Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: La Paz, Mexico
Visited: November 2019
Baja’s tranquil seaside capital, La Paz, is one of the most charming cities for R&R on the Baja California Peninsula. It is also one of the best places on the Sea of Cortez for scuba diving and snorkeling.
There are over 25 dive sites near the shores of La Paz. Scuba diving can be done year-round, and with each season comes new opportunities to encounter the magnificent creatures who grace these waters, including dolphins, whale sharks, giant Pacific manta rays, hammerhead sharks, sea lions and several species of whales.
Los Islotes in Espíritu Santo Island National Park
Whale shark season in La Paz is October-June. During this time the amount of plankton in the bay increases significantly making it ideal for the feeding aggregations of juvenile whale sharks, and, at times, more than thirty of the filter feeders have been seen in the bay swimming near the surface of the water.
A juvenile whale shark in the Bay of La Paz
Though whale sharks have an average lifespan of around 70 years, and can live up to 130 years, they are an endangered species, and efforts to protect them are taken quite seriously in Baja. You cannot dive with whale sharks in La Paz. However, it is possible to snorkel and swim with them in small groups as long as you do not harass them and you stay a reasonable distance from them, so they can feed in peace.
When we went to see the whale sharks with The Cortez Club; the nine passengers on our boat were divided into two groups; only one group of five or less was allowed in the water with the guide and the whale sharks at one time. Tour operators work together to make sure that there are never too many people in the water with the whale sharks.
It is important to return to your boat when your guide asks you to, so that others will have the opportunity to see the whale sharks, and more importantly, to ensure that the animals do not become overwhelmed by hoards of people crowding around them.
Sea lion photo bomb at Espíritu Santo
Isla Espíritu Santo has been a protected UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1995. The park can be reached by boat from La Paz in about an hour, making it a popular daytrip destination for divers and snorkelers hoping for encounters with the large colony of California sea lions that have made Espiritu Santo their home.
There are over 300 sea lions that make up a large colony on Los Islotes (The Little Islands) within the park. You are very likely to see the sea lions year-round. The adult male bulls are not to be bothered, but the playful young pups are extremely curious and have no fear of people.
Juveniles darted past us repeatedly during our dives around Isla Partida. There were also several tugs at our fins, sometimes simultaneously. Never underestimate the cleverness of sea lions, especially when they are working together.
Hundreds of sea lions make up the colony at Espiritu Santo
Our guides from The Cortez Club dive Espiritu Santo almost daily. They are familiar with the sea lions and briefed us on how to have the best possible encounter with them. Not all sea lions are friendly or interested in humans. It is sea lion pups who are known for being playful. However, respecting the environment and wildlife it is just as important as it would be on any other dive; be calm and, of course, don't chase or grab these animals.
The pups were indeed friendly and fond of tugging at us for attention. Some guides bring short lengths of rope for the animal to tug at, which helped distract them from my ponytails, but is was not until I finally tucked my hair into my wetsuit that they finally gave up and went for my fins instead.
We did have a few large male bulls check us out, but gave them their space, as they can be quite territorial. This can be particularly true in May and June, during the mating season. Males get up to 2.5 meters long and weigh between 700-1,000 pounds. This is two to three times larger than the average adult female sea lion, making very easy to spot the males and stay out of their way.
A green turtle resting at the Fang Ming wreck
Fang Ming and the Naked Lady may sound like the opening to a dirty joke, but in this case, those are the names of two of the dive sites we visited during our visit to La Paz.
The Mexican government impounded Fang Ming in 1995 after discovering over 100 illegal immigrants aboard. Four years later the government moved the ship offshore and sank it. Now the ship sits 16 meters below the surface surrounded by life.
A not so hidden octopus at the Naked Lady
The Naked Lady, the second dive site, is located on the north side of Isla Espiritu Santo and is often done as a drift dive along the site’s smooth rock formations due to the strong currents that can move through here. We arrived during a very calm slack low tide, so a drift dive was not going to happen. Instead we enjoyed a relaxed dive along the layers of volcanic rock and sandstone that make up the wall 23 meter deep wall.
Yellowtail snappers swimming through a sardine tornado
As I said above, you can dive in La Paz during any part of the year. The busiest months are September and October. Water temperatures reach their coldest from December-March at 64˚F-76˚F. Warm water season is July – November, when the water reaches a very comfortable 84˚F-90˚F. Visibility can reach 60 meters and above during the warm water season.
Bullseye electric ray
When the seasons change, so does life below the surface. Winter is whale watching season around La Paz, with most visitors arriving February-April. Gray whales, Humpbacks, Blue whales, Fin whales, short fin pilot whales, killer whales, Orcas and Sperm whales have been seen in the area.
When conditions allow, dive trips to the seamounts of El Bajo to see schooling hammerhead and silky sharks are possible and popular. From June-October The Cortez Club also offers trips to La Reina off the island of Cerralvo to see giant Pacific manta rays. Contact them for details.
There is never a dull moment in the Sea of Cortez. Whales, whale sharks, manta rays, sea lions and sharks are just some of the incredible sea life divers encounter in these waters, and La Paz is one of the most scenic and relaxing cities to begin your adventures from.