Sea of Cortez Trip Report 2023 - Bluewater Dive Travel
Sea of Cortez Trip Report 2023

Sea of Cortez Trip Report 2023

Sea of Cortez Trip Report

AUG/ SEPT 2023

Words by Nirupam Nigam, photos by Nirupam and guests

Nirupam's camera gear: The new Canon EOS R100 in an Ikelite R100 housing with Ikelite DS 230 strobes, Ikelite DS 160 Mark II strobes, Sea & Sea YS-D3 Duo strobes, the new Sony ZV-E1 in an Ikelite Sony ZV-E1 housing, the Insta 360 One RS in a Mantis Sub RS housing, and a Samsung Galaxy S22 in a SeaLife SportDiver housing with a new prototype lens mount. 


The Sea of Cortez is a dynamic entanglement of nutrient-rich currents, temperamental water temperatures, and an equally erratic atmosphere. Each of these phenomena contributes to an engine of evolution that drives a charismatic cast of characters found nowhere else on this planet.

Enter the signal blenny (Emblemaria hypacanthus). With a maximum size approaching two inches, had this fearsome creature been larger, sea monsters would not be mere fairy tales. Unbeknownst to the general public or most scuba divers, the signal blenny is a diamond of discovery - a tiny jewel with a rainbow of colors that flash at a moment's notice, threatening their adversaries in a colosseum of sand and pebbles.


 Signal Blenny Sea of Cortez Signal Blenny Sea of Cortez

Signal Blennies are the holy grail subject of the Sea of Cortez for underwater photographers by Nirupam Nigam

Just a few feet away, among these unassuming grains of sand, another monster emerges—the Orange Throat Pike Blenny (Chaenopsis alepidota), bobbing its fearsome throat up and down in search of a mate. As this underwater drama unfolds, a dark shadow passes overhead. Perhaps it's the curious dive of the world's most playful creature - the sea lion. Or maybe it's the world's largest fish, the Whale Shark, in search of emerald, plankton-rich waters.


corpionfish Sea of Cortez

A snapshot of our underwater photoworkshop by Nirupam Nigam

The scene changes by the dive, the day, the year. This ever-shifting, unpredictable nature of the Sea of Cortez is what entices me to make a yearly pilgrimage to this ocean oasis in a sea of desert.


Divers Sea of Cortez

Our happy dive group at the end of an incredible trip to the unique biome that is the Sea of Cortez


The Vessel and Itinerary

At the heart of this play is our vector, the Rocio Del Mar - the premiere liveaboard dive vessel in the sea. Engineered specifically for scuba diving, it features stabilizers to mitigate rough seas, a dive deck with a dedicated camera table, a video room for teaching photo workshops, and comfortable cabins with ensuite bathrooms. But above all else is the sagacious intuition and knowledge of crew and chef. They are what can only be described as the best in the business. The divemasters have the unique ability to be safety conscious while working with numerous photographers all in the search of rare and exciting creatures - like signal blennies, frogfish, and nudibranchs. And perhaps most notably, the chef and cuisine on the Rocio is unmatched. Each meal is an experience unto itself, from expertly seared tuna to good old fashioned lasagna.


Rocio Del Mar Liveaboard 

Pangas are used to transport dive groups. 

The itinerary of the Midriffs Island trip is unique among dive trips in that is begins at the Phoenix airport. From there a trek across the Sonoran desert and Mexican border in 110 degree heat ends at a slightly cooler Sea of Cortez. Although this particular border crossing took a couple extra hours due to red tape, the benefit of a trip to the Northern Sea of Cortez is the lax customs rules. Border agents here don't mind if you bring an underwater camera. Once aboard the Rocio, everything is easy. You are presented with the incredible opportunity of being the only vessel you will likely see for the next week in a remote, rugged, desert ocean. The diving from the vessel is clockwork - we were split into three dive groups so that only one group was on the dive deck or part of a dive site at a time. But even with three to four dives per day, we were still able to fit in time to learn all we could about underwater photography. 

In the Midriff Islands, you're in the middle of North America's macro "muck diving" heaven. The highlights of the first half of the trip are the little flashes of color you can find in the sand - like nudibranchs, bluespotted jawfish, orangethroat pikeblennies, signal blennies, blue banded gobies, and scorpionfish. The second half of the trip is all wide angle opportunity featuring stunning black coral reef scenes, ample sea lion action, and a day of snorkeling with whale sharks. While water temperatures are often variable in the Sea of Cortez - the el nino water was very warm on our trip averaging about 86 F. For this particular trip the visibility ranged from about 20 to 50ft. It was slightly lower than average due to a recent hurricane and variable weather and full moon currents.


