Socorro Trip Report - February 2021 - Bluewater Dive Travel
Socorro Trip Report - February 2021

Socorro Trip Report - February 2021

Socorro, Mexico (Revillagigedo Archipelago) Trip Report – February 5th to 14th, 2021

Trip Leader: Nirupam Nigam   |   Photos by Nirupam Nigam & Group


From the rugged Bering Sea to the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean, I have explored a lot of the world's oceans. But our Bluewater workshop to Socorro was the first time that I felt as though I had sailed off the face of the map and into the uncharted Pacific of the last millennium. As you approach the remote Revillagigedo Archipelago (i.e., The Socorro Islands for non-Spanish speakers), barren volcanic islands emerge just above the bottomless depths of the open Pacific Ocean. Ash from recent eruptions form a haze in the warm wind with sparse vegetation available to contain the sublimation. And as if from a page out of Charles Darwin's notebook, curious creatures, like the brown booby, approach equally curious humans without hesitation or fear - a testament to the complete lack of development. But it is the gentle giants of the ocean, who make these remote seamounts their home, that bring underwater explorers to their doorstep. Socorro is the arguably one of the best places in the world to dive with manta rays, sharks, dolphins, and the occasional whale. During this year's Socorro underwater photoworkshop, our (very lucky) group collectively saw just about everything you could hope to see in the Revillagigedo Archipelago - solidifying it as my all-time favorite dive destination!

San Benedicto

The Ashy Volcano of San Benedicto


Day 1: The Crossing

Despite its remote location, reaching the archipelago is relatively easy. After a short flight into Cabo San Lucas, which is situated on southern tip of Baja California Sur, a series of liveaboards can take adventurous souls across 250 nautical miles of the open Pacific. The crossing takes about a day to complete with sea conditions ranging from glassy to ugly. Fortunately for us, this trip was aboard the Rocio Del Mar - a well established vessel built for divers and equipped with stabilizers that made our crossing almost unnoticeable. The friendly crew and the delectable food aboard the Rocio is legendary, and I was excited to be back amongst friends. A free day gave us time to unpack, unwind, and enjoy the sea breeze. The Rocio del Mar has plenty of lounge space on the top and middle decks as well as a TV/snack room with indoor air conditioning and couches. The TV room is the perfect place to give workshop presentations, so we got started right away. I was happy to see how enthusiastic the group was to learn about the artform. On this trip, there were even enough video shooters where we were able to add some classes specific to underwater video and video editing. We split the workshop into three dive groups that included one video and two photos groups. Keeping the video group separate allowed them to take video free of annoying flashes from strobes. 

 Rocio Del Mar

The Rocio Del Mar - Our Home for the Trip


Photo Workshop, Cameras, and Lens Choices for Socorro

Over the course of the trip we covered everything from using lightroom for photo editing to underwater photography basics to advanced wide angle photography techniques. Our guests brought a very wide range of photo systems aboard the ship including the iPhone 11 pro in a SeaLife iPhone housing, a couple Nauticam Sony A7R IV systems, a few GoPro Hero9s, a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, a Nikon D850, a Panasonic GH5, a Canon G7X, a Panasonic LX10, and more! I personally brought the new Nikon Z 7II in an Ikelite ZII housing as part of my Nikon Z 7II underwater camera review which you can read here. One of the most important points that I teach on any photoworkshop is that any modern camera can produce amazing results. The gear you have matters much less than what you do with it. Our attendees proved this with their incredible content regardless of camera system. I was particularly impressed with the photos & video from the iPhone 11, as they rivaled popular compact cameras like the Olympus TG-6 - more proof that smartphones could be the future of underwater photography.

socorro shark diving

A rectilinear wide angle lens will help you get close to hard-to-reach subjects like this shark. Photographed by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II and the Nikon 14-30mm rectilinear wide lens 


I often get asked the question "what lens should I use for Socorro?" Although, Socorro is mostly a wide angle destination, it doesn't make choosing lenses any easier. There are two choices when it comes to wide angle lenses - rectilinear (minimal distortion) and fisheye (barrel distortion). If you have both types of lenses, bring both! Rectilinear wide lenses are better options for situations where subjects aren't coming very close (e.g., shy sharks). Fisheye lenses are better for situations where large animals get really close which produces a more dramatic, detailed, and colorful image. Our trip was so eventful that I left my rectilinear wide lens on the boat after the first dive and just shot the fisheye. There are some great macro subjects in Socorro, but the wide angle action is unpredictable yet always present - so I would stick to wide angle for the whole trip unless you're really into macro. 


socorro diving

Fisheye lenses are great for getting close to your subject. Photographed with the Nikon 8-15mm fisheye lens and the Nikon Z7II in and Ikelite Z7II housing by Nirupam Nigam.


