Sea lions in Southern California are nuisances. “Destructive” and “aggressive” are typical descriptive adjectives bandied about when discussing this noisy, messy animal. They routinely climb aboard boats, notorious for parking themselves permanently. Sea lions wreak havoc on marina docks too; I once saw one take out a dockside electrical box. Aggressive may be an understatement - adult bulls have been known to… unprovoked… chase us innocent dock-walkers. So, WHY on earth would we want to swim with them?
Sea lions may NOT be cute and cuddly in SoCal. But they ARE in La Paz! So much so, that swimming with the sea lions is one of the top things to do here in La Paz. Personally, I’d rate it #2 behind whale sharks.
Los Islotes (meaning “Islets” in Spanish)
At the northern tip of Isla Ispiritu Santos is Los Islotes, the most visited island in the Sea. This tiny set of rocky, volcanic outcroppings is home to a large sea lion colony. But not just any old colony. Just like the friendly gray whales of Puerto Lopez Mateo, these sea lions also seem to enjoy human interaction. Seemingly, the languid Baja vibe extends to animals as well as people! So visitors get to experience a whole different sea lion personality… instead of confrontational thugs, Los Islotes’ sea lions are inquisitive and playful.
World-Renowned Dive Destination and Photo Op
Multiple pangas zoom to the tiny islet daily, downloading floating flocks of brightly-colored snorkelers and bubble-emitting scuba-ers. Famous for its diverse sea life, numerous fish species, colorful corals and graceful rays can be found amongst the main attraction… the sociable sea lions. It’s no wonder the rookery attracts professional underwater photographers. My measly GoPro mingles with colossal & costly dive camera contraptions, each of us keen on capturing that once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience.
What’s it Like?
With all the tourist activity, these guys are comfortable with humans sharing their waters. So they’ll not only swim near you, they’ll often swim with you. One young’un flitted amongst our group, checking us out. He then hovered perfectly still just a few feet away at the surface, serenely surveilling Brian and I with big, soulful, puppy-dog eyes. Awww. Squinting in the sunlight, I swear he was smiling. Projecting a casual curiosity, I’m pretty sure I heard him say “Wassup, Dudes?”
Mermaids of La Paz
On land, sea lions lumber and loaf; underwater they transform into lithe, graceful mermaids. Well, puppy-faced mermaids, just so you get the right image. Captivating creatures, we watched several play together, weaving around each other’s sleek bodies like DNA strands. One executed a perfect backflip then chomped on his own tail as if annoyed it was following him, just like a dog. Another hung from the surface ‘tail-up’, rotating his flippers to keep himself vertically suspended (just like water ballerinas rotate their hands to hover upside down).
I observed several enjoying the heck out of getting an easy back-scratch. Lying on a shallow rock ledge, the water surge routinely pushed and rubbed them along the craggy, back-scratcher rocks. They seem to enjoy swimming right at you, diverting suddenly when a couple feet away. They have been known to playfully nip at fins and are attracted to scuba diver bubbles. Because of this unique human interactivity, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is one of the most photographed sea lion colonies in the world. One photographer made it his life’s work: www.losislotesbook.com
Why didn’t we just sail there?
- Slow boat.
- No anchoring.
- Too far to dinghy.
A Wild Ride
So what to do? We rented a super-fast panga! Our ride out to Los Islotes was wild & crazy in moderate winds and building seas (we would have turned around in Indigo). But the Fun Baja boat screamed alongside the island, easily cleaving through whitecaps, hurtling out a ginormous rooster tail spray. I gripped the rail tightly, fearing this snorkel excursion would be a vomit-inducing disaster. I couldn’t help but envision 8 queasy faces bobbing on breakers at the tip of an exposed reef, being tossed around as though in a popcorn popper.
Fortunately though, the leeward side of the islets afforded just enough wave protection. Whew. While not calm, the sea agitation level was doable and the water remarkably clear despite a noticeable washing machine surge effect. The sea lions loved that surge action though as it assisted in their back-scratching endeavors.
Fresh Fish and a Heavenly Nap in the Sun
After ogling the sea lions for an hour we were all freezing cold and exhausted. The water was still a tad chilly on that last day of March, even with full wetsuits. After enjoying a delicious lunch on the beach we happily soaked up the sun on comfy chaise lounges. Amazingly, we had the entire beach to ourselves, perfect for kayaking and snorkeling the rest of the afternoon. Sublime!
For this all-day outing we decided on Fun Baja Tours out of Marina Costa Baja. As their tour boats are berthed only one dock away from Indigo, this was the ideal choice. It couldn’t be any more convenient than walking 30 steps! Not only could everybody snorkel with sea lions, but this was a great opportunity to quickly show our sailing friends the kinds of anchorages we get to visit. A private boat for 8 people cost less than $800. That’s dollars not pesos. It pays to do this with a group as individual prices will be much higher… think $150pp. While expensive, with these tour pros you get what you pay for. (Remember our recent whale shark hustle?)
- snorkels & fitted wetsuits (meaning men’s & women’s, choice of shorties or full) that I can personally verify are rinsed out every day (I see them do it);
- an excellent English-speaking guide, a boat captain and a cook (yeah);
- an hour or so swimming with the sea lions at Los Islotes (guide swims with you);
- an afternoon at one of our favorite anchorages, Ensenada Grande;
- freshly cooked lunch on the beach: marinated fish of the day (we had mako shark), rice, soup & salad;
- after lunch, choose your activity: kayak, paddleboard, snorkel, beachcomb or kick back with a beer and suntan in comfy lounge chairs.
Can you get much better than that? Nope. Well, only if you live on a boat. Minus the chaise lounges... and a cook of course. Wait, I’m the cook!