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Diving Into the Sea of Cortez

By Buzzy Gordon

Nicknamed “the aquarium of the world”  by Jacques Cousteau, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez—also known as the Gulf of California—is one of the few bodies of water in the world awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It earned this designation as the unique habitat for an intriguing variety and abundance of marine life, remarkably accessible to human visitors.

There is arguably no better place to experience the wonders of the Sea of Cortez than from La Paz, Baja California Sur. Situated along a picturesque bay on the peninsula’s southeastern coast, this former sleepy fishing village is now one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico. Despite the boomtown atmosphere, local tourism officials are committed to a plan of controlled growth, in harmony with the delicate ecology that sustains the region’s natural attractions.

La Paz’s focus on eco-tourism is based not only on its desire to avoid the kind of sprawl that characterizes Los Cabos, which is just two hours away, but also the recognition that its greatest asset is the extraordinary marine environment just off its shores. With a range of comfortable hotels, rental apartments, a growing restaurant scene and three marinas, it has much of what vacationers look for in a tranquil, laid-back atmosphere.

There are also tour companies, such as Fun Baja, that organize cruises to Sea of Cortez attractions. One big draw is whale watching, as the “Vermilion Sea” is host in the winter months to mothers and calves of eight species of the migrating mammal, including the orca (killer whale), humpback and blue whale—the largest animal on earth.

Sportfishing is also a Sea of Cortez specialty, from trawling for roosterfish in shallow waters to hunting big-game marlin and sailfish farther afield. But one of the most popular activities for families and adventure-seekers of all ages is swimming with sea lions at their colony on the island of Los Islotes.

Just 20 miles from the port of La Paz, the uninhabited volcanic islands of El Espiritu Santo and Los Islotes—with their distinctive geological layers of black, white and pink—comprise a protected biosphere reserve. Flocks of pelicans, soaring frigate birds and schools of leaping dolphins invariably accompany the boats sailing to the islands.

The sea lion colony can be observed from up on deck, but the real treat is to snorkel toward land to get up close and personal with these gentle giants: Puppies sprawl over their mothers’ sleek bodies, and just possibly one may venture cautiously into the gentle waves to peek back at you. Expect to be startled by the occasional huge bull whizzing silently by underwater. Detour to the natural arch, and gaze down on swaying fan and fire coral and darting multicolored, iridescent tropical fish.

And the fun doesn’t end after toweling off: Most cruise boats serve margaritas and other drinks while heading back into the enthralling sunset. A refreshing end to an adventurous day.