Diving at the Socorro Islands
The Revillagigedos Archipelago
The best known of the Revillagigedos of Mexico is Socorro Island, so much so that the group of islands is often referred to collectively as 'Socorro'. Approximately 15 km wide, the island and its surrounding waters have become synonymous with liveaboard diving cruises and big fish action, particularly manta rays, sharks (hammerheads, silkies, oceanic whitetips, silvertips, Galapagos sharks, tiger sharks and whale sharks), dolphins and even whales. Imagine visiting these distant shores and then submerging yourself in a watery environment where the songs of gentle giants can be heard throughout your dive.
You should not come to dive Socorro expecting colourful reef scenes for it's all about the animals, not the background. The sea floor is volcanic and the geothermal activity is on-going with lava tubes on the sea floor rising like chimneys. The dull substrate is really only decorated by a few hard corals and barnacles, so it is just as well the big fish action is so entrancing.
Considering such incredible diving encounters with marine megafauna in a remote and rich underwater environment, it is obvious why Socorro and its neighbours are sometimes called 'The Galapagos of Mexico'. In fact it also shares some of the same problems with introduced animals upsetting the ecosystem. The introduction of sheep has placed the future of the endemic, and therefore incredibly rare, Socorro Mockingbird in severe peril. However it is not for creatures of land or air that you will want to come here, but for the exceptional underwater action!
Dive Site Descriptions
Roca Partida - meaning 'split rock', is a small pinnacle that rockets up from the sea floor from below 80m depth, approximately 40 km west of Socorro. The 2 points of the split pinnacle rise 15m above the surface and have met with the unfortunate fate of being a dumping ground for gulls and boobies that leave deposits all over the rock. To be on a dive tender downwind of this site is a sensory experience not to be forgotten!
The topside scenery and scent, combined with the incredible underwater action, have led many to compare the scuba diving here to Wolf and Darwin islands in the Galapagos. For some, Roca Partida represents the best spot in the Revillagigedos Islands and is an essential part of the Socorro diving experience. It is a magnet for pelagics like wahoo, marlin, Giant Pacific manta rays, tuna and mackerel. Oceanic whitetips, scalloped hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and whale sharks are among the shark species seen here. Dolphins and humpback whales are also regularly sighted. The list of possible encounters sounds like a "who's who" of marine heavyweights.
There are vertical walls dropping down to 80+m and often strong current is present. However, it does not represent too much of a challenge to the experienced diver. The pinnacle itself is quite small (about 70m by 20m) and can be circumnavigated more than once if that is how you choose to dive it. Alternatively, you can swim away from the walls to take get closer to the passing pelagic action and improve your chances of seeing the schooling hammerheads.
Few places in the world are quite as prolific for big marine life as Roca Partida and most divers relish the chance to drop in again and again at this incredible site. One dive could see you hanging in the blue or holding to the wall while checking out a school of hammerheads or thousands of yellowfin tuna. Another could see you playing with a group of enormous manta rays as they swoop, glide and barrel all around you. The mantas here seem to be exceptionally curious and friendly towards scuba divers and come very close indeed.
Another dive could see you hugging the walls and swimming around the pinnacle from a deep starting point. This way you can keep an eye out for all the various shark species in the area. You can explore some small caves where dozens of whitetip reef sharks rest and lobsters lurk. In the shallows there are sometimes clouds of creolefish and jacks completely encircling the disorientated yet enchanted divers. Being near the surface, you can watch the dramatic scenes overhead as waves and swell crash up against the rocks as you count down your safety stop.
Of course if humpback whales put in an appearance as they regularly do, then the dive will follow yet another path. Roca Partida may be one site, but what a location!
San Benedicto - This is the third largest in the Revillagigedos group and is often the first place to be visited on liveaboard diving trips to the Socorro area. Here you will get a taste of the creatures that will dominate your conversation and underwater photo collections.
You may see many of the same exciting creatures as at Socorro Island. However, San Benedicto is known throughout the world for the quality of manta ray encounters which divers experience here. This is not just a quick glance at a passing manta ray or two but a series of prolonged and intimate interactions with several giant Pacific manta rays. These majestic creatures come to this area to be cleaned by the colourful Clarion angelfish (Clarion Island is one of the 4 Revillagigedos islands).
Mantas are not the only show in town of course but they take centre stage alongside a glittering support cast including: schools of hammerhead sharks, dusky sharks, silky sharks and dolphins. If that is not enough for you then there could even be a cameo appearance by other A-listers such as a whale shark or a humpback whale.
The most highly rated dive site at San Benedicto can be located at the surface on the west side of the island by sighting the swell and surf that looks like the sea is boiling. When you see this you know you have arrived at The Boiler.
The Boiler features a beautiful stepped pinnacle which rises from a base of around 50m to within 6 or 7m from the ocean surface. Most of the beauty at this site is within 30m depth so there is no need to dive very deep. Certainly you do not need to go too deep to experience some unforgettable encounters with giant Pacific manta rays.
Since this is a cleaning station where hungry Clarion angelfish nibble parasites of the grateful mantas' bodies, you can see many of them gathered here. They seem to almost welcome the presence of scuba divers, and might swim very close to come eyeball to eyeball with you. They also clearly revel in the sensation of divers' bubbles rippling up against their bodies. If they came for the equivalent of a spa scrub from the Clarion angelfish then you are providing a gentle bubble massage.
These are not small individuals and coming close to some with a wingspan of 5 or 6m is not uncommon. There can be few manta ray experiences in the world that can rival this region in terms of the size of the rays and the intimacy of the encounter.
