in Baja California Sur
I have been photographing sharks and rays
for almost a decade, traveling all over the world in pursuit of unusual
species. For sharks, my favorite continent is Australia where almost 200
species reside. But for rays, there is no better place to look than in the
warm, shallow waters of the Sea of Cortez. Baja’s bizarre assortment of
batoids (rays) includes giant mantas, eagle rays, butterfly rays, electric
rays, cownose rays, scores of stingrays, three types of guitarfish and a
handful of deepwater skates.
Pull off the road at any protected beach,
don a mask and snorkel, and the adventure begins. Colorful parrotfish munch
away at the algae covered rocks, sea stars creep across the white sand like
the negative of a night sky, and pufferfish float around ready to inflate
their way out of trouble. Observing all this activity from the safety of the
sea floor are ornately patterned Round, Cortez, and Bullseye Stingrays.
These Frisbee sized animals (collectively called round stingrays) forage for
invertebrates in the substrate and occasionally chase each other in comical
Round stingrays abound in the Sea of
Cortez which some people may find disturbing. Think of them as the garter
snakes of the sea. Although they possess the hardware to defend themselves,
they would much rather swim away than risk a confrontation. In fact, the
hardest part of stingray watching is getting close enough to enjoy their
beautiful markings before they panic and take flight.
Waders are occasionally stung when they
inadvertently tread on stingrays in the shallows. Although the pain can be
quite intense (like a bad bee sting), the venom is unlikely to cause any
long term health problems and the pain can quickly be alleviated by
immersing the area in very hot water. A doctor should then confirm that the
wound is clear of any foreign material and an antiseptic should be applied
to counter infection. Savvy beachgoers use the self explanatory ‘stingray
shuffle’ to avoid stepping on hidden rays.
Every time I visit Baja I stop at Playa El
Burro (south of
Mulegé) where I know that I can find lots of round stingrays.
Chasing stingrays can keep me
entertained for days but on my last trip with my girlfriend Claire, we
decided to go in search of more exotic batoids which involved trading in our
snorkels for scuba gear. In La Paz, we joined the divers at Club Cantamar on
a trip to the sea lion colony at Los Islotes.
While the other divers frolicked in the
waves with the acrobatic California sea lions, we grabbed our cameras and
wandered off in search of electric rays. These stocky cousins of the
stingray have lost their venomous spines and developed electrically charged
organs that they use to shock their prey into submission. They can pack a
hefty punch but they rarely act aggressively towards divers.
Dropping down to 70ft I soon located a
pair of eyes peaking out of the sand. Fanning the seabed revealed a boldly
patterned Bullseye Electric Ray. This strange little creature has a circular
marking on its back that is designed to look like a huge eyeball. In theory
it should scare away larger predators but I can’t help thinking that it
looks more like a target than a means of defense.
We found a number of Bullseye and Cortez
Electric Rays on that dive. One even rose up into the water column and came
over to check us out to the delight of Claire who floated mesmerized while
the plucky little ray swam around her.
Bidding farewell to our friends at Club
Cantamar, we had just enough time to squeeze in one more day of diving
before heading back to the US. We chose Cabo Pulmo, the jewel of the Sea of
Cortez and the only hard coral reef structure on the Pacific coast of North
After a bumpy ride along a mostly unpaved
road we arrived in time to catch the last panga heading out to the Cabo
Pulmo National Marine Park. It is easy to see why the local residents
lobbied so fiercely to have this area declared off limits to commercial
fishermen. We plunged into such a riotous assortment of colorful fish and
invertebrates that it was difficult to know where to point our cameras.
Then, beneath the swirling mass of life I found a female Banded Guitarfish
nonchalantly resting next to a coral head. Its pectoral fins were in tatters
probably from being grasped by too many overzealous males. Perhaps it was
too exhausted to swim away because it allowed me to settle onto the sand
beside it, and marvel at its alien appearance. Devoid of any defensive
weapons, Banded Guitarfish survive by their shear size and toughened,
leathery hide that makes them invulnerable to all but the most persistent
predators. Delighted with this unexpected find, I snapped away feverishly
while Claire swam among the Jacks and groupers above my head.
While we washed and stowed our dive gear
for the long drive north, I wondered when we would make another trip. As if
reading my mind, the dive master walked over and said “So, have you dived
with schooling mobula rays yet?” I stood there drooling while he described
the thrill of swimming through hundreds of rays gliding in formation just
below the surface. “Come back in February” he said. “As the seasons change,
so do the rays”. Obviously I will have to make many more trips before I have
seen all that the Sea of Cortez has to offer.