Socorro (Mexico)

fish

A long time ago I saw an IMAX movie about diving in Mexico where the diver came face to face with a giant manta. It glided around him effortlessly (even though it was more than 20 feet across) and fearlessly. That experience lodged itself deeply in both my subconscious and my life list plan and after a scouting trip to Cabo San Lucas, much planning and saving and waiting, we were off to the Revillagigedo Islands (better known as Socorro after the largest island) with Big Fish Expeditions this past March.

wave

We had packed and re-packed our bags, trying to find the balance between bringing everything we might need and keeping the bags under the weight limit, and we had practiced saying “Revillagigedo” over and over again but nothing could have prepared us for flying into Cabo on Spring break AND St. Patrick’s day. “Plane’s late, we’re doing shots!” and “Has anyone seen my passport?” were both things we heard even before boarding, and much later we heard things like a guy vomiting off of a second-floor balcony. Ugh.

I despised Cabo the last time we were there but we were only in town for one day before setting off on the next leg of our journey – almost 400 km out to an island chain that we wouldn’t even be able to set foot on. Adventure time!

Sharks

As we approached the island, boobies and other sea birds started to appear and then humpback whales with their calves – teaching them how to breach and tail slap – and then a manta ray and then a silky shark. This is what we saw from the boat, mind you. Amazing animal sightings and we hadn’t even gotten wet yet.

We came for the giant mantas but after a couple of checkout dives at the Canyon (on San Benedicto) we headed over to Roca Partida – “Split Rock” aka Disneyland for Divers, aka Heaven Under Water – and over the next 2 days found whitetip reef sharks (with some obviously pregnant females) crammed onto the ledges carved out of the rock, Galapagos sharks, silvertip sharks, hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks, some tuna and THEN a whale shark (a couple of months earlier than expected for the area) and then finally, yes, there was a manta. There were also lots and lots of fish. Through it all, we could the humpback whales singing their hearts out. It was amazing. Easily one of the best diving experiences I’ve ever had and it felt like The Happiest Place on Earth (or at least Underwater).

Whale shark

The first manta ray we saw was flat black, like a Stealth Bomber, with silvery remoras stuck to the top side. Then a larger black and white one came in and checked us out but it was a bit like being in a three-ring circus with the sharks and the whale shark and the mantas so it wasn’t until the next day at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) that we had our first proper encounter with them.

Dolphins

But first, there were dolphins. I thought the crew was joking when he said the dolphins showed up at 8 AM sharp, like greeters at Walmart, but when we arrived at the shark cleaning station, hanging onto rocks in the strong current, they suddenly appeared behind us, clicking and chirping. There were probably about 20 of them and unlike when we dove with them in Cabo Pulmo a few years ago, these guys came close and stuck around. Over the next few days, we dove with dolphins 4 or 5 more times and each time they were curious and unafraid, playing with each other and cruising around to see what we were all about. What an unexpected experience!

Giant manta

Like the dolphins, the mantas were also curious about us and came in close to check us out at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) and The Boiler on San Benedicto. The Boiler was a beautiful site even before the pelagic creatures arrived, but when the mantas started showing up they were between 12 – 20 feet across, gliding majestically and hovering near the divers in order to look at us. Several times I had my camera in front of me to take a photo and the manta would hang out until I had lowered it, recognizing that it wasn’t my eye. Incredible! And then they would swim through the bubbles, coming close enough that I was eye to eye with the remora fish stuck to their bellies more than once. The mantas come to the area for cleaning stations where Clarion Angelfish clean them of the parasites that they pick up (and the fish do such a good job of this that they nibbled at my hair a couple of times too!) but they largely ignored the fish in favour of bubbles and a sometimes the individuals would even follow us up to our safety stop and then to the surface. At one point, it seemed like a large female was trying to follow us out of the water – she had a wing out of the water as we climbed into the Zodiac and then continued to follow us back to the liveaboard. It’s pretty hard not to anthropomorphize that kind of behaviour and we were just in awe…grinning for days.

Manta ray

In between manta encounters we watched the sea birds play in the wind and humpback whales teaching their calves to breach (as well as other whale behaviour) in the bays around the boat. It was adorable as they tried to emulate their mothers and only sometimes got it right. At one point the wind was up and the swim grid of our boat was slapping the water pretty hard. In response, a humpback calf came to the surface and started slapping its tail against the water in response – a form of non-vocal communication in the whales. It did about 20 slaps before diving back into the water. We took the Zodiacs out a couple of times to free dive with whales and got to see a mother and a calf up close a couple of times. They are absolutely stunning creatures, and also staggeringly large – with one twitch of a tail they were out of sight almost instantly.