Traveling to Socorro During Covid-19

Traveling during Covid-19 can be unpredictable, but Mexico is currently one of the easiest destinations to travel to. I found that my flights were to Cabo San Lucas were about 1/3rd to half full in both directions as a result of the pandemic. Once on the boat, masks are worn inside the cabins, hallways, and rooms, but not on the open air dive deck. Temperatures are taken once a day. After coming back from the trip, the Rocio del Mar helped organize rapid Covid-19 tests directly on the boat before we left for the airport. Thankfully everyone tested negative and made their way to their destinations without delay (except for some snow!). However, it's important to consider that social distancing is difficult on a liveaboard dive boat. The key is constant communication amongst the group. I was very happy that every participant was able to sit down and talk about how we wanted to operate and live with each other during the trip. We made decisions candidly and together. 

shark diving

Reefsharks at the Canyon. Photographed by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II


DAY 2: el cañón - The Best way to start a trip

We awoke to glassy seas and a vibrant orange haze over the volcanic island of San Benedicto. Anticipation filled the air as gear was loaded into inflatable skiffs and camera housing doors were closed. "The Canyon" is not your typical checkout dive. It is a submarine ridge that slopes into the abyss with a deeper canyon on one side, frequented by schooling hammerhead sharks. All dives in Socorro are advanced with the potential for current and depths as deep as you wish to go. So be prepared to use nitrox and make sure neutral buoyancy is second nature before bringing a camera. The main attraction of the Canyon is a rocky pinnacle that serves as a cleaning station where schools of barberfish loiter. They wait for sharks of every size and shape to stop by for a "bath" where the barberfish feast on a buffet of shark parasites. 

scuba diving socorro

A curious silvertip reefshark gets close at the Canyon. Photographed by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II and Nikon 8-15mm fisheye lens in an Ikelite housing

Within a few seconds of rolling into pelagic-blue water, Socorro hit us in full force. A couple of huge oceanic manta rays immediately appeared and circled around our group. They eyed each diver individual and began playing with the bubbles that rose up from our regulators. As we continued down the ridge we began to see a few of the trip's first sharks - a large galapagos reefshark slid down the reef, maintaining its distance. Closer to the cleaning station, this turned into a large number of whitetip reefsharks, silvertip reefsharks, silky sharks, more galapagos sharks and a school of hammerheads. Even a tiger shark swam by! The sharks at the Canyon have the special distinction of showing little hesitation among divers. They are intelligent and quite used to our presence. This makes them a little easier to photograph with a fisheye lens, as they approach divers a little closer than at other sites. The day only got better from there. On the second and third dives a pod of dolphins made their appearance. Their clicks preceded them. Then a school of jacks swam by in an organized panic. The dolphins followed them, nipping at any fish that they decided to harass - clearly playing with their food. After surfacing from our dives, we reflected on the incredible day. Even the members of our group who had been to Socorro before agreed that the day had included some of the best dives they had done in Socorro. 

pod of dolphins

A pod of dolphins at the Canyon photographed by Kyle Wagener with a Sony A7R IV in a Nauticam Sony A7R IV housing.

socorro dolphins

"Kyle the Dolphin Whisperer." A photograph of Kyle taking the photograph above by Richard Condlyffe with the Sony A7R IV.


