A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO the opportunity arose to join a trip off Mexico’s Pacific coast to dive with some of the larger animals in the sea, including various species of shark, whale sharks and, of most interest to me, giant Pacific manta rays.
I booked, but by the time the trip came along I’d almost forgotten the details. We were to fly to LA, overnight there, then fly down to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California before boarding the Nautilus Belle Amie, which would take us 235 nautical miles offshore for a nine-night trip.
All went well enough until we hit Cabo airport at the beginning of the American spring break. The queue through Mexican customs was horrendous, and it took us three hours to clear the airport for our two-hour flight.
We boarded the liveaboard on Sunday evening and set off around midnight. Next morning everyone was looking the worse for wear, thanks to the force-5 breeze accompanying us. We had been advised to bring sea-sickness medication and most of us needed it, even those who normally had no problems.
We sailed through the day and night, finally dropping anchor at San Benedicto, an island in the Revillagigedo archipelago.
THE CHECK-OUT DIVE came first thing on Tuesday morning. We kitted up on the back deck and were divided into groups and allocated slots on the RIB.
I had hired a wetsuit on board, a very cosy 7mm Bare, and had asked for only 7kg of weight, forgetting the difference between aluminium and steel tanks.
I couldn’t manage the negative descent. In fact I couldn’t get down at all, despite the extra 3.5kg the captain loaded on to me!
I missed out on that dive. The second dive I did manage, but it was an unmitigated disaster.
I don’t have a regular buddy and, although I already knew a few people on the trip, I wasn’t diving with anyone I knew. This is not unusual for me, and is why I got my Rescue Diver qualification a few years ago, and updated my Emergency First Response shortly before the trip.
But the current was very strong, and we were finning against it. I wasn’t keeping up.
Just before the dive, I had needed to remove the audible alarm gizmo they had attached to my BC, because it was interrupting the flow of air in and out of it. I had also removed the rattle from my pocket to allow for extra weight.
My computer wasn’t playing ball, and I’d gone to my back-up just before the dive – but hadn’t set it to nitrox.
My tank hadn’t been topped up after my bobbing up and down on the first attempt at a dive, and I was using air at a rate of knots.
I had an SMB, but the last time I had used it in Indonesia I had got the line caught up in my camera-strap and shot to the surface following my safety stop.
My newly allocated buddy was away with the group, and not looking back in my direction – in fact, no-one was looking in my direction.
Finally I caught up with one of the group, Jim, who had stopped to take a photo. By this time I was not in a good place – I was down to 50 bar!
Jim got the attention of the divemaster leading the group, and my buddy finally realised that I was in trouble. She came back, and we agreed to go up.
THEN I DID A REALLY STUPID THING, and used my SMB and air rather than hers.
I had trouble inflating the SMB, and used even more air. All of a sudden I was running on empty, with my buddy still below me and unaware of the situation I was in.
I gave her the universal “out of air” sign but she sat there looking at me, not seeming to get the message. Then eventually she came up, gave me her octo and we surfaced.
I had almost 400 dives under my belt, and had never run out of air before. I had run cylinders close to empty, but only after a safety stop spent taking photos in a coral garden at 2-3m. How had I allowed myself to get into such a mess?
An SMB course wouldn’t have gone amiss after the incident in Indonesia (though I don’t think it was entirely my fault), or even a practice session at Capernwray. A couple of minutes to reset my computer to nitrox would have reassured me that I wasn’t likely to go into deco.
And what was I thinking of when I used my air to inflate the SMB when my buddy had plenty? But by that time, I was no longer thinking straight.
Anyway, I lived to tell the tale and, I hope, learnt something in the process. I didn’t dive again that day, and those who did all reported strong currents. Many of them were more experienced than me, yet had been surprised by the conditions on the check-out dive.
AFTER A RESTLESS NIGHT imagining myself lost at sea waiting to get eaten by sharks, I got up and spoke to the divemaster who had led the previous day’s dive.
We went over the incident and agreed that I could have come up by myself and deployed the SMB at the surface if necessary, and that my experience to date was sufficient to enable me to dive safely on this trip.
