I turned around slowly and there he was. He was enormous, and he was way too close for comfort, I could almost reach out and touch him. I backed away, he advanced, I squeaked with fear. His whiskers twitched, we looked at each other for a few seconds and then he slowly slipped away. My heart pounding, I watched with relief and a tiny bit of regret as his sleek, gray body swam gracefully through the azure blue water, ending my first encounter with a sea lion in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California.
The day started in La Paz, Mexico, where we arrived bright and early to the offices of Fun Baja, an awesome little outfit that offers diving excursions in the Sea of Cortez. Our group of about 10 travel and food writers picked up snorkel gear and boarded the bright yellow and white boat, ready for a day on the water. The agenda included swimming with sea lions but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was afraid it was going to be one of those sad, artificial ‘encounters’ with captive animals where both people and animals are brought together for a 15 minute splash and photo op for the folks back home. I was wrong, way wrong.
As we headed towards Los Islotes, a well known breeding site for California sea lions, I started to get excited. I found out that our visit to this barren island was going to be strictly on the lion’s terms, it would be up to them whether they wanted to come out and play with us in the waters surrounding their rocky rookery. We were on their territory and we had to play by their rules. Don’t try to invade their space we were told, let them come to you. Be quiet and courteous.
About an hour out of La Paz we finally arrived at a large outcropping of rugged, guano covered rocks and cliffs located near the tip of Espiritu Santo Archipelago National Park in the Sea of Cortez. One of the first in the water, I dived and was amazed with the marine life suddenly swirling around me, blue and gold king angelfish, brilliant blue damsel fish, and schools of parrot fish darted in and out of the underwater rocks. Someone in our group mentioned that she had snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef and didn’t see anywhere near the variety of fish as she did here. No wonder Jacques Cousteau called this area the “world’s aquarium” and the “Galapagos of North America.”
As we swam slowly toward the lion colony, I felt, more than saw, something right next to me. I turned my head and there he was, a big bull, all of a sudden I felt tiny and vulnerable as this massive 600 plus pound sea creature looked me up and down. It was a surreal experience to be so close, with no barriers between the two of us. If I moved my hand out from my side I was certain I would be able to touch this enormous guy – not that I was thinking of doing any such thing! After a few seconds he drifted away, I imagine my frozen expression of fear was probably a little off putting to him, he gracefully left me behind, perhaps to look for someone or something a little more playful.
Our small group moved slowly through the water as dark brown gray seals darted all around us, dancing, arching their backs, they were the stars and they knew it. The seals seemed to be as fascinated by us as we were of them, always coming close for a peek and then suddenly taking off, showing off their prowess in the water, knowing that we couldn’t compete. Every once in a while we would surface for a breath, look at each other, speechless with wonder. We spoke in one-word sentences, all of us understanding that words just couldn’t describe the experience we were taking part in. Wow… amazing…magical. There we were, in the midst of nature, for a short time sharing their part of our world.
Our social visit with the sea lions was over all too soon; and as we climbed back onto the boat we all agreed that the trip to Los Islotes was an incredible experience. This wasn’t Disney or SeaWorld, this was real, it was beautiful, scary, exciting and something I wouldn’t soon forget.
A special thank you to the Mexican Tourism Bureau for inviting me on a girl’s getaway and foodie tweetup in La Paz, Mexico! For updates of the fun happenings in and around La Paz please follow the hashtag #wevisitmexico on twitter.