Other marine creatures are also drawn to this cleaning station. Dolphins are often seen by scuba divers , harassing the schools of bigeye jacks and feeding on the schools of creolefish, needlefish, chub and rainbow runners. Large numbers of bicolor parrotfish gather here too at certain times of the year, to spawn.
You might also see silky, tiger and whale sharks, and maybe even humpback whales, if you are particularly lucky. Even if you don't see one, the whale song can provide an auditory backdrop to your whole dive at The Boiler.
Beware not to be drawn in to the flat shallows above this 60m wide pinnacle. Here the ocean swells can create strong surge which can be highly dangerous.
Located on the south side of San Benedicto, close to a lava flow, is The Canyon, which is likely to provide you with more unforgettable experiences with marine mega-fauna. Mantas are often seen here too although the encounters tend not to be as awesome as at The Boiler, although they can still be pretty awesome!
Sharks are more the order of the day at The Canyon with healthy numbers of silky, whitetip reef, Galapagos and hammerhead sharks being the most frequently sighted. While the silkies and Galapagos sharks may travel solo or in small groups, the hammerheads can be present in vast schools. There are also swirling clouds of reef fish cascading up and down the slope, and always a chance of a passing pod of dolphins, making it a great site for photography.
Conditions are optimal when the current is strong and running from the east towards the chain of rocks that run south away from the island. Here at a depth of 25m is a hammerhead cleaning station and the nutrients that are pushed in with the current attract wahoo, tuna, black jacks, blue trevallies, and of course sharks. The rocks also host giant morays, redtail triggerfish, scorpionfish and yellowtail surgeonfish.
This dive site is less subject to challenging conditions than The Boiler and is often dived when it is decided that there is too much boiling going on. With such an awesome list of animals, large and small, to capture your attention at The Canyon, it is likely to be the best 'Plan B' site you will ever experience.
Socorro Island - Indicated on the surface by a thin finger of rock stretching out from the east coast of the island, Cabo Pearce is a reef that extends out into the prevailing current.
There is often a lot of dolphin activity here and a pod may greet your liveaboard dive tender and entertain you before you even hit the water. Few places in the world offer experiences with dolphins like here, which are far from fleeting. Here they may hang around to see you entering the water and dropping down and could stay in the area for your whole dive, their playful clicks and squeaks dancing through your ears, when they are not directly in sight.
One way to dive this Socorro site is to descend and nestle among the rocks, protected from the strongest of the current. Here you await the majestic sight of a huge school of scalloped hammerheads, weaving their way into view. Silky sharks are also not uncommon here, particularly later in the day. You have a strong chance to be entertained by several playful manta rays at Cabo Pearce and, if you are in the right time and right place, a humpback whale might even ease its mighty bulk into your field of vision.
Roca O'Neal, a.k.a O'Neal Rock, a.k.a Hammerhead Central is, as you might expect, a great place for sighting scalloped hammerhead sharks. You will not forget the first time that a school of hammerheads appears before you, weaving their way into the current and slowly you realise that there is not just 1 or 5 or 10 but probably more than you can count as you gaze out from the rocky slope in slack-jawed wonder.
There is a plateau at 10 to 12m where you can spot smaller creatures including lobsters and various little schools of reef fish. The plateau gives way to an interesting cavern which is one of Socorro's few photogenic topographical features. Although sometimes called Hammerhead Central, shark lovers also stand a good chance of encounters with other species such as Galapagos sharks, grey reef sharks and silky sharks.
Located on the south west coast of Socorro Island is Punta Tosca, the largest coral reef in the region. 3 lava flow fingers cut across the reef, extending out 120m from the sea surface down to 22m deep. It is another site where the chance of long and intimate encounters with dolphins is strong. Interacting with these clearly intelligent and adorable marine mammals is something that never gets old. Even if you see them on every dive, they are always most welcome.
It is also a site with a fine reputation for underwater encounters with humpback whales, at the right times of the year. If encounters with dolphins are charming and entertaining, then coming within close range of one of these huge mammals is nothing less than stunning. This is one Socorro dive site where anything can happen, and when something does it is usually unforgettable.
Tiger sharks, although not the most common species in this water, are regularly seen and Punta Tosca is one of the best places for them. Wonder is mixed with a fair degree of respect, indeed caution, when there is a tiger shark in the vicinity. Other sharks often spotted here include Galapagos sharks, silky sharks and silvertips, as well as turtles, torpedo rays and lobsters. The protected reef is a nursery for several oceanic shark species.
How to Dive Socorro
The only way to visit Socorro is by liveaboard. There are no hotels on any of the islands of the Revillagegidos and they are much too remote for daytrips from the mainland. In fact the journey from the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula takes around 24 hours.
November to May reflects the Socorro liveaboard safari season. The winter months of late January to early April are the best times to see humpback whales. This is when water temperatures are at their lowest (21 to 23°C). Outside of this time it is likely to be warmer (23 to 26"C) and a better time for manta rays and sharks. This is roughly the November to early January period and most of April and May.
Visibility, which on average is very good, varies from time to time and place to place. Wind, rain, current and tide can all play their part is affecting visibility. Sometimes in November and December the visibility can drop from the average of 30m to around 15-20m, although this tends to be only at a few dive sites. Being open ocean islands, surface conditions at Socorro are variable. There are often quite sheltered mooring spots around the islands but the seas can be choppy during crossings.
Good for: Large animals, underwater photography, advanced divers
Not so good for: Wrecks, small animals, beginners, non-diving activities
Depth: 10 - 30m
Visibility: 15 - 35m
Currents: Moderate but can be strong
Surface conditions: Can be choppy
Water temperature: 21 - 26°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: 12 in the whole area
Distance: 450 km west from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California
Access: Socorro liveaboards
Recommended length of stay: 8 - 9 days