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Your Guide to Diving in the Sea of Cortez

The Aquarium of the World

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...Highlights: whale sharks, hammerheads, bull sharks, shark action, dolphins, whales, manta rays, schooling fish & big pelagics...
...Diving environment: wall dives, drift diving, beginner and advanced divers...

The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, is a 700 miles (1,126 km) stretch of water sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by the Baja California peninsula. As a result, the swells of the Pacific have little effect here meaning the seas are often flat calm. From Puerto Peñasco in the north to San Jose del Cabo in the south, there are thousands of islands, pinnacles and rocks in the sea around which are countless liveaboard dive sites. The sea is blessed to be a destination of many migratory oceanic creatures, as well as being home to a wide range resident fish species, so much so that Jacques Cousteau once described the Sea of Cortez as the "world's aquarium" after diving here.

Sea lions play in Baja California - photo courtesy of Sea Escape
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One of the highlights is when tens of thousands of mobula rays migrate and gather here in the water to perform acrobatic breaching displays. Their arrival signals a hunting spree of killer whales that prey on the rays. Underwater you can expect unforgettable scuba encounters with playful sea lions throughout the sea. Schools of hammerhead sharks, bull sharks, encounters with giant manta rays, and magnificent whale sharks are also headline diving attractions of the Sea of Cortez. Cetaceans are commonly spotted and include vast pods of dolphins, porpoises, pilot and sperm whales hunting Humboldt squid, fin whales, and even humpback whales.

It wasn’t always like this. Commercial fishing was rampant in the 1990s and fish stocks plummeted. However, the Mexican government enacted marine protected areas and exclusion zones, and the marine life has bounced back very nicely. A strong sign that a body of water is in good health is the number of sea birds that are present, and birders will not be disappointed by the countless number of blue and brown footed boobies, cormorants, frigate birds, and the endemic yellow footed gulls.

Unlike some other dive sites on the Pacific side of Mexico, there are also plenty of smaller creatures to see as well as healthy reef scenes to experience. Reefs commonly feature colorful sponges and gorgonian sea fans and kelp, while you can keep your eye out for creatures like sea horses, octopus, moray eels, nudibranchs, Panamic porkfish, and a variety of blennies, jawfish, damselfish and angelfish. So whether poking around in a hole in the reef or hanging in the water column, gazing out into the blue, the Sea of Cortez will keep scuba divers enthralled.

Dive Site Descriptions

Cabo Pulmo

Once just a simple, picturesque fishing village on the far south of the peninsula, Cabo Pulmo is now a national marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one the premier dive destinations in the Sea of Cortez. Protected as a no-fishing area since 1995, the marine life has prospered here, and is living evidence of how conservation can maintain and improve a marine ecosystem. At 20,000 years old, the reef structure is in fact the oldest along the west coast of North America.

There are 10 marked dive sites in the park, some are shallow reefs that are great for beginners and searching for turtles, groupers, and macro life such as seahorses, nudibranchs and frogfish; others are advanced blue water dives surrounded by mobula rays or swirling schools of jacks. But one of the main highlights of diving at Cabo Pulmo has to be the regular encounters with abundant bull sharks which are clearly thriving in the MPA. Blacktip and lemon sharks are also frequently seen in the area.

El Bajo

This is an advanced site located near Cabo Pulmo. It is a group of 3 submerged peaks that rise up between 50-80 ft (18-25m), so it is possible to dive at much greater depth here. The central peak is the most commonly visited as it is the shallowest and allows for longer dive times. The key attraction here are the large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks that circle these pinnacles. Sometimes groups of up to 100 individuals can be encountered. Other visitors include whale sharks, swordfish and giants mantas, huge schools of predator fish like amber jacks, and residents of the rocky peaks such as moray eels and octopus. Another great place to encounter hammerheads in Baja is Las Animas.

La Paz

This region of the Sea of Cortez is known as the best place for divers to see resident whale sharks. There are close to 100 animals, mostly juveniles of 15-30 ft (5-9m) long, but adults do frequent the area too, especially when the plankton blooms are strongest. The region of the Bay of La Paz is known as ‘El Mojote’ and has been a protected area since 2019. Only swimming is allowed in the area, and a strictly enforced limit to the number of visiting boats at any one time is maintained. Another region of Baja California that is known to attract whale sharks is Bahía de los Ángeles, towards the northern end of the peninsula, where you can see them underwater.

Midriff Islands

This group of 30 islands in the north of the Sea of Cortez was once dubbed the “Galapagos of Mexico” and, once you visit, it is easy to see why. This is a wilderness area of desert mountains and beaches. There is little in the way of human development here, and countless sea birds clearly appreciate that fact. There are sea lion colonies and 8 types of whale are encountered here. What makes the region so special is the 5,000 ft (1,600m) deep sea trench that cuts through the islands. This channel brings nutrient rich, deep water, upwellings for the local fish to feast on. This in turn attracts some of the world’s largest marine animals, in blue and fin whales, humpback whales, California gray whales, sperm whales, manta rays, Humboldt squid and leatherback sea turtles.
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One of the first spots to dive on a northern Sea of Cortez liveaboard cruise is Angel Island. It is a great site for sea lions that may swoop and swim around you like the playful puppies of the ocean that they are. When at the surface the smell from the bird droppings that cake the rock of La Vela, meaning 'the sail', encourages a swift submersion.

