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June 18, 2011

An Exciting Trip "Home"

Okay, so the title of this blog entry isn't completely accurate, but it holds
special meaning to me. Back in May 2000 I flew to Cabo San Lucas to board the
Solmar V expecting a journey to Islas Revillagigedos - also known as the Socorro
Islands. These islands, San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida, and Clarion are
known as an Archipelago, but they seem too far apart to truly be related ... Not
to mention that Roca Partida is technically just a split spire sticking up a
hundred or so feet out of the water.

Anyway, as I said, we expected a journey to these magical islands, but instead
ended up staying in the Sea of Cortez due to an early unwelcome visitor to
Socorro - a hurricane! We had a wonderful time, but were also disappointed that
a trip to our dream destination had not been fulfilled.

Little did I know that during a FAM trip to Micronesia in October 2000, my
roommate and dive buddy would invite me to go on a trip to Socorro in late
February of the following year. This trip was organized through a dive shop in
Page, Arizona. It sounded too good to be true, but I jumped on the opportunity!

Towards the end of February 2001 I flew to Phoenix, Arizona to meet up with the
rest of the group. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and were seasoned divers,
so there shouldn't be any problems. The group consisted of several divers from
Page, Arizona, two gentlemen from Cornville, Arizona ... And me. We flew to Cabo
San Lucas aboard Alaska Air and took a van to the Marina where our crew met us
in pangas to take us to our boat, the Poseidon's Mistress. She was a good sized
boat which had recently been overhauled and fitted for diving by a neat lady
named Barbara from Arizona. She doubled as our chef for the trip.

After a 24 hour ride to the islands we spent the next week diving around San
Benedicto and Socorro. We didn't go to Roca Partida, but we had a heck of an
adventure around the other two islands. While we were there we saw lots and lots
of giant manta rays during almost every dive. We also saw literally 30 - 50
humpback whales every day. Some had babies with them and were teaching them to
breach and slap, among other things. We never saw one while underwater, but we
could sure hear them and feel them echolocate us during our dives.

This trip was most definitely one of the most exciting and memorable trips of my
life. Memories of that trip are still with me every single day of my life, even
a decade later. Eventually, it was time to return to civilization, but I
definitely left a piece of my heart there. I knew I had to return ... Again and
again and again ...

Five and a half years passed before I was able to make the journey back to these
enchanting islands, but I was just as eager and excited to go back as I was the
first time. I went in December 2005, so the time of year was different enough to
allow for different experiences with different animals. The humpbacks hadn't yet
arrived, and the whalesharks were already gone, so our biggest draw would be the
giant mantas. That was fine with me since they are my favorite critter in the

This journey in 2005 was, once again, aboard the Solmar V. In my opinion, it's
the only way to travel to the Socorro Islands. A familiar crew greeted us as we
arrived to board the boat with several of them remembering me from our previous
trip five plus years prior. I, interestingly, stayed in the same cabin where I
stayed during my earlier adventure in the Sea of Cortez.

We arrived at San Benedicto the following day in the late afternoon just as we
had during my previous trip. We did our checkout dive to get properly weighted
and make sure everything worked. All went well. We enjoyed several high powered
dives with manta buzzing about leaving everyone speechless. The majestic
creatures are so elegantly designed, moving effortlessly through the water,
leaving no doubt that nature had designed them to be the most perfect creature
for flying underwater. During the week at San Benedicto, Socorro, and Roca
Partida we enjoyed many hours with giant mantas gracing our presence.

During the last dive of the trip I experienced something so special that the
memory will never leave me. Ever. We were heading down to the Canyon to look for
hammerheads, but I wasn't feeling very well, so I wanted to stay a little
shallower during the dive.