Sea of Cortez liveaboard itinerary


The Photo Workshop

Signing up for an underwater photoworkshop can sound daunting for both the uninitiated and the seasoned professional. Afterall, scuba diving can be exhausting by itself - much less when you're trying to operating a machine underwater at the same time. Yet even for non photographers, it presents an opportunity for creative individuals to gather an converse about a "niche within a niche" hobby that celebrates the life around us. And every now and then the stars align where a great group of people becomes a great group of friends. This was one of those trips.

Guests Relaxing on liveaboard Sea of Cortez

Masking up for a lecture. Jazz Hands!

As a teacher it's hard to describe the pride (and tinge of jealousy) felt from watching a student capture photos you could never have dreamed of. Photoworkshops give everyone, including the trip leader, the opportunity to learn from first hand experience with people that think differently. With a wide variety of experiences among our guests, it's easy to create new ideas and find new ways to capture the beauty of our planet, regardless of the image capturing device. Whether our guests had a GoPro, DSLR, or mirrorless cameras, everyone captured something new and improved their skills. Every day, either after lunch or dinner, I taught an underwater photography topic pertinent to the dives that we were doing – ranging from “macro photography” to “quick action photography” to “Adobe Lightroom.” After intensive discussions on topics, we would put them into practice underwater, and often finish up the evenings reviewing images and editing them in lightroom. At the end of the trip we held a friendly photo contest where the crew judged our images. It was spectacular to see how well everyone progressed - many participants being first time underwater shooters or with new camera systems. 

Sealions Sea of Cortez

Trip Leader, Nirupam Nigam, works with the student underwater as they figure out the problem of photographing some of the fastest underwater critters - Sea Lions! Photo by Lance Fesler


The Diving

Days 1 & 2 Isla Angel de La Guarda

Isla Angel de La Guarda may not have coral reefs that rival the coral triangle, but it certainly has muck diving opportunities that do. The checkout dive had every semblance of a checkout dive - it was shallow with minimal current and no reef to damage. However, it was also one of the premiere dives of the trip. Found under grains of white sand were tiny bluespotted jawfish that popped up and down like gophers. The hurricane had chased them to slightly deeper water (about 70 ft), but they were there in numbers. Intersperced among their "gopher holes" was the occasional male orange throat pike blenny bouncing in a dance to attract females.


Fighting Pike Sea of Cortez Bluespotted Jawfish Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Open wide by Keith Mash.
Bluespotted Jawfish by Milada Copeland

The second dive of the trip, La Vela, is a pinnacle that rises just slightly above current swept waters. Although the first shadows of sea lions flitted overhead, most of the group was to enthralled by the multiple species of nudibranchs (sea slugs) that were found - from spanish shawls to tritonias to mushroom sidegills.

Macro subject Sea of Cortez Purple Nudibranch Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Yellow Thing by Bill French with the Olympus TG-6 and new Sea & Sea YS-D3 Duo strobe. Honorable mention, macro category of the boat photo contest.
(Right) I'm a nudi you know, by Keith Mash. Winner of the macro category of the boat photo contest.

After an incredible meal of tacos on the top deck of the Rocio, with a golden sunset behind us, we moved farther south along the island. The next day brought us the holy grail of the Sea of Cotez - signal blennies. These inch long fish seem unremarkable at a first glance. Their tiny, beedy eyes peer our from small barnacle holes. Yet when the playing field gets to crowded, a massive dorsal fin rises up to reveal more color than could be possibly found in the animal kingdom. Capturing this fleeting glimpse is one of the most difficult shots I have struggled to capture as a photographer. But many in the group were not only lucky, but talented!


Blenny Sea of Cortez Orange throat pike Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Blenny Argument by Barbara Sullivan. Honorable mention, macro category of the boat photo contest.
(Right) An orange throat pike blenny by Jim Sullivan

We completed the day at nudi cove.....and it delivered! With numerous Tambja and Tiger nudibranchs, the total species count hovered at 9 or 10 different species of slug!