I then spoke to Darryn, the divemaster who would be taking us out on the second day, and explained that I needed to have a good dive or I was likely to be spending the rest of the trip on the sun-deck! Both divemasters were great, and Darryn agreed to buddy me.
We kitted up and clambered into the RIB. We again attempted a negative entry. As I hit the water, I recall thinking that it had gone better, because at least I knew where I was.
A millisecond later a cylinder whacked me on the temple – the diver next to me had hesitated, and entered the water slightly after everyone else.
Fortunately my mask caught the brunt of the blow, and I ended up with no more than a bruise. Later in the week another diver was hit on the side of the head and ended up with a perforated eardrum. But I was just feeling that nothing was going my way.
Once we had ascertained that I was OK we made the dive. I couldn’t tell you what we saw, only that I completed it in one piece and surfaced with reserve air.
THE NEXT DAY I was well into my air and mooching along having seen nothing spectacular and wondering what I was doing there when a manta swam past us and away. Lovely!
At 50 bar, I began my ascent. Once again I seemed to have become separated from my buddy, but to my advantage this time. On my safety stop the manta came back with a pal. And I had my camera. Absolutely fantastic!
We saw mantas aplenty on the trip, but none came as close as that one. My one regret is that I put the camera between me and the animal at the closest point, and the pic is blurred! But I had come to see mantas, and wasn’t disappointed.
The rest of the diving paled by comparison. It was challenging, with current and surge on most of the dives, and I never really felt comfortable in the water.
On the last dive I finally got my weight sorted, but still ran out of air way before anyone else.
We were diving at a site called the Boiler, where waves break over the rocks. I had been clinging to a pillar, chasing a shy octopus for the perfect shot, and made my way to the top and peeked over. A manta was hanging in the water about 15m away, swaying in the surge.
I let go of the rock and watched my fellow-divers’ bubbles disappear into the blue. I deployed my SMB and surfaced quite a way from the boat, although near a couple of other divers. I had no idea where my buddy was.
I later found out that two of the more experienced divers, Nick and RJ, had waited in the water for half an hour before being located, after being swept out further than anyone else.
But as well as SMBs we had been issued with Nautilus GPS trackers to use in an emergency – the divers had been thinking about using theirs when they were spotted and picked up.
The system on Nautilus Belle Amie (and, I’m sure, the two sister-boats) was spot-on. The RIB operators were in constant radio-contact with the boat to report on the number of divers in the water at any one time, and which ones were waiting to be picked up. The radios were also great for ordering hot chocolate with Baileys after the last dive.
It’s unlikely that Nick and RJ were in any danger of being lost, but diving in such remote locations clearly carries greater risks than those normally associated with our sport.
BY THE END of the trip I had made new friends, and had had some experiences I won’t forget. The diving was challenging, and I wasn’t the only one to suffer mishaps, despite many of the divers having more experience and qualifications than me.
I think the group had higher expectations of what we would see, but wild animals come and go as they please. There is no chumming in this area, and the dive-crews don’t feed the animals to bring them to the sites.
The fact that the hammerheads stubbornly remained at least 60m away was just one of those things – one group boasted a sighting on their safety stop, but they had put their cameras away, so there is no photographic evidence!
Two of the four groups got to see a whale shark, even though they were supposed to be out of season; the rest of the group snorkelled with silky sharks one evening off the back of the boat.
Call me a wimp, but I didn’t fancy getting between a shark and its tea. However, the trip did make me more comfortable about diving where sharks are allowed to go about their business.
As well as whitetips and the silkies, Galapagos, tiger, silvertip and an oceanic whitetip were among the sightings.
THE OTHER GREAT THING about this trip was the crew. They were fantastic, especially the chef, and we all put weight on, despite the diving.
The hostesses were brilliant, and the divemasters professional in the extreme, each bringing their own strengths to make a strong team.
One of my fellow-divers summed up the experience on the daily blog as “bonkers but fabulous!”.
If I were planning this not-cheap trip again, I might think about trying to combine it with time to dive the Sea of Cortez, or a stay in the States.
But would I do it again, knowing what I know now? You bet – and I’d be sure to look that manta in the eye!