Thursday, 15 Nov 2018

Socorro Island. Mexico

socorro island

“Growing up and learning to dive in California, it’s somewhat rare to come upon something large when you’re in the water—let alone close up!” Mark Talkovic began. “And if you do, your instinct is that ‘big’ means ‘scary and hungry.’ This is not the case with the giant manta rays of Socorro Island.”

Socorro Island is located roughly 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, off the southern tip of Baja California. It’s the largest of the Revillagigedo islands at fifty square miles; another desirable diving venue in the Revillagigedos is San Benedicto. The first European encounter with uninhabited Socorro Island came in the early 1500s when Spanish explorers came upon the island and named it Saint Thomas. The island went through a few more name changes before it was dubbed Socorro Island—or “Help”—in 1608; the name that stuck speaks to Socorro’s Island isolation. ”The islands are of a volcanic nature, rising up abruptly from the ocean floor with steep sides,” Mark continued. (Socorro Island is still the site of volcanic activity, the last eruption occurring in 1993.) “You can be a hundred yards off shore and find yourself in 500 feet of water. The structure in this isolated stretch of ocean brings in many big pelagics, including the mantas. On some days of diving, we had manta rays racing around like dogs in a city park. Some would follow you around like puppies!” (Some think that the manta’s companionable behavior toward divers may be attributable to mistaken identity; mantas may view humans as giant cleaner fish!)

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 1

Socorro Island. Mexico

Mark arrived at Socorro Island at the conclusion of an expedition to hone his newly minted photography skills. “I had just finished the undersea photo program at the Brooks Institute of Photography, out on an Alaska purse seiner that they had retrofitted to be a floating classroom, the Just Love,” Mark explained. “We traveled south, from Santa Barbara, California, down along Baja, gunk holing in anywhere we could and diving all along the way. Eventually we ended up at Socorro Island. I’ve been back two other times. Some refer to Socorro Island as the Mexican Galápagos, as there are a number of endemic terrestrial plant and animal species here. Socorro Island is fairly lush with greenery; San Benedicto, just fifteen miles away, is like the surface of the moon. The contrast is startling. While there’s a small Mexican naval station on the island, there are no tourist accommodations; it’s a live-aboard situation, and it’s a solid day or two run to get there.”

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 2

Socorro Island. Mexico

With their expansive “wings” (pectoral fins) and graceful pirouettes, manta rays are one of the tropical seas’ megacharismatic species. The largest member of the ray family, mantas can reach lengths of twelve feet and more, widths of nearly twenty feet, and a weight of over 5,000 pounds. Despite their tremendous size, they are extremely docile creatures, subsisting on plankton and small fish, which they direct into their expansive mouths with their distinctive “horns.” There are several diving venues around the world where manta encounters are quite reliable—Kona, Hawaii’s, famous night dives, and Yap in Micronesia come to mind—but for consistent exposure to very large mantas, Socorro Island may be tough to beat.

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 3

Socorro Island. Mexico

“During three weeks at Socorro Island, we saw at least one manta ray on 75 percent of our dives,” Mark said. “At a couple of spots where the rays come in to be cleaned by reef fish, you might see six or seven at a glance. They’ll swim by these large submerged rocks, then stall and hover, and reef fish will come out and clean them. It takes next to no effort on the diver’s part; all you have to do is sit and wait, and you’re only fifteen or twenty feet down! They’re so elegant, they remind me of ballerinas. They’ll be zooming along quickly, then effortlessly change direction. At night, you fall asleep to the sound of the rays breaching the surface. The mantas were so plentiful that we became strangely jaded after a while—‘Oh, it’s just another twenty-foot manta ray. Maybe we’ll go look under a rock for a crab!’”

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 4

Socorro Island. Mexico

Mantas aren’t the only pelagic species of interest around Socorro Island and neighboring San Benedicto. A variety of sharks are found here with regularity, including white-tips, Galápagos, silkies, silver-tips, and, with less frequency, tiger sharks and whale sharks. (The waters surrounding San Benedicto are featured in Stan Waterman and Howard Hall’s The Man Who Loves Sharks.) Jacks, wahoo, and giant yellowfin tuna are also regulars here. “I once saw a school of jacks swimming from left to right,” Mark said, “and they stretched as far as you could see … and they were going by for an hour! At greater depths—one hundred feet or so—you can also come upon schooling hammerheads.”

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 5

Socorro Island. Mexico

MARK TALKOVIC is an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) pilot for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, where he has worked since 1998. He is involved with the daily operations, care, and feeding of the ROV Ventana, including the design and fabrication of subsea pressure housings, ROV hardware, tools, and sampling gear. Prior to MBARI, Mark spent eight years as a homeless boat person sailing research vessels (primarily in the Antarctic) and traveling for entertainment. When not at MBARI, he fills his days with occasional contract ROV work, diving, snowboarding, hiking, traveling, and home restoration.

Socorro Island. Mexico - photo 6

Socorro Island. Mexico

IF YOU GO TO SOCORRO ISLAND

Getting There: The live-aboards serving Socorro Island generally depart from Cabo San Lucas (or neighboring San Jose del Cabo), which is served by many major carriers.

Best Time to Visit: Socorro Island charters are led from November through May, when calmer seas make for an easier crossing.

Accommodations/Guides: There are several live-aboards that lead expeditions to Socorro Island, including Solmarv (866-591-4906; www.solmarv.com) and Nautilus Explorer (888-434-8322; www.nautilusexplorer.com).

 

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

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