The Sea Lions of Los Islotes

Sea lions are one of my favourite subjects to photograph. They have adorable faces and genuinely seem to like interacting with humans. La Paz, in the Sea of Cortez, is known for its colony of 200 California sea lions and is an easy side trip from the United States.

Getting There

We flew from Sydney to Los Angeles, where we connected to a flight to Phoenix (to visit my mom). After clearing immigration at the LAX international terminal, we collected our bags, went through customs, and then dropped the bags at the re-check area. At this point, we usually go outside and walk about five minutes to the American terminal. The security line there is always a mess, so I was happy to see a separate security area just after the baggage re-check. No need to go outside and deal with the chaos over there. The security line was quick, but both of our carry-on bags got the extended search (because the housings and domes look unusual in the x-ray). This took about 45 minutes because they only had one person doing the secondary searches, and he had no idea how to open the housings and domes and wouldn’t let us show him. We had a long layover so it wasn’t a huge deal, but there were lots of people stressed about missing connections. Even with the delay, we still had almost three hours in the Admiral’s Club – plenty of time for a much needed shower.

The flight to Phoenix made me realise how spoiled we are with Australian domestic flights. This flight was overbooked, the flight attendants didn’t want to be there, and there was no service whatsoever. Our exit row seats turned out not to be in the exit row, and we were seated next to a man who coughed without covering his mouth for the entire hour and a half.

La Paz has an airport, but you have to connect in Mexico City. As we were visiting with my mom in Phoenix, it seemed simpler to take a two-hour direct flight to Cabo San Lucas and then drive to La Paz. This turned out to be an expensive decision.

Quick note on our baggage. Traveling with dive gear is a hassle. Traveling with dive gear PLUS underwater camera equipment is a total hassle. AND, Qantas technically has a 7kg weight limit on cabin baggage. We used to carry the housings/dome assembled, but this draws a lot of attention (something we definitely didn’t want in Mexico). On this trip we thought we finally figured it out, and were carrying the camera/dome in shoulder bags, and the housings in Nauticam cases. So the gear was protected, we didn’t have to check any delicate camera gear, and we weren’t drawing a lot of attention.

After collecting our bags in Cabo, we queued for customs, with all of the above on a luggage cart. As soon as the agent saw the nauticam cases, she pointed us to the inspection area. We didn’t event get to push the button for “inspection or no inspection”. Apparently, you are allowed two cameras plus accessories, but they don’t consider housings to be accessories (because this way they can charge you 16% import duty!). No one spoke English, there were no supervisors available, and our only option was to pay the $240 USD fee. It turns out that this is a relatively new scam (see here and here ). We ran into a group of underwater photographers with similar gear and several of their group were targeted as well (not coincidentally, the ones with premium tags on their baggage).

After the total shake-down, we found our driver and hopped into the air conditioned van for the two hour drive north east to La Paz. It was not a great start to the trip.

Costa Baja Resort

We stayed at the Costa Baja Resort, which is about 15 minutes North of the town of La Paz and 5 minutes from where the dive boats depart.

(Image from CostaBaja website)

We had a top floor Sea View suite, which gave us plenty of room to store all of our gear. A lot was just off though…

  • The first day we were provided with two very small bottles of water. Seemed odd given you can’t use the tap water. Every day after that we were given four.
  • The first day we had two bath towels, two hand towels, and one washcloth. Every day after we were given one bath towel and several bath mats.
  • The outdoor shower and tub looked amazing. Most people see soaking tubs and envision bubble baths sprinkled with bougainvillea petals. We see them as rinse tanks for cameras 🙂 Unfortunately we wouldn’t be using it for either activity because the water was brown. Dark brown.

The hotel had a nice pool (though there were never any towels) and two restaurants: Mosaic for buffet breakfast and Steinbeck’s for dinner. Neither served bottled water, which was just … weird.

We don’t eat big breakfasts while diving (due to sea sickness) and we were out on the boat for lunch so we didn’t use the hotel facilities that much. Given we were both sick (see next paragraph), we stuck with room service for most dinners.

Fidepas Hospital

Precisely three days after sitting next to the coughing man, the day we flew to Mexico, Andy came down with whatever plague this man was carrying. Andy was burning up but couldn’t get warm, had a hacking cough, and also had diarrhoea. Oh yeah – forgot to mention – it was our 20th anniversary. In sickness and in health, right ?

Rather than wait it out, I called James (who had arranged our trip) to figure out the best place to go. He recommended Fidepas Hospital, which is a private hospital about 30-minutes away and has English speaking doctors.

We were the only ones there when we arrived. The clerk handed me a pad of post-its and said, “escribe tu nombre.” Luckily, my kindergarten Spanish kicked in, so I wrote Andy’s name on the pad and handed it back. This was the extent of the registration process. Feeling confident with my linguistic abilities, I said “mi esposo esta mal”. The clerk looked at me strangely. I thought “mal” meant sick (e.g., mal de mar = seasickness) but it turns out that means “my husband is evil/wrong”. Anyhow…

We were taken to an office/examination room, where Dr Alex asked a bunch of questions while a nurse took Andy’s vitals. After about ten minutes, the conclusion was cold/flu (from the airplane idiot) combined with some sort of gastro infection (from something he ate). Yes, we both had the flu shot. No, it isn’t 100% effective.

Dr. Alex gave Andy three prescriptions, which we had filled next door (and also bought all of their Gatorade). I came down with the same thing 24-hours later.

The Cortez Club

Our package with the Cortez Club included five days of diving, with a private boat and photographer guide. We only do private boats after the horrible experience in Fiji, and we like going out with a photographer guide, because they know what we’re looking for and can provide guidance on settings, composition, etc.

We missed one day of diving due to illness, and had another day canceled due to weather, but the three days we went out were magical.

We were there for the sea lions, so we spent all three days at Los Islotes, which is part of the Espiritu Santo archipelago about an hour north of La Pas. The dive is no more than 5 meters at the absolute deepest, the water is warm (26C / 79F), and there is virtually no current. We knew it was going to be good when we encountered this squadron of mobula rays on the way there.

There are four main areas at Los Islotes:

  • The Arch
    The arch is an underwater swim through from the south to the north side of the island. There was a bit of current when we visited, so we started on the south side and had the boat pick us up on the north side. We were told that if we were patient and waited, we would likely see the sea lions playing with items suck as rocks and sticks. Our patience was rewarded and we saw sea lions playing with large sticks, coral, and even star fish!
  • The Cave
    I am not a fan of cave diving, but I was ok with this because you could always see the opening and there was decent light. I also may have been distracted from the dozens and dozens of sea lions. They nibbled on fins, my hair, strobe arms, dome covers, and even my (fake) Go Pro. They just wanted to play.
  • Everything in Between
    In addition to the sea lions, there were massive schools of sardines and diving cormorants.
  • The Rookery
    You can’t dive here

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