Diving in the Socorro Islands has been a bucket list item of mine for years and came recommended as the best scuba diving in all of Mexico. Could it really deliver in its promise?
The region is known for large fish encounters including the large pelagic mantas rays, dolphins, humpback whales and 7 different types of sharks including silkies, oceanic white tips, silver tips, Galapagos sharks, tiger sharks and whale sharks. But for me what I was most looking forward to was spotting hammerheads... something on my dream list for years...
It didn't take me long to see my first hammerhead. I saw it on the check dive! In fact the check dive delivered a list of encounters that could be the highlight of a liveaboard cruise in many other places. We also saw dolphins up close, and a silvertip shark and had 4 mantas circling us on the safety stop... on the check dive!
That was to set the scene for some amazing encounters during our Socorro liveaboard cruise....
Quino El Guardian is a former fishing boat turned dive boat and is approved by both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Mexican Coast Guard for seaworthiness. At 90’ long with a 23’ beam it comfortably fits 16 guests along with the crew of 9.
There’s also a large dining area which can comfortably seat all 16 passengers and it has a pull down projector screen for dive briefings and presentations. All voltage aboard Quino El Guardian is 110 V and use standard USA-style plugs.
The indoor saloon is comfortable and features a flat screen TV, a hard drive filled with movies, and even a desk where you can plug in your laptop and write blog posts, work on your novel, or more likely, edit your photos and videos during the trip. There is no wifi or cell phone service during the entire trip once you reach approximately 2 hours away from shore. However, there is an emergency satellite phone and sms device so you can make calls or send a text if needed.
Upstairs on the top deck there is a large shaded sundeck with chaise longues, and bean bags for sunbathing, and relaxing between dives or even to sleep out under the stars. The boat is more of a comfortable workhorse than a luxury yacht but it has everything you need for your 10 days at sea. Just make sure you pack some long pants, and a light sweatshirt. Indoors the temperature is almost always set to 24C which is a bit chilly, especially after a few days of diving. Also it is one of the rare boats where everyone wears shoes or sandals so feel free to bring your crocs or some easy slip-on shoes for the boat.
Meals are enjoyed in the galley-style dining area and served restaurant style, as opposed to the buffet style that many boats are accustomed to. Don’t worry if you’re a big eater like I am, the staff always asks if you had enough food or if you would like a second helping.
Every morning, that day's menu is written on the white board. If there is ever anything you don’t eat, or if you would prefer something different, just tell the staff early in the day. They will make sure they prepare something different just for you. In my experience the food on board was incredible. I knew this would be the case from the very first meal when we were served roast chicken breast and it was juicy and moist and not at all dry, like it can often get with less experienced cooks.
There are always snacks including granola bars, chocolates and fruits for the taking, along with a decent variety of tea and, surprisingly, decent drip coffee all day. Aside from cow's milk they also have coconut milk, soy milk and even almond milk on hand which can be used for both your coffee, as well as your morning cereals.
The only part of the day where you’re not always well fed is the 6-7 hours between lunch and dinner as lunch is served at 12:30 or 1pm and dinner starts a bit late at 7 pm, as the last dive sometimes ends by 3:30 pm or 4 pm, giving you a large window. There would always be some sort of snack, but some days were more filling than others. My favorite was the pizza day, but other days were cheese and crackers, a dessert like donuts, or raw seafood ceviche.
It was a bit unusual that so much seafood and alcohol was served on a dive boat, but they cater a lot to the local Mexican clientele which enjoys both and were more than accommodating to those who didn’t eat fish or want to drink after dives. I was especially appreciative that a hot breakfast was served on the final day of departure since often the last meal is usually a cold goodbye. Quino El Guardian it was more like a warm family farewell.
There are 4-shared cabins that each sleep 4 guests with bunk beds on each side. They aren’t huge rooms, but get the job done and are comfortable enough to fit someone who is 6 ft tall without issues. Each bed also has its own privacy curtain, which helps give you the feeling of your own space as well as allowing more or less air. This is helpful if you get cold or too hot in the air-conditioned cabins which they advise to keep between 23-25C.
Each cabin has exactly one drawer for each passenger, which is big enough to fit your clothes, but not much else, so try to pack light. If you have a hard shelled suitcase, it won’t fit under the bed but luckily there’s a shared storage room which fit everyone’s bags without issue. Both shower and deck towels are provided and changed every few days so there’s no need to bring your own. There are also shampoo and body wash dispensers in each shower of the bathrooms so there’s no need to bring your own.
The dive deck is large and well organized with a large camera table and plenty of outlets to charge all of your devices. There is a dive platform for ease of boarding one of the 2 Achilles inflatable RIB boats which are used for the short trips to and from dive sites.
Since we had 16 divers on our boat, we split in 3 groups, A, B, and C. Each group would jump in 15 minutes apart giving enough other plenty of room not to cross paths. Each day, a different group would jump first, second or last. It made getting ready on the dive deck and coming back relatively easy as long as no one broke the policy of giving the next group space to get ready.
