Snorkelling with Cousteau’s sea lions
Famed scientist / marine biologist Jacques Cousteau proclaimed Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Baja, to be the aquarium of the world. Waheeda Harris savoured the chance to “swim in his flippers” and go snorkelling among the sea lions of Baja.
Visiting downtown La Paz, my guide is proud to show me a new statue on the malecon of scientist / marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. An explorer and researcher of the oceans in the 1960s and 1970s, Cousteau spent a lot of time on Baja, proclaiming La Paz’s Sea of Cortez the aquarium of the world.
With the opportunity to see whales, sea lions, dolphins, fish and numerous birds, this part of Mexico lures many of the world’s scientists to follow in Cousteau’s footsteps and come here to see wildlife in action.
Heading out into the Sea of Cortez with local tour group Fun Baja, the sea was choppy, thanks to the effects of a distant tropical storm. We headed along the coast of Isla Espiritu Santo, a UNESCO protected biosphere, home to one-third of the earth’s marine mammals and a popular area for resident and migratory birds.
Routinely sprayed with salt water as we headed north through the big waves, I saw an occasional bird, but was mesmerized by the contrast of land to water. The sea was a rich, deep blue, while the land was pale red and brown, desert surroundings with the occasional saguaro cactus stretching up from the rocky dry coast.
Soon the boat slowed near a rocky isle, home to the local sea lion population. The guide explained this was their main hangout and not an aquarium or blocked-off area—it was in the open sea. We slowly cruised by and then headed back so that we could get in closer while snorkelling.
Hundreds of sea lions were perched on the rocks, soaking up the sun, their golden brown coats sleek as if they were slathered in tanning oil. Our boat anchored and our group was told to put on wet suits and get ready to get in the water, which was a cool 20 Celsius.
In the water, we followed our guide’s white fins through the rock passageway close to the sea lions. We slowly edged our way closer and closer, and many of the male sea lions came into the water—as curious about us as we were about them. As we floated along the surface, our masked faces looking down below, the sea lions whirled around us, less than a metre away, trying to encourage us to reach out and touch, but then speedily swimming away.
I admired their playful antics and kept reminding myself that I was in the midst of a group of wild creatures in the ocean. But my occasional flicker of fear was quickly erased by the joyful actions of the sea lions.
After 40 minutes the guide signalled for us to swim away, and we headed around the rocky outcrop to see more of the life below the waves—colourful plants, fish and coral. When I got back on board the boat, I felt excited and grateful for being able to experience the beauty of these sea mammals.
I remembered gazing at the statue of Cousteau, shown in a wetsuit with his trusty camera on his shoulder, brief scenes of his exploits in the water flashing through in my mind. And now here I was, swimming and snorkelling in the Sea of Cortez, seeing what he had seen. How lucky I am.