Exploring the worlds aquarium
Culture / November 15, 2010
By Abby Wiseman [coordinating editor]
For many people, sitting beside a pool drinking two-for-one margaritas and wearing a straw Corona hat is a completely satisfying vacation experience. For others ––like myself–– pool-hugging is nice for a day or two, but a week of it will induce hallucinations. That’s why, when I checked into the hotel in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, and took a look out over the balcony to the stretching ocean and crashing waves, then to the huge pool with fellow sunburned vacationers sipping blended drinks, I thought “I need to find something to do.”
Scuba diving is one of those things I always wanted to do, I have even tested out on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where I spent half the trip over the side of the boat. Bad experience aside, I was bent on getting my PADI, an international scuba certification program, certificate and wasn’t about to be seduced to the pool by way of fruity drinks.
Following up on a few recommendations by a hotel concierge (who is also a diver), I chose a dive instructor in Cabo San Lucas ––generally referred to as Cabo, the more famous town in the Gulf of California. Located 30 minutes east of San Jose del Cabo, the town is littered with American-style bars with names like Happy Endings and Cabo Wabo, and Mexican salesmen wanting you to by silver jewellrey “at a very special price, just for you.”
I arrived at the marina and realised I didn’t have a name of the dive shop, just a name: Lars. Unfortunately, there are many dive shops along the marina, but fortunately only one man named Lars.
Lars was reserved but friendly and with a brief introduction we were ready to go on what I thought was our first confined-water dive, which is supposed to be in a pool.
Apparently this wasn’t going to be the case and I found myself on a long-boat being battered by uncommonly rough seas while Lars strapped a 20 pound waist belt to me and debriefed me on the theory of scuba diving: you inflate your lungs and you will rise; you deflate and you will sink; don’t stop breathing. I was good-to-go.
Strapped onto a tank and buoyancy control device, kind of a fancy life jacket that you can inflate and deflate, I fell back into the water and was immediately assaulted by waves. A few seconds later my BCD was deflated and the weights strapped to me pulled me eight feet under to calm waters and I breathed deep and exhaled calmly. Everything was just fine.
Cabo is on the most Southern tip of the Gulf of California. Famous for its natural rock formations, most importantly one called Los Argos which is a natural arch that leads onto a popular tourist spot called Lover’s Beach. Cabo is also the land mass that separates the Gulf of California from the vast Pacific Ocean. The two meet at the end of a jutting rock formation fittingly called Land’s End.
Dubbed the “worlds aquarium” by oceanographer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, the Gulf of California has over 900 fish-species, and according to the World Wildlife Foundation, is threatened by over-fishing. There are presently 40,000 small-scale fishermen and 8,000 commercial fishermen operating in the Gulf. The ocean is also threatened by tourists who come to sport-fish massive tuna and marlin.
The delicate eco-systems are also affected by boat traffic and careless snorkelers and scuba divers. According to PADI, it takes 10 years for a small coral stalk to grow, so the flick of a fin can reverse years of growth in an instant.
Sitting at the bottom of eight feet of water communicating through hand signals and body language, Lars and I went through several exercises like how to find your regulator, which is the device you breath through, if it gets knocked off; how to relieve a leg cramp and a panic-inducing try at taking on and off your mask underwater. My automatic response to the searing pain of incredibly salty water in the eyes was to kick to the surface as quickly as possible. Luckily, Lars was prepared and yanked me down by my fin.
As we resurfaced the motion of the ocean began to affect my unprepared stomach. Luckily I wasn’t the only one as the rest of the group was on board and trying not to lose too much of their breakfast. On the way back we got wind that the marina was closed and no boats could go back out as we rocked past a capsized boat pushed onto the shore. The next day Lars let me know that the water was some of the roughest he’d seen in Cabo. He hid that fact well the day before.
Sent back to the hotel with a PADI textbook to study, I was elated by the feeling of breathing underwater, how wholly unnatural it was and how much better of a view I got than the people with their simple snorkels hanging out on the surface.
There’s something about hot and sunny places that make you want to get up early. By 6 a.m. I was sitting on a lounge chair try to cram in the three chapters I was supposed to read, but took an extended nap instead. I made it to chapter one-and-a-half as the seasickness pills set in and I took off to the dive shop. Determined to show Lars that I was an apt pupil, even without doing all the readings, I strapped together my gear and made my way into the water.
This time I was joined by a couple from North Carolina who were trying out scuba for the first time. Instructed to meet him at the bottom, Lars gave some guidelines to the couple as I attempted to make my way down. I deflated my BCD and lungs, tried to sink down and swim down, but still I couldn’t go more than a few feet. Lars pulled me up to the surface and firmly warned me that boats would not see me and I was close enough to the surface that I’d be hit. Then he stuck a weight into a pocket on my BCD and I sunk all the way down.
Scuba diving is a fine art of inflating and deflating your BCD and your lungs. The final goal is to hover in the water without going to far up or down. In other-words maintaining control.
Mrs. North Carolina didn’t make it past 10 feet before panicking and going back up. Her husband glided along with Lars and me, checking out the barracudas, eels and reef formations as we made our way around Pelican Rock. Lars signalled it was time to go up and I slowly ascended to the surface noticing that Lars had swum away from Mr. North Carolina . As I reached the top Lars signalled for me to come towards him and then I realised that Mr. North Carolina had lost his breakfast burrito and I had been swimming right in it.
On the second dive that day we left Mr. and Mrs. North Carolina behind and made our way to Land’s End. Here is where a Sea Lion colony lives and I was going to get the chance to swim in the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean at the same time. We made it to forty feet and the sea was filled with colour. Purple coral and yellow, pink, green and indigo coloured fish. And then there it was, a sleek and shiny figure gliding gracefully through the water. A sea lion came swimming right down from the surface doing a few loops on the way. He took a good look at us as we hovered all together and then swam smoothly on. Lars and I gave the “o.k”. signal to each other as he laughed at my awed eyes. Swimming with sea lions is something I could get used to, but I wanted to see a turtle.
Sea turtles are endangered in the Gulf of California but conservationists like WWF and Mexico’s Association for the Protection of the Environment and the Marine Turtle in Southern Baja, make efforts to aid the turtle population by collecting eggs when laid from the shore and releasing the hatched turtles from the same beaches into the ocean. This is an added bonus for the hotels because the eggs are often laid in front of them, giving the guests a chance to see the release.
On day three I was going to be doing two dives at 60 feet. I had gained some system of watching my gauges, hovering in the water and allowing a moment or two to enjoy the surroundings. As I admired tiny fish that looked likes purple flowers, Lars pulled me around as a giant devil ray slid smoothly and silently by and out of sight. Looking up towards the surface, waves swirled and crashed on the reef, but down near the bottom everything was calm and quiet. There were no sea turtles that day, but I was content to just pass the written exam. As I flopped my sore body into the bed that night I thought “Tomorrow, I think I’ll sit by the pool.”