Last month I had the opportunity to dive the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot. This Hope Spot exists thanks to Sylvia Earle.
Who is Sylvia Earle? Sylvia Earle is my hero!
Sylvia Earle is an American marine biologist, oceanic explorer, and planet Earth champion. She founded Mission Blue, a non-profit organization with the mission of inspiring action to explore and protect the ocean. Mission Blue focuses on a three-pronged approach.
- Through exploration they identify sites and build global support for the creation and strengthening of marine protected areas known as Hope Spots.
- Through engagement with local and regional governments they provide advocacy and policy changes to protect marine areas.
- Through education with ecotourism, awareness raising in local communities, scientific research and community conservation development projects.
In its 2017 Impact report on Hope Spots, Mission Blue shares:
Since its inception, Mission Blue’s Hope Spot initiative
has contributed to real action on the ground in the
service of ocean conservation. Hope Spots of all sizes
are now found in every part of the world’s ocean, in
both coastal waters and the high seas.
With 13 Hope Spots originally announced in 2014,
Hope Spots have grown to a current total of 86,
covering an approximate area of 48,195,000 square
Gulf of California
The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is a 700-mile long sea between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. It is a successful and thriving Hope Spot. The sea is teeming with marine biodiversity; 800 species of fish, several types of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and sea lions. The region supports vital mangroves and wetlands and endangered coral reefs.
Cabo Pulmo is a small village on the east coast of the Baja about 80 miles north of the glitzy Cabo San Lucas. Mission Blue and other NGO’s empowered this quaint fishing village to transform itself into a SCUBA diving destination. My trip to Cabo Pulmo was put together by Red Travel Mexico, a Baja travel agency specializing in eco-tourism, and Tam Warner Minton, a fellow travel blogger.
Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot
The road from Cabo San Lucas airport to Cabo Pulmo starts as a highway and gradually devolves into a rough dirt road. The end of the road is literally a tiny “one horse town”. Well actually I think there were two horses that roamed the quiet village. An occasional off-road vehicle might rattle along the road, but mostly everyone meandered on foot. A couple of brightly painted adobe buildings signaled the dive operations and the rest were a hodge-podge of palapas and huts.
The quiet lap of the waves gently filled the silence.
Cabo Pulmo Accommodations
Our accommodations were with the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort. Each one of us had a slightly different style of lodging. They were all very roomy and clean considering the constant sand and wet of a beach town. However, none of them had actual beach views.
The small restaurant associated with the resort was staffed by the same three, indefatigable guys morning, noon and night. Everyday the food was fresh, creative and delicious.
Diving Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot
We dove with Cabo Pulmo Watersports. They were an adequate dive operation. They loaded your gear onto their trailered boats at the shop and launched you at the beach. The boats were small and simple. There were 7 of us diving and the boat was quite crowded. As with most dive operations around the world, they insist that you are at the shop at 8 AM sharp and then you sit around for about 90 minutes waiting for them to get ready. We probably needed to have margaritas for breakfast instead of coffee and 90 minutes wouldn’t have mattered.
The dive profile for the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot was 3 dives per day. The first dive was an area off the reef known for passing bull sharks at 75-100 ft. The second dive dropped us into a tornado of schooling Bigeye Trevally Jacks. The third dive was on the protected coral reef. This is the only reef on the western coast of North America and home to a lovely variety of wildlife. The reef is formed by the natural geography of the bay, which shelters the reef and keeps the water temperatures about 70 degrees, an essential environment for coral growth.
Can’t you feel ’em circlin’, honey
Can’t you feel ’em swimmin’ around
You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you’re the only bait in town –Jimmy Buffet
Fins at Cabo Pulmo
I am not the shark fanatic that some of my dive friends are. While I am not afraid, I don’t chase after them either. I respect that they are an essential part of the underwater ecosystems. They are big and challenging to experience, but not colorful or that interesting to me. If I am going to dive looking for sharks, I prefer a natural setting without “chumming” or cages. Chumming is the practice of luring the sharks in with fish bait in the water. The recognizable cage-diving is chumming for Great White sharks in colder water.
In the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot the shark diving fit my criteria. We dove to a deep sandy bottom and plunked down, without any chum. The divemaster instructed us to stay still, don’t chase them and be sure to make eye contact. I was cool with two of those instructions, but “make eye contact” with the sharks did send a shiver down my spine. Settled together on the sand, we waited just a short time until “fins” started to circle. The visibility was only about 20 feet so the sharks were fairly close once we could see them.
Sharks come in many shapes, sizes and levels of scary. Nurse sharks are practically cuddly and prevalent in south Florida and the Caribbean. Hammerheads, are big and funky-looking but very skittish and shy. Black tip reef sharks are fairly small, not especially aggressive and common. The sharks in Cabo Pulmo were Bull sharks. Bull sharks are big and thick, not very common and known to be aggressive. So sitting quietly still in the sand took some will power. This was a quick check mark on my fish list and I was done. Better visibility would have improved this dive but overall, they promised Bull sharks and we saw Bull sharks.
