Seeking out high-seas adventure on the crystal clear Sea of Cortés, where conservationist initiatives have preserved a bounty of marine life.
We’re not even in the water yet. I’m sitting on the gunwale of the Prokat 27 when a sea lion pup lifts his head out of the water and rests it on my flipper. My seven-year-old’s eyes nearly pop out of his head as he laughs in excitement.
We’d heard that the sea lion colony at this isla is friendly. During the summer, diving here is off limits on account of mating season when the bulls can be aggressive. But it’s December, and these guys can’t wait for us to hop in the crystal waters to play.
We’re floating on the Sea of Cortés between the Baja Peninsula and Mainland Mexico. We’d boarded the boat early in the morning. The ride out across the glassy bay was magnificent, with views of geological formations bordering the Baja coast and dolphins playing in the boat’s wake.
Now we’re in neutral, scrambling to pull on fins and masks while staring in awe at the spectacle around us. The small rocky isle gives way to cerulean crystal water. Coastal birds dive into a sea teaming with fish and our dive partners, that run the gamut from ornery mature males to frisky pups who bark from the rocks and dance in the water beneath us.
This area is known as Espiritu Santo, a Marine Protected Area made up of two main islands and a number of smaller islets. The islands and designated parts of La Paz Bay fall under various international protections with UNESCO and Ramsar (a global treaty for protection of wetlands). These collective waters have been called a living laboratory for investigating marine species. The designations keep the area and the wildlife safe from threats of commercial overfishing and tour companies running rampant.
It’s a balance that has allowed humans to interact with the sea life while supporting the local economy. The people of La Paz capitalize on the tourism dollars and, in turn, the local authorities see the value in respecting the regulations.
“The preservation of the natural resources, the decision to not develop the islands and keeping excessive commercial fishing in check are all having a positive effect,” says Patrick Puhlmann, co-owner and operator of Baja Adventure Co., a local outfitter that offers fishing and dive charters as well as trips to experience the wildlife and protected coast. “The tourism economy is benefiting from these efforts, and word gets out. We’re seeing more visitors.”
Puhlmann was born in Germany, but his father’s job as a journalist brought him to Mexico City as a kid. He would later move to La Paz, this city on the Sea of Cortés, to study marine biology. There, a friend introduced him to freediving. He began spearfishing, learning to hold his breath for minutes at a time, waiting in the depths, and hunting fish of all species. It’s an intense hobby that takes dedication and knowledge and can easily become an obsession. While taking an instructional course, he met Gonzalo Mata, who would become his dive partner.
Puhlmann was constantly hiring pangas for spearfishing trips—the versatile, shallow-draft outboard skiffs designed in the 1970s to be fuel efficient and effective for fishermen in the developing world. With the combination of his formal education and the knowledge he was compiling from time spent underwater, Puhlmann started to intimately understand the Sea of Cortés: the currents, the species, the migrations and the wonders beneath the surface.
He and Mata started their own dive and spear outfit in 2009. Their business and fleet grew in the following years, and they began offering sportfishing and wildlife experiences that are a favorite of families. Today they have 11 boats, from a Panga 23 to an Axopar 37 and a new 39-foot SeaVee. They also added a catamaran to the fleet last year. Baja Adventure Co. is headquartered at Marina Costa Baja, a sprawling facility with upscale restaurants and the most well-equipped marina in the region, just a few miles north of the city.
No longer able to contain ourselves, we jumped in the water. The Sea of Cortés experiences upwellings, and the water is cool in the winter, though a 3-millimeter wetsuit is not a bad idea any time of year.
This was the first trip we had ever taken with our extended crew—my parents, all three of their kids and our own children, ages 7 to 13. As we jumped off the boat, we were immediately greeted by the playful pinnipeds. They swam and danced between us in visibility clearer than I’d ever seen, specifically paying more attention to the kids. We discovered that the island was actually two islets as we followed our guide, Ilsay, through a chasm between them. Three generations of our family funneled into the narrow space, where the sea lions seemed to revel in our close proximity. The interaction was an unmatched display of nature, and we were able to experience it as a family.