DAY 3: Roca Partida - "Fishnados" and "SharkPiles"

Roca Partida is the smallest of the four Revillagigedo Islands. From the boat it looks like a small, guano covered rock that barely breaks the surface of an expansive ocean - with no other land masses in sight. But underneath the waves is a sheer, bottomless pinnacle surrounded by curtains of schooling fish and circling sharks. The seas were glassy - an incredible and rare sight to behold in the middle of the Pacific. It also made for perfect conditions for taking half-and-half images of this iconic site as we first entered the water.

socorro island

 A half-and-half photo of Roca Partida captured on a glassy day by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II 


Roca Partida is small enough to swim around multiple times in a dive - and indeed we did. On one side of the pinnacle, small rocky ledges provide the only space available for whitetip reefsharks to stop and take a rest from constant swimming in open blue water. In a fight for real estate, the sharks pile up much like sea lions are known to do on crowded docks. Whitetip reef sharks are characters. They're a little greedy for space, a little vindictive, a little shy, and a little stubborn.

socorro island diving

A "sharkpile" of whitetip reef sharks by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II 

Rounding the corner from the shark condominium we came across massive communities of fish where the currents on either side of the pinnacle met in a swirl of motion. Schools of fish formed vortexes occasionally penetrated by curious sharks. The faint shapes of tuna and hammerhead sharks passed quickly in the distance. On the pinnacle itself, smaller reef life also fights for space - from spiny lobsters to moray eels. Roca Partida is the best site in Socorro for taking close-focus wide-angle photos with a fisheye lens or a WACP due to the rainbow-colored substrate on the wall and charismatic piles of sharks. So make sure you bring your fisheye on this dive! After a discussion with the group, we decided that although Roca Partida was a beautiful place to dive, it would be better to get back to San Benedicto and Socorro Island a little earlier to enjoy some more of the incredible interactions we had the day before. 


DAY 4: Cabo Pierce - A Manta Ray Bubble Bath

Although Socorro is the largest of the Revillagigedo Islands, Cabo Pierce is the only site on the island of Socorro itself with consistently great interactions. The site itself is similar to the canyons, with a finger of rock extending from a rugged volcanic island into the depths. But the island life both above and below is quite different. The day began with a magnificent encounter with manta rays. As our groups took turns slowly meandering down the submarine finger of rock, three manta rays deliberately followed each group in a continuous cycle of rotations. Each manta clearly enjoyed the "bubble bath" that hovered above each group. Their intelligence showed in the interaction - one manta seemed to recognize the diver who gave the most bubbles and immediately swam to him as a dog might with a lost friend. The dive ended with some of the first direct sunshine of the trip - perfect for capturing sunball photos with the mantas. 

manta ray

  A friendly manta ray in the sun Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II 


During the second and third dive, we switched tactics as the current picked up. Each group took turns hiding behind a rocky ledge, just out of the current. As we waited, a large school of hammerhead sharks would slowly rise up out of the depths and fall back again. We estimated that there were about 50! I decided to hang back a little from the group when I noticed that the whitetip reefsharks were resting in lighter paches of sand, making easy subjects for fisheye photos. One of the most curious finds at Cabo Pierce is the confusingly large number of peacock flounder that inhabit the reef. 

manta ray diving

  A friendly manta ray in the sun Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II 


The day ended in a frenzy of activity! As some of our group got back to the boat, they noticed a pod of dolphins nearby swimming at the surface in a relaxed manner. Some guests got in the water with snorkels and played with the dolphins for 15 minutes - with amazing photographic results. At the same time, a flurry of tail slaps, breaches, and spouts from humpback whales told us it was time to get in the water! Although many in the group tried to get close, our luck evaded us and no one saw the whales underwater. That being said, they put on quite a show at the surface!


Snorkeling with dolphins by Richard Condlyffe


DAY 5: The Boiler - Hammerheads and Tigers and Mantas, oh my!

There is one site in Socorro where amazing interactions with manta rays are all but guaranteed, and that's the Boiler. The Boiler is a large stack of striated volcanic rock that reaches just under the surface of the water. I had been waiting to dive the boiler for six years so the anticipation was high! As we entered the water, a large tiger shark leisurely swam beneath us, though having no desire to stick around. As we turned around the corner of the stack, two manta rays greeted with almost a tired laziness. They seemed to enjoy our presence and swam between divers, often maintaining eye contact. Many of the passes didn't seem to be about the bubbles, but more about the company. As my group was getting out of the water and into the skiff, a tiger shark made a quick and curious pass at the remaining divers in the water. As I was the last to step out, I noticed a silky shark had come in and was circling my feet! 

manta ray

A curious perspective of a manta ray by Kyle Wagener, photographed with the Sony A7R IV in a Nauticam housing 

socorro manta ray

An expansive view of a manta ray at the boiler photographed by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II.