Nudibranch Sea of Cortez Nudibranch Sea of Cortez

 (Left) Tambja nudibranch photographed at nudi cove by Bill Santer. (Right) Other nudi by Mike Young.


Day 3&4: The Sea Lions of San Pedro Martir

The next day it was time to get our wide angle lenses out - for it was time to play with Sea Lions. Closely related to canines and bears, Sea Lions are the puppies of the oceans. They will jet around you blowing bubbles, emulating your movements, and tug at your fins more energy than any land mammal could muster. Although the males loom above with watchful eyes, we were lucky enough to spend multiple dives playing with countless pups and females. Some dives featured dramatic walls of gorgeous green black corals. Others were shallow with cathedrals of light rays dancing between swimming sea lions.


Sealions Sea of Cortez Sealions Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Jazz hands! (Right) Sealions by Max Weinmann

Sealion Sea of Cortez

Sealion by Milada Copeland

The seascape beckoned dramatic photos full of bait fish with the silhouttes of passing sea lions and the colors of soft corals. Other notable subjects included countless scorpionfish, pufferfish, and the occasional turtle!


Nudibranch Sea of Cortez Turtle swims in Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Nudis were plentiful at San Pedro Martir as well! Photo by Kristen Lumsden. This was Kristens first time with an underwater camera! Captured with the Olympus TG-6 and Weefine WFS-07 strobe and video light.  (Right) A turtle and sea lion by Lance Fesler

With a full moon overhead, the currents were unfortunately too strong for a night dive. But perhaps it was just as well as a mini hurricane passed by during the night. Winds reached up to 80 miles per hour as the captain expertly guided the vessel to safe harbor. 


Playful sealions Sea of Cortez

Playful sealions by Natasha Overbo. Winner of the wide angle category of the boat photo contest!

Days 5: Isla Salsipuedes

Having reached the southernmost point of the trip, it was time to make the journey north towards home, with a couple notable stops along the way. Passing by pilot whales during the crossing, we approached Isla Salsipuedes. The water shifted from the azure blue of the San Pedro Martir to the life-infused green of the Northern Sea of Cortez. We grabbed our macro lenses for a final time in search of blennies and jawfish. And though they were plentiful, with so many macro lenses around, of course many in our group saw a curious mobula ray pass by on our safety stop! One group even saw a full grown manta - a sign that the plankton was plentiful. 


Nudibranch & Fish Sea of Cortez Cowrie Sea of Cortez  

(Left) A nudibranch and fish on a heart urchin by Brandee McDonald. (Right) A crazie looking cowrie by Lance Fesler


Day 6 Whale Sharks at Bahia de Los Angeles

As with any trip, it's always good to go out with a bang. Unfortuantely, in this case the bang was thunder. Yet this only stopped us part way through the day. The morning began with the most challenging dive of the trip - Punta Don Juan. The current was raging but the site rewarded us divers with a glimpse at a frogfish and a giant jawfish - a larger cousin to the other jawfish in the Sea of Cortez with a voracious appetite for hand fed shrimp. By the time we were done playing with the jawfish, the current had increased to 4-5 knots and those left were blowing in the wind with their safety sausages to guide them to the surface.


Diver looking at sea star in Sea of Cortez Finespotted jawfish in Sea of Cortez  

(Left) Trip leader Nirupam with a Sea Star by Miles Bolkin. This was Miles' first time with an underwater camera!
(Right) A finespotted jawfish peers from its den in the current by Natasha Overbo

After everyone got back to the boat safely, we changed our lenses to the widest we had for the largest fish in the sea - the whale shark! Bahia de Los Angeles is known for a population of juvenile whalesharks that feed on the plentiful krill in the area. As we headed out in local pangas, we noticed large cumulus clouds ahead. Taking note, everyone agreed to cancel the activity at the first sign of lighting. Cruising through the growing weather we searched for the fin of a whaleshark among the surface chop. And just as we found our first shark, lightning began to drop with a bang! We decided to have a couple of safe jump with the shark and then head back to the boat as soon as possible to avoid the lighting. Although the activity was cut short, it was very nice to be back safely on the Rocio in one piece after a wonderful trip with a fantastic group of people. 

Whaleshark Sea of Cortez

A whaleshark before the storm by Max Weinmann


Join our next trips to Sea of Cortez:

Sea of Cortez Photo Workshop August 2024

Sea of Cortez Photo Workshop August 2025


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