Dolphins

The dives kept getting better and better as the week went on, and the trip got more and more unbelievable. I caught myself saying greedy things like, “it would be cool to see a hammerhead today since we haven’t seen one in a couple of days,” and then laughing into my regulator when my wish came true every time. We realized that we had had an exceptionally good time of it and probably wouldn’t be so lucky on every trip, but I already can’t wait to go back. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more; the crew was excellent, the food was amazing, the ship was great, our group of new friends were just awesome, the animals were absolutely incredible…even the weather was perfect. A trip of a lifetime, to be sure. ¡Hasta luego, Socorro! See you again real soon.

Manta ray

Here is the official trip report from Big Fish: http://bigfishexpeditions.com/Socorro_2014.html

Desert

Hawai’i: Maui and Kona

Flying

Hawaii was nice. How can Hawaii not be nice?! Unlike Kiev and Prague, this trip has been on the books for a while – it was Matt’s pick after we got back from the Bahamas last winter and he has especially been looking forward to going somewhere beachy and warm so a quick trip to paradise to get in some sunshine, downtime and great diving was just so nice.

Hawaii

It had been a long time since I was last in Hawaii last and probably a decade for the time before that, but my grandmother used to live in Makaha on Oahu part-time and so we went what seemed like often when we were kids. I remember falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the ocean, crawling the beach to collect little knobs of coral and digging big pits (instead of castles) in the sand. When we were still too small to swim in the surf my grandmother used to hold us and body surf us through the waves until our homemade swimsuits were full of sand. When we came inside, she would cut up fresh papaya for a snack and these things must have made an impact because I have never lost my love of the sea and fresh fruit.

Honoloa Beach

Matt had never been to Hawaii so we split the difference between Maui (which I thought he would like best) and Kona (where I wanted to go on the manta ray night dive) and that worked out well except that we both wanted to spend more time in both places. Ah well, next time.

Honokowai

MAUI

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lahaina less horribly touristy than I remembered but we were happy to be staying in quiet, tiny Honokowai, with a lush garden in front of our condo and the ocean working its endless magic steps away from our door. The first night after we got settled into the condo we went and sat by the ocean until we lost all the light and could only hear the waves lapping at the seawall beneath our feet. And then we went to bed because we had a 4 AM wake up call to go and see the sunrise on Haleakala. Diving and flying gets complicated on an archipelago with 10,000 ft peaks so we needed to do the high stuff first.

Haleakala

HALEAKALA VOLCANO

Thankfully we had the time change on our side because the early morning wake-up call didn’t seem that bad when we were stumbling around getting dressed. The summit is a polar region and we hadn’t packed accordingly so I just wore all the warm things I had; a t-shirt, my rash-guard, a paper-thin windbreaker…and flip flops. Matt had said so many times leading up to the trip that he just wanted to sit under a tree and read that I hadn’t even bothered to bring shoes or socks. That’ll be my lesson learned.

Haleakala

The last time I climbed Haleakala I made it about an hour’s hike into the valley before I was overcome by altitude sickness. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I was moving through toothpaste and my boyfriend was getting farther and farther away no matter how hard I tried to keep up. Finally, I just sat down next to an alien-looking tree and cried. Eventually, we figured out what was going on but we still had to climb all the way back up to the visitor’s centre. It wasn’t fun and I wasn’t anxious to repeat it so this time we went super slowly and stopped often. By the time we got to the summit, the morning light had illuminated the clouds and brought some definition into the crater. Several people had assembled, wearing whatever warm things they could collect from their rooms – what a motley crew we looked like to greet the rising sun!

Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and in Hawaiian history, the summit was only accessible to priests. It’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred space. We were on top of the world, high above the clouds and the light reflecting off of them and into the moon-like crater was incredible. Through the occasional break we could see all the way to the sea and in the distance far below us the West Maui mountains that had seemed so large when we drove past that morning.

