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Tuesday, 11 July 2017

They might be giants

Hello there, it's been a while since my last entry. I know I haven't been around much, work, diving, holidays, writing and all that sort of stuff. Anyway lets get on with it, shall we?

The Revillagigedo Islands (also Revillagigedo Archipelago or Islas Revillagigedo) are a group of four volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, known for their unique ecosystem and are sometimes called Mexico's "little Galapagos", and with very good reason. We had the pleasure of staying aboard the Belle Amie, which is the largest boat of the Nautilus fleet.

With spacious cabins, large dive decks, dedicated camera tables and several (very excellent) freshly prepared meals each day to make up for the calories that'll easily be burned off during the multiple dives a day.

After an initial short boat ride out of San Jose del Cabo, we started our adventures at Los Islotes with several dives to the sea lion colony there. As you prepare to roll off the RIB, the barking of the sea lions calling to one another is deafening and something you can hear quite clearly once under the water. It wasn't long before we were joined by our pinniped friends, speeding past us in a blur like a guided torpedo, getting a feel for us and what we were up to. 

Stay shallow, wait and be patient and they will come to you. Once they were comfortable with our presence, they were more than happy to come and play with us, performing barrel rolls and loops around us and chasing each other. A game of hide and seek was consistently their favourite, sneaking up behind us to tug on a fin or a camera strobe. it's always an great experience to dive with these curious critters, but this was just a little warm up before the main event.

After travelling 235 nautical miles South, we arrived at San Benedicto and our first stop, The Boiler. This site is comprised of two undersea pinnacles, one large and one small separated from each other by 150 feet or so with multiple strong currents seemingly coming in from all angles. As soon as we rolled in the water, we could hear the dolphins chatting and laughing around us but unfortunately they chose to stay just out of camera range in the blue. 

 At a round 60ft there's a few balconies where you'll see white tip sharks dogpiled on top of each other, curiously watching you as you go past with the occasional giant moray undulating up the rock face, looking for its next meal. The tension was palpable. "Would we see mantas? How many? Where are they?" As we made the passage between the pinnacles being pushed every which way, it wasn't long before the big boys turned up to join the party. I was so busy keeping an eye out in the distance that it took a few seconds to register a massive shadow soaring directly overhead by a matter of inches. Mantas a-hoy!

First one quickly joined by another, they were taking it in turns to glide around us and play in the stream of exhaled bubbles in an exquisitely choreographed ballet. It was a magical sight and we delighted in watching the swoops, turns and rolls as they displayed more grace and poise that us clumsy divers could ever hope to have. 

Our extremely large friends seemed to revel in having people to perform in front of, seemingly trying to outdo each other in how close they could get to us and the increasingly elaborate tricks they could pull off. We could have stayed down all day if we could but unfortunately those pesky no deco limits keep getting the in way......... :-)

If you are lucky, there's also an option (if weather and time allows) to do a night snorkel with silky sharks. The conditions weren't the best at this point but I wasn't going to miss this unique opportunity. The sharks are drawn to the floodlights of the boat and you catch sight of one or two cruising around you, then before you know it there's over twenty darting around you here and there, curious and cautious about you at the same time. It's pretty exhilarating to be in amongst so many sharks at the surface at one time and I've never quite had a shark encounter like that over the years. Certainly a very rare experience and one you would no want to miss out on.

The real highlight of the trip for most divers is Roca Partida. As it's part of Mexico's military zone, we needed to get permits from the naval base in the area first before we anchored up. Roca Partida (or Split Rock) is about 300 ft long and rises into two peaks above the water line where seagulls and boobies make their home (and their bathroom) but we where here for the action below the water. 

Originally we were scheduled to stay for two days and move on elsewhere. But after the first few dives here, it was clear that this was the place to be. The Captain had never seen as many mantas and sharks here before on any of his previous trips and it was a unanimous vote to stay here for the remainder of the itinerary.

There are some serious currents in the water here and it's not somewhere where you dive lightly but the rewards are spectacular with multiple shelves for white tips to cluster on and large schools of Galapagos sharks and hammerheads regularly passing by. 

On top of this, you have huge shoals of jacks and tunas cruising around which you can quite happily lose yourself in amongst but don't be surprised if the occasional shark sometimes comes gliding through the fish, seemingly out of nowhere, to check you out before cruising off again, the fish parting and closing in around it like a shroud of silk.

Once again our very large pelagic friends came out to play with us, sometimes in singles or occasionally in pairs, doing their best acrobatic routines to amaze and delight us. They must have known that we had cameras on them as they were always more than eager to perform for us. 

Each manta has unique markings and there was a catalogue on board of all known mantas seen in the area to identify them. One particular manta called Mathilda always seemed to come and find us in the water. She just seemed to like hanging out with Jill and myself for some reason.

Recent research has shown that mantas have the highest brain to body mass ratio of any fish and the level of intelligence they can display is quite stunning and the cephalic fins either side of the head are not only for funnelling plankton into their mouth but scientists believe that they are also used for communication. I would loved to have known what Mathilda was thinking as she always looked at us with those big deep eyes and her fins curling and twitching. 

On the last dive of the last day she came up to me on two separate occasions to extend a wing for some extra special attention and a high five. Not everyone can say they made a new friend with one of the gentlest giants in the ocean. Would I recommend Socorro? Absolutely and without reservation. It should be on everyone's bucket list if not for the mantas then at least for the hot chocolate and cold beer that's waiting for you on the dive deck when you get back on board.

And for good measure, if you haven't already watched it, here's 10 hours of video footage condensed into 15 minutes of epic diving. Embedded or you can use the Youtube link HERE