Before I could even see them, I could hear them. And, oh boy, could I smell them. Arf! Arf! Arfs fill the air as we slowly pull up to the San Rafaelito sea lion colony, a 20-yard-wide rocky islet off the coast of La Paz, Mexico, that’s home to a gang of unruly sea lions, a small lighthouse and, apparently, a sizable amount of bird poop. Just as I’m considering whether it’s about time to relieve my stomach of its growingly burdensome breakfast, we make our way around to the opposite side of the colony — downwind — and all is well with the world once again.
The smell is gone, but the sea lions yap away, growing our group’s excitement with each melodic squeal. I’m hesitant to approach a pup, unlike my camera-toting companions, who are loving every second spent with these attention-seeking models. But that’s not an issue — before I can get within 20 feet of the rock, a sea lion singles me out. Ready or not, it’s time to play.
It zips toward me as I cowardly hold out my GoPro — as a filming device or sacrificial gift? Either works. Just as I tense up and brace for a collision, the pinniped bolts to the right and up. Splat. It smacks the surface of the water just in front of me. It comes back around, flips upside down and swims three laps around me as I try to keep up and film the action. Is it putting on a show for me or making me the dunce for its own entertainment? I’ll never know, but each second spent with these sea lions proves to be a thrill ride, and just another unforgettable experience off the beautiful Baja California peninsula.
At Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf and Spa Resort I’m given a quick lesson on this region’s allure. Situated at the southeastern tip of the Baja California Sur peninsula, in the town of San Jose del Cabo, this all-inclusive resort overlooks the Pacific, its infinity pools providing a seamless connection with the sea.
With my dive bag in tow as I head toward the shuttle van, I pause to envy those soaking in the sun poolside with a drink in hand. That side of Cabo has a strong pull, but it’s time for me to visit the wild side — and there’s no better place to see this region in its natural state than Cabo Pulmo National Park.
This 17,500-acre protected area — covering both marine and coastal areas — is a straight shot up the coast from San Jose del Cabo, but getting to the town of Cabo Pulmo is not that simple. We drive north through desert mountains and cross the Tropic of Cancer, getting a taste of what it must be like to traverse parts of Mexico’s mainland as we move farther away from the tequila-and-sunscreen-soaked Cabo coast. As we round a curve, our driver stomps on the brakes. Rubbing my neck, I look out the front window to find a cow casually crossing the mountain road. “Those guys always have the right of way!” shouts our driver. This survey of Cabo’s rugged side seems right, and it’s only heightened as we make the last 6 miles of the trek on a dirt road. Locals are serious about environmental protection. Cabo Pulmo has no power pumped in; the self-sufficient village is run by solar power. We peek over a crest, and the payoff is clear: beautiful, seemingly virgin coastline stretches out in front. This is why we’ve come.
At Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, Claudio, our guide, stands in front of a painted dive-site map on the side of the shop and takes a poll. “What are your expectations?” he asks, tempering our hopes by noting that we shouldn’t ask to see mermaids or Godzilla. Someone quickly pipes up from the back of the group: “A big school of jacks.” No one contests.
Claudio charts a course for the sites El Cantil and Los Morros, and soon we’re back-rolling into the water from our 22-foot boat. It takes a moment to get my bearings underwater.
May is not Cabo’s best time for visibility — that comes later in the year, especially around November — and the current is blowing back my cheeks with its force. But the marine park’s reputation becomes clearer when I see the life: The fish just seem bigger here. Vibrantly colored angelfish dart about, and porcupinefish the size of a beach ball — twice the size of any I’ve seen elsewhere — lurk behind ledges. But the real highlights come at Los Morros.
Not long into the dive, I do a double take. There’s a massive fish inches away from Claudio, and the two seem to be old friends. The fish is suspended in the water sideways, seemingly buddying up to Claudio like it’s a fellow diver. As I get closer, I realize it’s a 4½-foot gulf grouper saying hi to a diver it’s seen many times before. As we swim away, we see commotion near the surface: A legion of jacks performs its uniform ballet.
But that’s not a huge school. In fact, it’s two: Beyond the glob of jacks, mobula rays move en masse just beneath the surface, with some members breaching high into the air above and crashing back down with a belly-flop. We’d love a close encounter with the rays, but they’re too fast.
After exploring the reef, finding moray eels, hawksbill sea turtles and smaller grouper, our big wish is granted. A group of jacks, thousands strong, blots out the sun above. We ascend to about 20 feet and spend the remainder of the dive mesmerized by the sheer size and movement of the school. My photographer dive buddies are ecstatic, snapping photo after photo of the big collective model.
We hop back onto the boat with wide grins. It certainly feels like we just had the quintessential Cabo Pulmo experience.