I’m not normally one for sunrises but when there is in fact something magical in watching the first ray of sunshine break into the day and even more so when a park ranger chants a mele oli” (chanted poem) in honour of it:

Haleakala sunrise mele oli

Dolphins

DIVING

The next few days we spent diving the Cathedrals – beautifully formed lava caves – off the coast of Lana’i,  diving with hammerhead sharks dive off the coast of Moloka’i, and some exploring some local dive sites on Maui. On our way out to our first dive site, we were joined by a pod of 40-50 dolphins. They surrounded the boat when it slowed but as soon as the captain resumed speed they sped up excitedly to ride our bow waves then dropping back to leap through and do flips in the wake. I laughed out loud at the sight of such pure and obvious joy – they are truly the puppies of the ocean.

Cathedral

The Cathedrals were as beautiful as I remembered and we got to see the rare albino black coral “chandelier” that hangs from the ceiling. It’s a testament to the dive shops in the area educating divers that it’s still intact…we saw much coral-kicking on this trip but at least the stony reef-building corals are a little heartier.

Fish

We enjoyed the chill diving so much that we decided to just stay on the boat for the afternoon dives too. That turned out to be an excellent idea because our last dive at Mala Pier was one to remember!  It’s a collapsed pier so it has the air of a shipwreck with all the beams and boards piled on each other and provides some great swim-throughs for divers and/or hide-outs for turtles, sharks and schools of fish – we saw all of them as well as a squadron of spotted eagle rays.

Urchin

Perhaps because it’s a busy site also accessible from the shore, or perhaps because there were so many places to hide, the creatures didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest. One giant turtle kept a baleful eye on me while he surfaced for a breath but a moment later I turned around to see him swimming by right behind me. And I hurriedly snapped a photo of the eagle rays on the first pass, expecting them to bolt but they cruised by so many times that I got tired of pointing them out. Even the sharks were chill.

Matt

It’s a stunning dive site and I look forward to diving it again someday – hopefully at night.

Walterses

Mokuho’oniki Rock off the coast of Molokai to dive with hammerhead sharks was a life-list item for me, so I was really happy that we were able to go. They considered it an advanced dive so Matt had some detailed questions about depths and current, etc. but it turned out to be me who needed to be nervous because getting there involved crossing the dreaded Pailolo channel – Hawaiian for “crazy water.” In the briefing, the captain warned that any people prone to seasickness should take precautions.

Hammerhead

The waves turned out to be not too bad. The first sight of these majestic creatures made it all worthwhile anyway, and we were lucky enough to see three hammerheads and a Galapagos shark gliding through the blue water on each dive, with two of them swimming along together on the last one. It was just so beautiful to watch and I only wish that we were a little bit closer or that the photos had turned out a little better.

Degan

One drawback of all the sun and salt is that my hair had almost no red in it by the end of the trip (more like a pinky coral colour) so I love this photo that Matt got of me underwater where I look like some kind of tropical fish.

Honoloa Beach

We also spent a fair amount of time in the Jeep driving around the island. One day there was an accident on the road so we decided to just take the long way around the West Maui mountains and see what we could see. As we drove north from Honokowai we came up to stunning Honolua Beach where there is good surfing, snorkelling and diving. Then the road narrowed and as we got into some seriously lush countryside. It was great to see the rugged coastline and rural communities up there.

Driving

KONA

We only had two days on the big island so we had to choose between climbing Mauna Kea and diving with the manta rays at night. The manta rays were the clear winner but I would like to come back to see the observatory, as well as the lava fields on Mount Kilauea, and I would also like to do the ‘pelagic magic’ night dive where creatures come up from the deep ocean to feed at night.

manta ray

The boat was full of both divers and snorkelers and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on but they were all doing it with a lot of enthusiasm. We were one of several boats at the site, all decked out with lights. It seemed like chaos, but then we were in the water, trying to keep one eye out for manta rays and another on our guide. The idea is that the divers stay low to the ground and shine their lights up while the snorkelers hang on to the surfboards and shine their lights down. Plankton is attracted to the light and then the rays come to feed on it. We only saw one manta ray on our dive – Eli, a juvenile – but it was cool to see him swimming around and eating, and it was such a spectacular dive with an octopus and several trumpet fish and eels hunting off our lights.

Degan Walters

On our last day in Hawaii, we didn’t have a lot of options. We couldn’t dive or go above 2000 feet (so no horseback riding or ziplining or summiting volcanoes), we didn’t have a car (so no plantation tours) and we needed our gear to dry (so no snorkelling) but as a pretty awesome last resort we walked into town and hung out at the Kona Brewing Company patio for a while. Great selection of beers, and good food too.