After the swim, we returned to the boat. We were still buzzing on what we’d just seen as the captain set a course for a remote, U-shaped bay without a vessel in sight. The cooler was loaded with sandwiches, cold beers and sweet Mexican sodas. Ilsay pulled out a heaping bowl of fresh ceviche and tortillas.
The kids climbed onto the top of the boat and, after a short countdown, all leapt at once. We had no agenda and spent the rest of the afternoon at play—climbing the cliffs and leaping into the clear bay. From our perches, we could see every detail of the bottom contour 20 feet down. We ate and drank. My brother speared a pargo amarillo off one of the walls and the kids explored the shallows. It was one of those days the cousins will talk about forever.
Puhlmann is part of a coalition of local outfitters, tour operators, NGOs and La Paz locals who have pushed for protection of these lands and waters. Each visitor taken out for an adventure is charged an additional fee that the tour company pays to the Mexican government, who, in turn, manages the bay. “There are shallow areas inside the bay with mangrove systems that export and recycle lots of nutrients. The bay is also deep in some parts, and at certain times of the year the winds from the Pacific side create an upwelling. That brings nutrients from the deeper, colder water. So that combination starts the whole cycle of life,” says Puhlmann. “Most of the operators agree on the importance of preserving the resource and go along with the guidelines that have been established.”
Baja Adventure Co., the whole of Marina Costa Baja and many of the boats out of the city proper also offer some of the best charter fishing in the world, with everything from inshore angling to multi-day adventures on liveaboard craft for offshore game fish. Well-mitigated recreational fishing practices help balance productive fishing without setting the ecosystem out of balance.
“The impact recreational fishing has on the fishery is very small. The economic benefits of fishing tourists outweigh any negative impact,” adds Puhlmann, who encourages clients to experience the different attractions and gain a respect for the wildlife.
At night, we venture into the city of La Paz, where the locals couldn’t have been more friendly. It’s not quite as fetching as Todos Santos, the little colonial town across the peninsula, but it’s also not as touristy. It’s also a far cry from the glitzy tourist trap that is Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. We sampled all manner of mariscos (seafood) and endless tacos at Nim, Mariscos Bismarkcito, Taqueria El Paisa and other lively restaurants. The population is well educated by international standards, and the city is home to research centers, universities and NGOs. Puhlmann suggests that there are more researchers living here than in any other part of Mexico.
On the fourth day, we joined Capt. Jose Manuel and our guide, David, on Baja Adventure Co.’s Prokat 27 to track down whale sharks. Our first stop was the city dock, where we were counted into the day’s tally of boat clients. This ensures that there isn’t too much pressure on the wildlife. Everyone aboard got a bracelet, and we set off along the peninsula that encloses the bay. As the sun rises, it starts to energize the microorganisms near the surface, which attracts these massive animals to the top of the water column.
Once David has located them and given us simple instructions, we’re in the water with massive fish that can grow to lengths of 30 feet and weigh 40,000 pounds.
The whale sharks have massive heads with oval-shaped mouths that filter water. They’re beautifully odd animals that feed on plankton and anything else they suck in. The whale sharks settled into feeding, and we found ourselves right next to their massive mouths. Despite their incredible size, whale sharks don’t pose any threat to humans, which means there’s no danger of getting chomped.
Pulling off our wetsuits, we were all once again searching for words to describe such a close encounter with the undersea world. Before we knew it, our twin-outboard-powered ride was anchored just a few feet off of Balandra Beach. We hopped off onto the sand of the pristine stretch, and David set up a table for another ceviche feast served with ice-cold
beverages. The kids immediately began exploring, scrambling up the cliffs that flanked the beach and throwing rocks down into the water below.
There was very little screen time that week. By the end of dinner, everyone was exhausted. And isn’t that what we all want out of our family trips? Intimate experiences with the natural world, immersion in friendly foreign cultures and engaged family time. La Paz gave us all of that, and more.