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DiverWire Destination: Discovering the Sea of Cortez

(DiverWire) PADI Instructor Brooke Jolley loves to scuba dive, especially traveling to destinations near her home in Arizona. Here’s her first feature story for

In July of 2000, I was in the Northern Sea of Cortez, on a live aboard, becoming a certified scuba diver.  I remember descending; the beauty of the sea was astonishing.  Fish were swimming all around me, none of which names I knew.  I was so thrilled to see the starfish; never had I imagined there were so many.  I was, and have been since, entranced with the Sea of Cortez.

Now twelve years later I have been blessed to explore a large portion of the Sea of Cortez.  What I have come to love the most about this dive destination is the vast amount of variety and the unpredictability of what I might experience.   The inhabitants of this sea include a vast array of invertebrates, through schools of small and large fish, pods of dolphins like I’ve not experienced anywhere else, whale sharks and whales.

An amateur underwater photographer, I love macro, and the Sea of Cortez never disappoints.  This sea is full of anemones, has forests of black coral, beautiful sea fans and gorgonians, sea pens, tubeworms, oysters.  One dive I was surprised to find a colony of oysters spawning.  They were popping open everywhere releasing their eggs into the water.  It was miraculous to watch as it swirled around like smoke in the water.

Shell enthusiasts also enjoy the diversity in conchs, snails and cowries.  Nudibranch lovers, like me, will be in heaven with the enormous amounts of sea slugs, sea hares and flat worms that can be seen on every dive, if you have the eye for it.  The flat worms can be seen free swimming and the sea tiger can be found making a meal out of a slimy slug.

The octopuses here are not only found in abundance, but are free swimming, interacting with each other, fighting over homes.  I’ve seen them so small they are the size of a spider, one the size of a frog on a night dive was hoping along the sea floor looking for a place to hide.  The night dives can be very exciting with all this activity.  The urchins are walking and the anemones are open and the bioluminescence makes for a sparkling safety stop.  I’m still hoping to see a basket starfish open and feeding on a night dive.  A variety of crabs, shrimp and lobster can be found, including the slipper lobster and a crab lobster that is endemic to the Sea of Cortez.

Rays are fun to watch foraging through the sand looking for food.  Cortez is littered with rays, guitar fish and even the mobula, who I’ve seen jump out of the water and appear to fly.  Eels, green moray obviously, but also spotted, argus, hourglass, jeweled, tiger snake eels.  Frog fish I’ve yet to find but I’m sure I will.  The pacific sea horse is a rare find, but the biggest I have ever seen.

Groupers and bass, big and small are swimming through the fields of black coral.  Schools of rainbow runners, grunts, pork fish, and barracuda are always exciting to see, remember to look up half-bills and jacks might be swimming overhead.  King and cortez angelfish are among the prettiest fish in the sea.  Smaller fish such as sergeant majors, blue and yellow chromis, damselfish, and wrasse fish are near the service around the rocks to keep you entertained on a safety stop.  Jaw fish, blennies, and gobbies, three of my very favorite fishes, can be found in their homes in the sand or rocks.  Have you ever seen the inside of a giant jaw fish’s home?  It is an impressive, architectural design of beautiful rocks and shells.

The Mexican horn sharks are sleeping in the sand under coves, sea turtles are swimming around pink and yellow sponges, jellyfish float by, the sea of Cortez really is a diver’s paradise.  Could this sea be any more diverse?  Yes, the Sea of Cortez has the Baleen Channel, which ensures sperm and pilot whale sightings, and potentially fin whales and orcas.  Even the whale shark can be found in the Sea of Cortez and snorkeling with this majestic being is an amazing experience.

One of my favorite and most fascinating creatures I have ever seen also lives in the Sea of Cortez, the Humboldt squid or el Diablo.  This amazing squid rises to the surface to feed on fishes that can be attracted by light.  They swim in all directions and have the ability to flash vertically on one side of their bodies, confusing their prey.

The Sonoran Desert that encompasses the Sea of Cortez has many islands to explore some of which are homes to huge colonies of sea lions, boobie birds, sea gulls, petrels, frigates and pelicans.  The Sea of Cortez, where the ocean meets the desert, has flourished into a biologically diverse sea and a diver’s greatest adventure.

Look for more dive-related features from Brooke, who regularly travels on the Rocio Del  Mar live-aboard and teaches with Blue Horizon Scuba in Phoenix, Arizona.