As I approached the bottom of the anchor line two mantas swam by. It appeared to
be an adult and a younger manta. The younger manta stayed with me, exploring me
as much as I was exploring her. We hovered eye to eye at roughly forty feet deep
for nearly 45 minutes while everyone else crouched in the nearby rock piles
waiting for hammerheads. This young manta stared into my eyes as if to read my
mind, knowing I meant absolutely no harm. It was if we were bonding. She swam
closer and closer and uncurled her right cephalic lobe and literally reached out
and touched my left cheek. I delayed inhaling for several seconds and I wanted
to stay put in the water table and enjoy the actions that brought tears to my

Eventually, the adult manta swam back by as if to let "junior" know that
playtime was over. I said goodbye to my new friend and promised her I would come
back to see her again. The two of them glided into the distance as I made my way
back up the anchor line to end my final dive of the trip. I had my camera in my
hand, but I never even turned it on. I didn't want anything to interrupt the
experience I had, and the images and feelings will forever live in my mind and
in my heart. Shortly after that dive we were once again on our way back to Cabo
San Lucas. As we began our 24 hour crossing I stood out on the dive deck looking
back at the island wondering if that manta would forever remember me as I would

It has been five and a half years since that wonderful, magical trip to
Revillagigedos, and it was definitely time to go back. I booked a trip a few
weeks ago and we have just returned from another wonderful adventure back to
that amazing place. This was my third trip and Conrad's first. Even though I had
not been there during this time of the year I knew basically what to expect. I
wondered if I would see my manta friend from my previous trip. Would I recognize
her? Would she remember me?

Our journey began on May 30th as we left California for Cabo San Lucas. We went
down a day early so we could get acclimated to the warm, humid climate and to
make sure our luggage made the journey, too. We shared a cab ride to the hotel
with a couple who would also be on the boat. Nick is from England and Yvonne is
from France. They have been together for 25 years, have been diving all over the
world, and seem like a lot of fun.

We arrived at the hotel, checked in, and settled in for a brief rest before we
considered dinner. As evening fell the phone in our room rang. A warm, friendly
voice asked if she had the correct room, then she introduced herself as Franny.
She wondered if we might want to walk a block or two down the street to have
dinner. We accepted her offer and met her in the parking lot about thirty
minutes later. Another young man, Lucas, went with us, as well. We had a
wonderful meal and enjoyed getting to know some of our fellow divers a bit
before we boarded the boat the following day.

Tuesday we were to board the beautiful Solmar V live aboard. For me it was old
hat, but for Conrad it was a totally new experience. No matter how much told him
about the boat, the crew, the islands, the diving, or the total experience he
still had to learn everything for himself. No two trips are the same, as well as
each persons experiences during any given trip. He asked me a million questions
during the previous weeks, but nothing I could say would prepare him for our

Dive Master Rey came to escort us to the boat a few minutes before all the other
passengers arrived. We wanted to get photos and video of the boat, the crew, and
the arrival of all the passengers for our report.

The boat was every bit as wonderful as I had remembered, the crew was every bit
as friendly and helpful as during past trips, and the cabins were every bit as
'intimate' as I remembered, too. What I mean by that is that the guests private
quarters are rather small, but most everyone spent a lot of their time
socializing in the salon, on the dive deck, on the sun deck or on the bow. There
is adequate space in the staterooms, but definitely not spacious.

A table filled with wonderful appetizers awaited the guests, then briefings,
introductions, and paperwork had to be completed. Rooms and dive stations were
assigned and everyone nested. At 4:00 in the afternoon the Solmar V left the
harbor to begin our journey. As we left the harbor we stopped in front of Lands
End Arch for photo ops, then we were on our way. Dinner was served at 7:00, then
the need for sleep overcame me. I find it quite difficult to stay awake on a
moving boat. Conrad and I slept 14 hours until they woke us up for the dive
briefing. Later we ate lunch and looked at the horizon waiting to see land.

As usual, our crossing took roughly 24 hours, with our arrival at San Benedicto
being in the late afternoon on Wednesday. We got ready and did our check out
dive at the usual dive site. There was no way we could have been prepared for
what we were about to experience during that dive ... It was COLD ... 66 degrees
cold!! Even the dive masters were shocked as they had been there only days
before and the temperature was in the mid 70s. The visibility was extremely
poor, and there were no large critters in sight. Disappointing didn't even begin
to describe how we felt. We all hoped and prayed the conditions would be better
during the rest of our dives that week. They had to be.

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and went for a dive at the Boiler.
Every dive I have ever made at the Boiler had been filled with manta rays
circling around, playing with all the divers, and exploring us. Not this time.
Not a single manta came around for a visit. None. The current was quite strong,
the water was cold, and the visibility was limited. I hoped conditions would
change before the next dive, but unfortunately they had not. Current. Low
visibility. Cold. No mantas. Yes, I was upset. VERY upset! I expressed my
feelings and my concerns to the dive masters. The dive masters listened and also
expressed their feelings, as well.