The fins were handed to the panga driver along with our cameras, and we’d board from the back of the boat onto the pangas, drive usually between 5-10 minutes to the dive site, and all backwards roll in as a group on the count of 3. All entries were negative entries meaning diving straight down without popping back up first. it took a few days for me to get used to as I typically dive in calm waters, but by day 3 I started going straight down with ease and equalizing along the way.
The diving days vary slightly depending on what order and the precise location that each boat arrives at the dive sites. We were really lucky during most days as we were always first boat at each site which allowed us to start diving first thing at 7:15 am. During the days we were second we’d push everything back by an hour. If it looked like the sites were too busy with divers, we would have had to shuffle things around even more or choose a different site all together. Luckily it never came to that for us during the trip.
The dives were capped at 50 minutes maximum, which turned out to be more than enough time as all dive sites were in the 25-35m range. Each diver was required to carry their own SMB and whistle. The SMBs certainly proved their worth as we would often come up in pairs as others drifted away, or ran out of air early.
The panga drivers were all incredible and never kept us waiting more than a minute or two upon surfacing. The whistles were never needed but were a nice-to-have precaution. To enter the panga, you hand up your weight belts or pockets, strip off your BCDs in the water, hand up your fins next, and climb the ladder back up. The crew was nice enough to off-load the tanks with attached BCDs, fins, and cameras back to our spot and fill the tanks before our next dive. The only thing we had to take care of ourselves were our wetsuits and masks, making coming back to the boat a breeze. After each dive was a meal or snack, with usually 1.5 hours in between as a surface interval.
Special mention has to go to The Canyon since this is where I had an unforgettable moment finning out into the blue where I saw my first school of hammmerheads. To see one is awesome but to see multiple sharks moving together in that unmistakable motion was really breathtaking! It was not the only thing that happened on this dive of course. When things happen in the Socorro Islands they really happen. We also saw innumerable white tip reef sharks, Galapagos sharks (which I had never seen before) and silvertips. On the reef itself were octopus, lobster and a free-swimming leopard moray eel. There is just so much to see on these dive sites that no list of sightings can ever be complete!
Roca Partida is a world-famous dive sites and for many, diving this pinnacle in Mexico is the pinnacle of diving in Mexico. There was some doubt whether we would make it out to this remote site because of potentially adverse weather conditions. But we did! And we were thrilled with the result.
One feature of diving in these remote islands in the Pacific is that they are a little hit and miss. Temperature, current and visibility can fluctuate wildly, sometimes either side of lunch! A dive site that was a wash out one moment can be a underwater smorgasbord of wonder the next. When we hit upon ideal conditions at Roca Partida it was insane. We had crystal blue water with endless visibility. There were thousands of fish in huge, swarming schools with various species of sharks patrolling in the foreground and background. from the first minute to the last it wads all action. I saw a dusky shark for the first time. There is so much life here it is dazzling.
Of all the moments experienced on this fantastic trip, one of the most memorable was the dolphin encounter I had at Cabo Pearce. No sooner had we entered the water than we were greeted by small group of dolphins. 3 came very close to us, almost within touching distance and seemed to hang vertically in the water, their snouts pointed skyward as if welcoming us into their domain. So often, scuba diving encounters with dolphins are brief and distant affairs and these intelligent cetaceans are averse to our streams of bubbles. Not these guys - they loved hanging out with us! Other creatures you do't see every day included an electric ray and a slipper lobster.
These are exposed and remote sites. Conditions can change and I can only imagine how wild the seas can get here out of season. Some guests were a little peeved we didn't get 4 dives on our last dive day but the captain wanted to get going to avoid bad weather. Nature rules out here and I for one was happy to go with the captain's plan. On Socorro liveaboard trips I think you just have to roll with it. Often you get to a spot and dive it multiple times before moving on. Not all dives are going to be the same. Some may be a bust. Some are likely to be glorious!
Our itinerary turned out to be as follows:
The boat is docked just in front of the El Ganzo hotel in San Jose del Cabo. The local airport SJD is an easy 25 minute taxi away and can be reached by shuttle, taxi or Uber. Check in is from 5 pm-7 pm on day 1 of the trip, so if you get there early, I suggest first hanging out somewhere in Downtown San Jose Del Cabo then taking an US$ 4 - US$ 5 Uber from there to the boat at 5 pm. You can even take a local “colectivo” shared van or a local public bus from the airport to the hotel zone.
I personally arrived a few days in advance and took the 80 peso (US$ 4) public bus from the airport to the start of the hotel zone which stops at the El Comier Supermarket. San Jose Del Cabo is a nice relaxed beachside town with mega resorts and a few smaller hotels and hostels across the street. I stayed at a surf hostel for a few days just before to make sure I was there early with plenty of time. 40 minutes away is also the more popular party town of Cabo San Lucas, which may be worth checking out and staying for a night or two if you arrive early. But for most of the liveaboard guests, they all arrived the day of, or just a day or two beforehand and stayed in San Jose Del Cabo.
