For those of you who haven’t done a bunch of snorkeling or spent a significant amount of time around the ocean, you may be wondering what exactly pelagic means. Well, pelagic generally refers to marine life that spend the majority of their time in the open blue ocean, as opposed to residing close to the shoreline or reefs. Species like manta rays, tuna, sword fish, most species of sharks, and whales would all be considered pelagics. Basically, these are the species that are responsible for most peoples interests in the ocean given the charismatic personalities and awe inspiring behavior of these animals. The only thing is though, many of these species are quite hard come by as they spend their their time roaming the open ocean. Regular encounters with creatures such as schools of mobula rays and dolphins are few and far between, even in most iconic snorkeling destinations, and can hardly be predicted, unless of course you happen to be on a pelagic specific snorkel safari in the pelagic paradise that is the Sea of Cortez.
The way the pelagic safari works is, every morning we board a well equipped and comfortable speedboat from the beautiful marina in Cabo San Lucas Mexico and head out past the iconic arch of Cabo and into the illustrious Sea of Cortez in search of orca whales, fleets of mobula rays, various species of sharks, and whatever else happens to cross our bow. I’ll say this straight away, this tour is not for everyone. If your ideal snorkeling holiday is spending hours floating over beautiful reefs, this is not that holiday. Komodo or Raja Ampat, places with a mix of marine life and endless reefs may be more your cup of tea. For those of you who dream of sitting on the edge of a moving boat with your adrenaline turned to “Maximum” as a one-hundred-foot blue whale surfaces just a few feet from where you are perched, eagerly waiting for the “GO GO GO” from the captain, a clear signal that it’s time for you to quickly slide into the water and meet this majestic creature face to face as it casually drifts just beneath you like a submarine, this trip is for you.
Another thing we want to be clear about is that, given the inherent illusive nature of these creatures we are searching for, it could be anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours or scanning the horizon for dorsal fins as we motor our way through the open ocean. Yes, the boat does have a canopy to protect our fragile skin from the sun, yes, there is a toilet on board, yes, there are endless amazing snacks and drinks to graze on as we pass the time, and the pelagic guide and captain are extremely knowledgeable and just generally interesting people to be around as they regale us with all the amazing encounters they’ve had in the sea, but it is a full day on the ocean. That being said, once the first sleek gray dorsal fin from an orca or a smooth hammerhead shark appears, all time spent waiting is forgotten as the adrenaline kicks in and you scramble to swap a sandwich for a snorkel and get into the water.
I was lucky enough to spend three days on the Sea of Cortez i in August 2019 which is sort of like low season in the Gulf of Mexico as it’s the one month where the marine life comes to a bit of a lull. I wasn’t too bothered though as my main objective was not to see big amazing animals, but more to see if the operation was up to the Snorkel Venture standard, which it effortlessly met. So, my first day onboard I’m relaxing on the plush bench seating enjoying the view of the rugged coastline just outside the harbor when the guide casually said, “there’s a large group of mobula rays right here if you want to get in.” I had been on the boat for a grand total of about seven minutes when she said this so the last thing I expected to find was a fleet of about a thousand mobula rays swarming beneath the boat and then to have the opportunity to be the only one in the water with them.
After about an hour or so I had my fill of the mobulas and was motivated to see what would come next. We moved the boat a few miles out into the open blue in an area where the Sea of Cortez met the mighty Pacific Ocean and onto a very specific spot known only to the crew, as a great place for finding smooth hammerheads and silky sharks. We didn’t have to wait long for a silky shark to start circling the boat, which was then quickly chased away by a larger hammerhead. Just as we were about to grab our masks though, we were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a large whale surfacing about sixty meters from the boat. The captain looked at me and just as casually as the guide had told me about the mobulas, asked if I’d like to try and get in the water with the whale. It was a very quick and definitive, “yes”. After about an hour or so of finding the whale and then losing the whale as it dived beneath the blue surface and finding it again we had finally matched it’s pace and direction and were slowly motoring along side it at a respectful distance. When the time was right and we were just in front of the whale with the engines off, we were then excitedly ushered into the water by the captain for our first of several encounters with what we soon found out was a blue whale, the largest living thing ever on earth. That was day one.
The following day included another hour-long stop with the mobula rays who hadn’t moved from their spot the previous day just out side the harbor, followed by a radio call from one of the captains friends alerting us to a pod of orca whales several miles from where we were. As if the blue whale and mobulas weren’t enough, the idea that we might be able to swim alongside one of the most iconic animals in the ocean was almost too much for me to take in. It took several hours to locate them, and at one point we had basically given up on the search and jumped in with a pod of dolphins and a couple turtles, when the pod magically surfaced just next to the boat. Once again we matched their pace from a respectful distance and when we were in front of the orcas we slid into the water to find a mother and calf passing underneath us. Over the next hour or so we casually followed the mother and calf and were able to swim with them on three different occasions that afternoon. Not too shabby for a visit in low season.
In short, the pelagic safari is amazing. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where encounters with blue whales, massive fleets of mobula rays, orcas, sea lions, blue sharks, mako sharks, hammerheads, turtles, dolphins, and a host of other amazing marine life exists with such minimal travel and effort. It is a truly unique experience. For those of you concerned about swimming with sharks, please be assured that there is very little to no risk swimming with these animals. The guides will always jump into the water first to check the behavior before ever letting us in the water. Even still, sharks are highly intelligent animals and humans are just not on their menu. Swimming with sharks and other ‘scary’ marine life like orca whales in a controlled and well-monitored environment is the quickest way to get rid of that fear and see these creatures for what they really are, amazing.