You will descend to the base of the rock which slopes to deeper than 30m. While the Gulf of California is famed for large animal encounters, it also delivers on a macro scale. That is what makes diving in the Sea of Cortez special compared to other locations on Mexico's Pacific coast. Here you can spot various different nudibranchs such as Chromodoris baumanni, Elysia diomedea, Flabelliina iodinea and Glossodoris sedna which is indigenous to the northern part of the sea, although it has been introduced elsewhere. Unlike other places, you might spot dozens if not hundreds of nudibranchs of any one species.

Look out for mobula rays, sometimes hard to miss when traveling in large schools. You may have seen documentaries featuring the Sea of Cortez's mobula rays breaching and soaring into the sky. There is no guarantee of such behavior here but these and other ray species can be sighted at La Vela.

Hundreds of boobies rest and ease their bowels atop Punta de Pedro Martir, another pre-dive delight to the senses in the Sea of Cortez. They seem to stare quizzically at these strange humans jumping in the water as they waddle in an ungainly fashion over the rocky land.

You will most likely drop in here in shallow waters and descend to between 8 and 10m before then making your way down a steep wall to deeper sections of the site at 30 to 40m. Throughout the shallows sea lions are likely to play joyfully all around you, darting this way and that with incredible ease. Particularly fearless and fun are the juveniles, of which there are many in August and September. The wall can play host to jewel morays and Panamic morays. They are among 16 species of moray eel in the Gulf of California and they are often spotted, not only gaping from their holes but also free-swimming.

Divers may also come across seahorses here such as the Pacific seahorse in and around the wall where innumerable blennies poke their heads out, octopus skulk from crevice to crevice hunting, and swarms of little reef fish dance around. These can include Panamic sergeant majors, Cortez damselfish and Beaubrummel damselfish. Occasionally dense clouds of krill may be present bringing with them the promise of whales.

'Las Animas' is named after the church bells which ring to summon lost souls and 'El Lavadero' translates as "the washing machine". When diving "the washing machine of lost souls" it is easy to imagine that each of the thousands of schooling jacks represents a soul as their sheer mass of numbers surrounds you and blocks out the light. Hammerhead sharks and tunas join them in the blue, meaning there is always plenty of big stuff to look out for when diving here.

The topography consists of a pinnacle featuring a series of shelves and caverns that you can explore on the look-out for creatures as diverse as giant jawfish, sea horses and horn sharks. This dive site is a firm favorite among Sea of Cortez aficionados, yielding not only many different sightings but also being among the most colorful dive sites in the area.

How to Dive the Gulf of California

While many of the sites close to shore can be dived as day trips, liveaboards operate here and provide the best means of experiencing all that this wondrous stretch of water has to offer. For more information on the tour options, and all the travel information you might need to visit Mexico, read our Sea of Cortez liveaboard section.

Depending on the liveaboard you choose, you will either board at Puerto Penasco on the Mexican mainland along northern coastline of the Sea of Cortez, or Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula.

There are not many diving safaris operating here so it is common for yours to be the only one in the area. Of course this means you can be sure of avoiding 'diver soup' even at the more popular, closer-to-shore locations where liveaboards can overnight and have you in the water before any daytrip boats arrive.

The Diving Season

July to November is the Sea of Cortez liveaboard season, although shore diving is possible year round. Temperatures can vary from site to site and are usually in the range of 70 to 82°F (21-28°C), although thermoclines can make the temperature gauge in your dive computer work hard. For further reading on the climate and water temperature at Puerto Penasco on the Gulf of California, visit HikersBayOpens in a new window. Although generally a sheltered stretch of water with calm seas, the surface can become choppy especially when the wind picks up.

The great mobula ray migration runs between May and July, when you can also see orcas. Whales sharks are commonly spotted throughout the year with peak season being from November through April, with juveniles more frequent between late September and the end of November. At this time they come to feed on the plankton blooms near Bahia de Los Angeles so do not expect great visibility. Large, pregnant adult females are known to show up in the spring months of April and May, which is also a time that sees large schools of yellowfin tuna, and schooling scalloped hammerheads.

Sea lions are present all year round. August and September is a great time for scuba divers to play with curious juveniles. In the months prior to that you may witness the birth of this new generation. Gray whales are most commonly encountered between January and March when they seek sheltered bays to mate and give birth. Winter months are also the best time for blue and humpback whales. Sperm whales can be spotted between January and August.

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Where is the Sea of Cortez and How Do I Get There?

Review our map below of Mexico, showing the location of the Gulf of California. Here, you will find information on how to get to the Sea of Cortez.

Map of Mexico (click to enlarge in a new window)

Reef Summary

Depth: 16 - >130ft (5 - >40m)
Visibility: 50 - 115ft (15 - 35m)
Currents: Usually mild, can be strong
Surface conditions: Usually calm but can be choppy
Water temperature: 68 - 84°F (20 - 29°C)
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: >40
Recommended length of stay: 8 days

Useful References

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