During the second dive, our group decided to look for larger sharks at deeper depths. As we reached 120ft, we spotted some large Galapagos sharks circling the bottom below, but could not go any deeper to reach them. Two mantas passed by the bottom in a slow ballet, blending into the substrate. As we made our safety stop the shadows of hammerheads and tuna materialized in the distance. The last dive was less eventful so we spent much of the time enjoying the reef creatures. The spiny lobsters were particularly huge and fearless, with no predators to take them. 


There are some macro subjects in Socorro! This endemic Blenny was captured by Erica Crawford with the iPhone11 Pro in a SeaLife Housing 


DAY 4: EL CAÑÓN - Again!

With the Canyons proving to be the best site of the trip thus far, we had high expectation as we arrived back to where we had started. The day was particularly windy and we were happy to be in a protected area. The Canyons did not disappoint! Hammerheads! Lots of hammerheads. At the cleaning station many of the hammerheads came by to check us out and some got quite close. After seeing many in the distance on previous dives, it was great to get up close and watch their strange movements. 

silvertip shark

Richard Condlyffe captured some excellent slow shutter, motion blur photos of silvertip reef sharks with the Sony A7R IV 

We had a suspicion that the video group seemed to get some of the best interactions because there were no annoying strobes to scare away animals. The theory seemed to come true when I saw a flash of light coming from Divemaster Louis's torch. In Socorro that's always a good sign, so I swam as quick as I could and saw a huge dark shape materialize out of the blue abyss at 120ft deep. It was a whale shark! Given that is was "only" about 2.5 body lengths of a diver, I could deduce that it was likely a juvenile. Whale sharks are inherently unintelligent. This one didn't seem to even notice that there was a trail of divers following it as fast as they could keep up. After all, one tail swish for a baby whale shark is two diver body-lengths. I was impressed to see that many of the video shooters in our group were able to keep up quite well! As people had their fill of swimming, I decided to use my last bit of energy and take a couple photos before surfacing quite a ways from the group. The day ended with some more curious mantas and another pod of dolphins!

 whale shark

A whale shark photographed by Nirupam Nigam with the Nikon Z7II


A Whale Shark Captured by Yuriy Kotlyar

A Whale Shark Captured by Becky Clark



Dolphins filmed by Ronald Ringl


The topside weather wasn't getting much better outside the protected enclave of the Canyons, so we decided to remain in place for our final day. We were lucky that we did because our last day at the Canyons was another round of once-in-a-lifetime moments. As we descended, the ethereal song of humpbacks filled the water in a blanket of sound. It was a continuous presence throughout the day. By the end of the trip, the photographers had perfected the artform of shark photography. I watched proudly as some photographers formed a circle around the pinnacle. Everyone stayed low and out of the way. This allowed for the sharks to calmly approach each diver in succession, and each diver got close photos in turn. The dolphins joined us again in a flurry of activity - chasing jacks and barrel-rolling around divers. Hammerheads and Tiger sharks passed by as the regular Galapagos, Silky, Whitetip, and Silvertip sharks went about their business. 

socorro dolphin

Dolphins photographed by Karen Tan with the Sony RX100 V

But the true highlight of the day was bestowed upon our last lucky group. As they came to their safety stop, during the last three minutes of the trip, two large humpback whales passed by them underwater with curiosity....four times! I could see the envy seeping through the scuppers as everyone on the Rocio watched the humpbacks pass the group from the surface. But in the end, we all had an amazing encounter as the humpbacks put on a show of acrobatics to see us off and back to port. 

humpback whale socorro humpback whale humpback whales

A humpback whale photographed by Gary Hals


 Humpback Whales Captured by Karen Tan


Final Socorro Tips

1. Bring a 5mm wetsuit - the temperature was about 72 to 76F

2. Bring a rectilinear wide lens if you want to take photos of hammerhead sharks - they don't like to get close.

3. Bring a fisheye lens to the boiler (for manta rays) and roca partida (for half and half shots and whitetip reefsharks)

4. Be prepared to dive where the conditions allow for it. Socorro is in the open ocean so conditions are unpredictable and things can get windy. The Canyon is often dived when conditions require protection from the elements. It can also be difficult to get to Roca Partida at times. 

5. When taking photos of sharks - get low, hide your head behind your camera, and don't make eye contact. Eye contact can scare sharks. 

 Socorro Group Trip

The Group


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