Layers of green unrolled before one another as we neared the island. Soft hills ending in sheer cliffs marked the entrances of one inviting cove after another as the frigate birds circled high overhead. If San Benedicto is Mordor then Isla Socorro is definitely the Shire.
We could have continued frolicking with the giant mantas of San Benedicto forever, but a large swell was predicted to reach us in the coming days and the protection in the tiny lava-flow anchorage was feeling moderate at best. We decided it would be a great time to sail south to the next and largest island in the Revillagigedo archipelago, Isla Socorro.
The size of Socorro lends itself to a diverse coastline with several protected anchorages and endless coves, points, spires, caves, arches, pinnacles and smaller islets to explore. We stuck to the west side for our two-week stay because of the prevailing winds from the NE. We could’ve stayed for months and not seen all we wanted to. We spent most of our time in the lee of the large Punta Tosca where we found good protection from the high winds and swell that came through every few days. We got used to anchoring in deep water (60-80 feet), many times over rock. Vertical rock walls that shot straight down into deep water surrounded most of the anchorages. There are endless options for diving here from steep walls to multiple underwater ridges that splay out off the point. This was a great place to see sharks including hammerheads and silvertips. Humpback whales, dolphins, and giant mantas cruised by the boat regularly. Dive boats joined us in the anchorage just enough to let us know we weren’t completely alone, but we often had the place to ourselves.
So there is this little islet called Roca Oneill, about 1.5 miles off the northwest side of Socorro that we were told has A-MAZE-ING diving. It is a large rock, surrounded by a narrow underwater shelf, that drops off into very deep water… making it a good place to see large pelagic passersby. We even heard there is a very large tiger shark that took up residence there some time ago. We wanted to visit this place, but every time we caught a glimpse it was being smothered in explosions of white water… a fair-weather site for sure. After two weeks of exploring Socorro both the wind and swell dropped to almost nothing AT THE SAME TIME and upon inspection Roca Oneill looked remarkably peaceful. @#$% yes! We were on our way! This excursion in Gladys (the dinghy) felt particularly “out there” because there were no other boats nearby, we weren’t sure how secure the anchoring would be, and if something were to happen to our motor the next stop would be the South Pacific. So for the first time we took along our EPIRB (satellite emergency beacon), you know, just in case. We anchored in 40 feet on the southern side of the island, which was protected from the wash of the small but powerful waves. It felt sharky. We both felt it, but were determined. we slowly got ready and silently slipped into the water. We swam around the east side of the island along a sparse shallow ledge that dropped into an abyss. Tons of a huge fish and a couple white tip sharks surrounded us. We even saw some gigantic (150 pound?) tuna swimming in the distance. Jonah saw the tiger shark. I only saw Jonah’s face and his rapid hand gestures of REALLY BIG SHARK. I don’t know which was scarier. He is usually so calm and collected, and for the rest of the dive he just couldn’t relax or stop looking behind us. He wasn’t even videoing the scenery, which is quite out of character. Needlesstosay we finished our dive safely, discussed all the cool things we saw including the huge scary shark, and decided to go back again the next day. After all, this is exactly what we signed up for. The next day the swell dropped even more and we dove the other side of the island, which is shallower and has more rocky ridges and troughs. I felt more at ease and we never saw the tiger again. We weaved in and out of the canyons where white tips rested and were even scrutinized buy a squeaking bottlenose dolphin. So much life. Such clear water. A whole lot of mystery. All to ourselves. This is a diver’s paradise.
Let me tell you about my best day. There were a bunch of amazing days so it’s tough to choose, but this one is definitely the winner. There was not much to the day except that a mom and a baby humpback whale swam by, and we were in the water watching them swim by. That’s it, best day ever. I had never been in the water with whales before and the peaceful power of these slow moving giants was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I stayed very still and watched, making eye contact and thinking very loudly “I mean no harm. You are beautiful. Thank you for sharing this slice of ocean with me.” I’m still feeling it. Humpback whales migrate to the Revillagigedos every winter to mate and give birth. Due to the warmer water there were less than usual, but they still regularly graced us with their presence. We’d see them swimming by the boat every other day or so, and on this particular day they swam by while we were in the water. The newborn calf was hanging close in the protection only a mother can provide, and once they were past we watched it jumping, breaching, and splashing playfully in the distance.
By the third week no amount of underwater splendor could keep us from getting irritable with each other. We had spoken no more than greetings to anyone else in a long time. Normally we have other sailors to hang out with and beaches to swim to. Here we weren’t swimming because of the curious sharks and land was off limits, which meant every minute on the boat, every dinghy trip, every dive, we were side by side. So you could imagine our joy at being asked to dinner and drinks on the dive boat Belle Amie. New people to share stories with, a stable deck to walk upon, and food that I didn’t cook = my kind of night. This is by far the nicest boat in the fleet with the friendliest crew, and they took us under their wing. At one point we broke our compressor, could no longer fill our tanks, and thought our amazing dive trip was over. They calmed our fears, filled our tanks, and gave us the part that Jonah used to fix it. We love the Belle Amie and highly recommend them for a live-aboard trip to the islands in the winter or white shark cage diving in Guadalupe in the summer (www.nautilusbookings.com).
All that time we waited in La Paz for our island permits paid off after our first week at Socorro. We had to break them out and show them to the authorities. The Mexican navy has a small base at the bottom of the island out of which they do military drills, shoot guns (we found bullets everywhere), enforce island protection, and fish (because they are the guys in charge). A panga full of soldiers came by Orion one day to tell us that we needed to check in at the base and to ask us for some cold beers to drink while they were fishing. We said ok to both requests. The next day we sailed down and anchored in the tiny protected cove at the foot of their base and called them on the radio. Two hours later, six guys in various types of uniforms holding various sizes of guns boarded our boat, asked to see our permits, and filled out a ridiculous amount of paperwork. I had made cookies the night before to butter them up for the question of whether we could go walk around on the island. But while they enjoyed the cookies, these guys were playing by the rules. At the end of their visit they had us to fill out a evaluation with questions like “Did the soldiers try to sell you seafood?” and “Did the soldiers ask for bribes to go on the island? Nope and nope.
We were so enamored with Socorro Island that we vowed to return. A few weeks later this vow played a big role in our decision to head back up to the Sea of Cortez for another season rather than heading down to Central America. Our favorite thing to do is play underwater and we have yet to find a better playground than here. The wildness, the isolation, the undersea life bursting at the seams, the fact that permits are free and you can stay as long as you want- I know of no other place like this. Our plan is to head back next winter, and to bring along some friends. Until then we have about 4000 photos and 20 hours of video to remind us of the shear splendor that is Socorro.