is going to breach the surface which was a tougher than we thought. Gary, a lawyer/dive instructor from Texas turned out to be our hero. He managed shoot some video of whales with their calve, directed by his wife Kelli. The rest of us weren’t so lucky and had to be content seeing them from afar and watching his video in the evening.

San Benedicto Island

First port of call in the afternoon of the second day was San Benedico. This island looks really barren with a large volcano covered in ash. This is called Volcan Barcena, a cinder cone that erupted on August 1, 1952 and continued spewing un till February 24, 1953. This is also the island in the group that has the only humans living on it on a Mexican naval base. We had to stick around for them to come check our papers. You never know when they are going to do this, instead you play the waiting game.

El Fondeadero

We took our first dive directly from the boat at a dive site called el Fondeadero. Not bad for a check out dive with some large jacks, Galápagos sharks, a silky and lots of puffer fish. There was only time for one dive that day so we settled into a beautiful evening with more stars in the sky than I’ve ever seen. That night we had huge and delicious grilled T-bone steaks. They were so big we couldn’t eat them and this was a good night for the fish. The crew threw left-overs overboard while we looked over the railing as saw Silkies rapidly approaching to see what was for dinner. And this is the same water we’ll be diving in tomorrow….

El Canon (the Canyon)

Bright and early the next morning we were psyched for a full day of diving at the Canon. Straight from the boat again we went. Lots of sea life there: red tail triggerfish, chub, clarion angelfish and black jacks in large schools. At a deep ledge we encountered some hammerheads. Nothing like the large schools you see in Cocos island but always nice to see a hammerhead.

During our safety stop we spotted our first two giant manta rays! They kept their distance but we got all exited anyway. They were here!

Next thing we noticed Silkies circling the boat in the shallows. Were these the same ones from last night? Were they waiting for food? For us? It made me a little apprehensive. Do I want to do my safety stop there? After a while we all relaxed and they made for great footage and photo ops.

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