Like a Dog with a Bone
Being unilingual among a culturally rich group of divers is a bit like riding in the Tour de France with training wheels. Sure, everyone — with journalists from Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and Spain — knows plenty of English to accommodate the silly American, but it makes me feel pretty ignorant. So I concentrate, picking out words and phrases that may ring a bell. “Lobos del mar.”
Ah, yes — sea wolves. Those high school Spanish courses were good for something. My buddy from Madrid is excitedly discussing our upcoming visit to the San Rafaelito sea lion colony — we’ve relocated to La Paz, a two-hour drive north from San Jose del Cabo and a 15-minute boat ride from the sea lion colony. But after some thought, I wonder why the term sea lion wouldn’t translate directly to león de mar — which is how I might take a stab at the name on a midterm exam.
It turns out these folks found the perfect description of the creatures that are more marine puppy dog than fearsome lion. When our boat initially pulls up, the biggest sea lion of the bunch jumps into the water and charges the boat as he barks furiously. Our captain, Allen, points out that every colony has one alpha male who’s surrounded by a harem of females.
“Just keep an eye out for the male. He’ll let you know if you’re getting too close,” says Allen. And how will I know which one is Big Papa? “You’ll know it’s him.”
I don my gear and slip into the water. The outcrop is like a magnet for all of our divers. Instead of getting straight to business and starting our dive at San Rafaelito Wall — a 40-minute tour around the colony — we spend some time at the surface with these infectiously joyful creatures.
It really is like letting loose a pack of puppies at the pet store — the lobos del mar dart toward each diver, getting just close enough to make you nervous before whipping left or right at the last moment. They swim in rapid circles around me, floating upside down, spinning and performing graceful loop-the-loops.
They jostle and fight with each other like young boys let loose on the first day of summer vacation. They gnaw at each other’s rear end, spinning and spinning, locked in a perfect circle like a yin-yang until one gets dizzy and darts away.
Eventually, we pry ourselves from the fun at the surface and begin our dive at San Rafaelito Wall. We descend quickly to what will be our max depth at 60 feet. It’s fairly dark, and the viz is questionable at best.
As I focus in closely on the diver in front of me, I almost lose my regulator in shock. Two swift, shadowy figures dart in front of me and quickly behind, gnawing at each other as they glide through the water. It’s something from a dream — I whip around, catching a glimpse of the sea lions roughhousing in the murky water. After a moment of play-biting, they dart away and out of sight forever. They didn’t seem real, like dementors from Harry Potter’s realm gliding in and out of my life.
We make our way to sunnier and clearer water as we move toward the east side of the islet, taking notice of a resident spotted stingray, a nudibranch adorned with orange-and-purple spikes, a stealthy scorpionfish and starfish on every other rock. The current picks up as we end our dive, signaling that it’s time to rid ourselves of this scuba gear in favor of a snorkel and ample sea lion exposure at the surface.
Big Papa’s House
Hours go by as we play spectator to this wonderful sea lion show. The process never gets old: You wait at the surface, slowly approaching a sea lion or two. When it notices your presence, it either darts away or decides to play. I’m amazed by how graceful and quick they are in the water — these pinnipeds have the ability to reach 25 mph in the water at top speed.
They seem so powerful, like they could take you out in a moment with their deft movements and sharp teeth. But when you’re face to face with the sea lions, there’s no fear. Well, mostly. I find myself among a group of six snorkelers with no real action to speak of. A pair of sea lions thrashes in the water about 20 yards away — jackpot. Seizing the moment, I quickly fin toward the pups, and just when I get about 5 yards away, my heart leaps out of my chest.
Charging at me with the speed of a train — barking ferociously all the way — is the alpha male of San Rafaelito. I quickly retreat, letting Big Papa know he’s the top dog around here. Once he sees me move away, he mercifully turns back to the rock to continue keeping the peace. It takes a while for my heart rate to slow down, and I’m a bit gun-shy at first — but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the afternoon with the sea lions.
The next morning, I groggily pack my belongings and tumble into my airport transfer to head home. On the two-hour drive from La Paz to Los Cabos International Airport, my driver helps me pass the time by telling stories of his childhood in Baja California Sur. Throughout the ride he prods me, peppering me with Spanish quizzes. “What did I say?” he asks after ripping off a turn of phrase. I surprise my dopey self, earning a low passing grade from my chatty companion.
He talks of adventures with his younger brother, whom he explored the countryside with as they walked up the coast, diving into the water to discover the marine life along the way. “This is a special place,” he says, with his hand outstretched, starting with the mountains to the left and ending with the Pacific Ocean on the right. I know I could never share the bond he has with this coast, but after just a few days, I have an idea of just how special it is. I can only smile and nod, but I think, Preciosa mar — pronto regresaré.