One of the things I was reminded of was that we are talking about nature and that
wild animals don't always stay in the same location. Animals follow food. Currents
and conditions play a part in where food can be found. Plankton can be found on
the surface or as deep as several thousand feet. Animals go deep to find it. During
recent trips the dive masters had seen a change in where they had more animal
encounters. They did their very best to make sure we had awesome encounters, but
after all, we were at the mercy of Mother Nature.

We decided to move to another location a little farther north called Cabo Fear.
Alarming name, for sure. We entered the water. I was the first one in the water,
so I headed down the anchor line. Literally hand over hand on the anchor line as
the current was quite strong. Reef hooks would have been a good idea. Next time
we will take some along, for sure.

Everyone got to the bottom of the anchor line and was hanging on to the barnacle
encrusted rocks. We started making our way between the boulders, looking toward
the surface, hoping to seem mantas. About 15 minutes into our dive three mantas
arrived. My excitement was building and I saw them getting closer, one by one. I
was thrilled to see they were curious of us and intended on staying to play!
Finally, during our fourth dive of the trip, my wonderful friends appeared. We
did another dive in this location and were able to interact with these wonderful
creatures again before heading to Socorro the following morning. I rested a
little easier knowing my huge winged friends were still there, safe and sound.

We woke up to see the lush island of Socorro. There is nothing on this island
other than a military base. Tourists and visitors are not allowed to step foot
on the islands, but you can dive there as long as you have permits and all the
other appropriate paperwork and documents. We made three dives at Cabo Pierce
that day - two in the morning and one after lunch. Each of these dive we were
accompanied by mantas, octopus, eels, and tons of fish. Some of us saw sharks,
including a tiger shark, while others saw dolphins or whale sharks.

The Socorro Islands are protected and fishing is prohibited. However, they have
limited means in which to patrol the waters, so occasionally illegal fishermen appear
to find their way into these protected waters where they may kill sharks, fish, mantas,
and even the unfortunate dolphin or two. During our trip I saw a couple of fishing nets
at a couple of locations and it's my opinion that more protection is needed to preserve
this unique and irreplaceable habitat.

Later that afternoon we started making our way to Roca Partida. It takes nine
hours to get there, so by traveling at night, we get to most efficient use of
our dive time. We made three dives at Roca Partida, during which we saw lots of
sharks - White tips, silver tips, Galapagos, silkies. We saw huge lobsters,
enormous eels, large schools of tuna, jacks, wahoo, and lots more. But no
mantas. No whale sharks. No hammerheads.

We decided to go back to Socorro for another day then head back to San Benedicto
for our last day of diving. While at Socorro we made four dives at three
different dive sites. The only site where we saw a lot of large critters was
Cabo Pierce. Again, we saw mantas, sharks, dolphins, and a whale shark. Our last
dive of the day was at Roca O'Neill. The landscape underwater was more like
architecture with large rectangular stones, vertical walls, and entryways into
swim throughs. Some divers encountered a very large manta there, as well.

During our last day at San Benedicto we made four dives. The first was at the
Canyon and the other three were at Cabo Fear. I had fond memories of the Canyon
from my last trip there, but I didn't expect to have a repeat of that
experience. On the way down the anchor line I looked for my friendly manta from
years ago, but didn't see her anywhere. I went on down the line with the rest of
the group to look for hammerheads. After twenty or so minutes we swam into blue
water and found about a dozen hammerheads swimming around. I again started
looking for my manta friend, hoping to catch a glimpse of her again.

We moved the boat over to Cabo Fear again. Three dives and then we would be
heading back to Cabo San Lucas. During these three dives we were blessed with
numerous mantas circling and playing and exploring us - 14 different mantas in
all. During all three dives there was one female manta who swam very close to
me, stopped, and would look into my eyes. She endlessly circled around me as I
floated in blue water. We made eye contact for minutes on end. We connected.

In my heart I believe that this was the same manta with whom I had the amazing
encounter with five and a half years ago. Our last dive was drawing to a close
and soon it was time to surface for a brief panga ride back to the boat. I was
one of the last divers to surface, but before I came up I promised my manta
friend I will be back and check on her again ...

Posted by Carol at June 18, 2011 12:00 PM