Breathtaking Surface Interval
Diving requires breathing compressed air underwater. To simplify the science, this means that a diver needs time breathing without a regulator to off-gas a build up of Nitrogen. In diving we call this a surface interval. Typically the surface interval is spent on the boat resting and re-hydrating. In an ideal world this break is full of calm water, warm sun and spectacular surface sightings. Our first surface interval in Cabo Pulmo exceeded expectations. While the boat made its way to the next dive site the captain suddenly started gesturing dramatically. About 75 feet in front of the boat were a mother and calf humpback whales. You can spend significant cash and time on whale-watching cruises and never get this great of an experience.
The divemaster and boat captain were very cautious and careful to approach slowly. As an experienced marine biologist, our Red Travel guide Christian, watched the whale’s behaviors to determine the distance we should keep. Because of his respectful expertise, the whales stayed close and relaxed for a long span of time. Every diver was manning their cameras. The universe enjoys toying with photographers. The more unique the shot the more “stuff” goes wrong with equipment. Water spots on a lens, batteries dead, and my action camera just simply gave up the ghost for good. Universe Lesson-Just be in the moment and put the camera down.
Tornado of Jacks
Researchers tell us this phenomenon is a mating ritual. The Bigeye Trevallys lay their eggs in the open water and create this “tornado” to protect and insulate the eggs for several days. This is a special Diving into the tornado of Jacks was absolutely surreal. There were so many it actually blocked out the sun from above. Video credit to my great diving friend, Mark Klenz.
I found this article explaining a “fish tornado” on the fun kids site called Wonderopolis.org. These fish can be found throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot is known for its opportunity to experience it as a diver.
Cabo Pulmo Coral Reef
Scientists determine the health of a coral reef by calculating the “biomass” of all the living animals inhabiting the reef. This system gives more weight (if you will) to larger fish. It makes sense, a healthy reef has a wide diversity of small, medium and large life. Obviously, there needs to be plenty of small and medium life to support the large fish. Those big Bull sharks and tornado of Jacks need lots to eat. In the 14 years of protection, the biomass on Cabo Pulmo’s reef has increased by 463 percent. In 1995, the top predators like sharks and large grouper had all but disappeared. By 2009, the biomass of top predators had increased tenfold. By all measures, the protected area was a success. In fact, the Smithsonian states, Cabo Pulmo has the largest increase in biomass observed by scientists in any protected area.
The coral reef of Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot is called a “fringe reef”, which means it is close to shore.. It is mostly hard coral giving it a dark rocky appearance, unlike the colorful undulating reefs of the Caribbean. Local scientists point out that although not incredibly lovely, the coral reef of Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot provides a vital protected breeding ground for fish life.
The third dive of the day on the Cabo Pulmo reef was teeming with fish life. After the quiet tension of the shark dive, and the frenetic energy of the Jacks tornado, the daily life of fish large and small on the coral reef was relaxing and comforting.
Because of the success of the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot this is a unique region for diving. It is encouraging to know that human damage can be reversed. Every diver has slightly different criteria for recommending a dive experience. My basic qualifications fall into three categories
- Beauty, uniqueness, and health of the underwater habitat
- Quality, safety and ecological awareness of dive operation
- Above board setting.
My Two Cents
The evaluation of these categories can vary from person to person. For instance, “uniqueness” of the marine wildlife depends on what each diver has experienced in other locations. The “above board setting” depends on what kind of activities each person enjoys. Also, the timing of your visit greatly effects the experience. Our trip was in December and I believe this is not the best time for weather or marine wildlife. We did run into weather (strong winds) that preempted diving later in the week. Therefore, my score ( a scale of 1-10) is subjective:
- Beauty etc=7 With the uniqueness of the Jacks tornado and improved health of the reef bumping it slightly above average
- Dive operator=5 Cabo Pulmo Watersports was probably the best in the village. However I felt they overloaded their little boats, and their captains were not good about dropping you close to the dive site. This resulted in an over long swim against a very strong current for the divers. We were out on the boat all day and they did not offer any kind of snack. I know that sounds petty but after the above mentioned long swim, everyone needed some carbs.
- Above board=4 If you were not diving or snorkeling, there was nothing else to do in this tiny village. The couple of restaurants were good but allowed for no variety. This evaluation is based on my tastes for a slightly less remote location. Many people would love the isolation and primitive accommodations.
Hopefully I have been thorough enough for you to make your own decision about traveling to the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot. I am glad that we visited a Hope Spot and supported the local tourism economy. However, I would not consider it worth traveling across the globe.