Once you get on board the staff will collect your passports along with the immigration cards, so make sure you tape or staple it into the page with your entry stamp so it doesn’t get lost. They will also double check your dive insurance, dive certification and nitrox certs (if needed) before departure while there’s still internet so you can easily pull it up if needed. My advice is to take screenshots or photos of everything you need before leaving home, to make it easy to show the certs on your phone before departure. Physical cards are not required.
On the way back home, the boat docks during the night and you’ll be ready to depart by 8:30 am on the last day. Since there’s no diving on the last 2 days of the trip due to the long journey, you don’t have to worry about your no fly times or missing your last dive. As long as your flight leaves at 12:30 pm or later the day of returning, you’ll have plenty of time for both getting to the airport as well as clearing your no fly times.
From the dock we opted to skip the shuttle transfers and take Uber instead which worked flawlessly without any issues. They picked us up right at the dock and dropped us off right inside the terminal. The fare was US$ 28 total including toll fares, and other fees associated with the ride, and split by three it was only US$ 10 each making it a great deal for a 35 minute ride. Best of all, the airlines let us check in and go through security at 8:30 am even though our flights weren’t until 2:30 pm or later. The only gate that wasn’t open yet was Delta who I was flying with on a code share with Aeromexico, but luckily I was traveling carry on only and was able to go through by self check in on the kiosks.
The airport itself in San Jose Del Cabo is fantastic and super comfortable to spend a few hours or more. Even better I was able to get all three of us into the VIP Lounge with my Priority Pass, giving us a comfortable place to relax for the 5+ hours before our flights home.
Make sure you bring either cash in Pesos, USD or Euros, for national park fees, nitrox (US$ 120 per trip), equipment rental and gratuity. You can also pay by Visa/Master card but a fee is charged if you do.
BCDs, regulators and dive computers can be rented on board, by letting the company know ahead of time and paying US$ 50 for each item for the entire trip. Weights, weight belts and tanks are provided. However, due to lack of space and storage, they don’t rent or provide masks, fins, or wetsuits so you’ll have to bring your own along with mandatory safety sausages (SMBs) and whistles.
Most divers wore 3 mm long suits during the entire trip, while a few even doubled up or wore 5 mm with hoods. But with the water temperature averaging 26-27 C the entire trip, 2 of us bigger guys who don’t get cold easily dove with board shorts and rash guards without issue. However, half way through the trip I switched from my 2 mm rash guard and shorts combo to a 3 mm shorty wetsuit and was glad I did, especially after the 10th dive or so and multiple dive days.
Since I normally travel light, I prefer to rent all of my gear aside from my own mask, but this trip I had to buy a wetsuit, SMB, whistle, and fins ahead of time to bring with me to Mexico as there was no other easy option. On the boat make sure you bring a comfortable pair of long sweat pants and a light sweater or jacket as even though the outside temperature was never technically cold, the A/C was always set at 24C or sometimes lower inside and it was difficult to warm up between dives otherwise.
Overall, diving in Socorro with Quino El Guardian was a fantastic experience. In a 10 day trip, we had 6 full days of diving with 3-4 dives a piece, most of which ranged from great to amazing. There were 1.5 days of travel in the beginning and end of the trip, to get back to San Jose Del Cabo and the boat itself was decently comfortable. It wasn’t as large or luxurious as some of the yacht style liveaboards I’ve experienced in the Maldives. However in terms of navigating the Mexican waters, and giving us everything we needed to be comfortable both on boat as well as in the ocean, it was fantastic.
The food was always delicious and kudos to the chef for being able to keep the food tasting fresh, varied and homemade even more than a week into the trip. The refillable water bottles they gave us were a nice touch and souvenir to take home, and the drip coffee on board was surprisingly good. There was always a fridge full of sodas, beer, and wine, and a basket full of fresh fruit.
The crew were all top notch, friendly, enthusiastic, and always happy to see you. The diving was amazing, with some phenomenal highlights such as the friendly, close-up dolphin encounters, hammerhead shark sightings, swimming with manta rays, being swarmed by silky sharks during a safety stop, and always knowing there was a chance to see even more.
I would highly recommend diving in Socorro if you like big pelagic animal encounters, and want to dive up close to hundreds of sharks, manta rays, dolphins, and have a chance to see whales. My trip was from November 25-Dec 4th, 2019 and was a fantastic time to come. A few weeks earlier there were storms during the beginning of the season, making it impossible to go to many of the dive sites, and a few months later the water temperatures drop to be much colder, requiring thicker wetsuits, but also give you the chance of seeing sperm whales. For me the comfort of diving in 26-27C water with just a 3 mm shorty, having 20+ meter visibility on the majority of our dives, manageable current on most, and mostly sunny afternoons made it the perfect time in my opinion to come. But if you don’t mind packing a 7 mm wetsuit and possibly a hood, I’d urge you to come later in the season as well for a chance to see bigger schools and bigger animals underwater.
Written by Johnny FD, November 2019
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