Searching for Orcas in the Sea of Cortez

On the first day of the expedition, after much excitement to begin our first day of searching for orcas in the Sea of Cortez, we left on the RHIB at around 9am. We began our search between the La Ventana and La Paz area, knowing that there had been mobula sightings around the area in the previous days.

Less than an hour later, after having already seen a blue marlin breaching, a green sea turtle on the surface and a playful sea lion that came to check us out, we were contacted by Siddarta, the pilot of the “El Peregrino” hydroplane stating that he had spotted a pod of orcas by the San Lorenzo Channel between Balandra/El Tecolote and Espiritu Santo Island. All the guests looked at Juan and myself after seeing our faces and hearing between the radio static the word “orcas”. All waiting patiently, we let them know of the report and began our way up to see if we could catch up with them. After around 30 minutes of motoring there and waiting for any sign of the orcas, one of the guests screamed in excitement after seeing Moctezuma’s (the male orca from this pod) enormous dorsal fin on the horizon. We slowly approached them until we saw the full eight members of the pod come up for air, including a young calf.

We all began to get ready as we knew the chances to jump in with them might be limited if more people knew of their presence in the area. We divided into two groups and began to position ourselves ahead of the orcas not to cut their path, but in order to be in the water by the time they passed by. I jumped in with the first group, and as soon as we looked down, there they were! Two big females (we assumed one was the matriarch) and two younger individuals, one being the youngest of the pod and one which was always between the two adult females.

As soon as we came out of the water, everybody exclaimed in excitement and their smiles said it all. By that time there were already two other boats trying to interact with them, and the orcas began to behave less interested in being close to us. The second half of the group got ready and by this time we were practically in front of El Tecolote, where the water was much shallower and a clear aqua color. Seeing more boats coming, we had to seize the chance and jumped as soon as we knew they were in our path. We had to swim several meters but eventually we were able to cross their path, seeing the same four females from the fist jump coming to take a look at us, tilting their bodies slightly to the side to take a better look at us. The biggest surprise was the massive male, Moctezuma, who was right behind them. Without moving a single muscle, he just glided in front of us. An unbelievable encounter seeing them in such shallow water and improved visibility compared to the first time.

From there onwards, as they headed towards Espiritu Santo, all the day-tour boats had heard and gathered to see them. From big yachts and sailboats to small pangas, there were eventually around 15 boats surrounding them. At this point, we decided to respect the pod and follow from a distance so we wouldn’t cause additional stress, noting they had boats almost on top of them on various occasions.

After covering all the west side of the island from south to north, and with the sun starting to drop, all the boats headed back to land. The orcas began to swim in a calmer manner until we arrived to Los Islotes. There were a few sea lions swimming around and we noticed they began to swim faster, which we could only assume was their panic coming on as they heard the clicks and whistles from the approaching orcas.

Finally, no more than 100 feet from the south side of Los Islotes, we began to witness unusual behavior from the orcas – swimming in different directions, rising more frequently to the surface to take a breath; then we realized they were hunting something. Initially we couldn’t identify their prey and assumed it was sea lions, since we could only see between all the thrashing in the water, a bit of brown color close to the surface. It wasn’t until a small school of mobula rays that had broken off from the main school came closer to the RHIB that we realized they were the prey. For a few moments there was pure silence as we witnessed an unbelievable nature show. After a few minutes, we decided it was safe to jump in and after a quick briefing on how to act in the water, the majority of the guests jumped in to witness the underwater action. The visibility was quite bad and the lack of sunlight didn’t help, but did give the scene a very dramatic atmosphere. The mobula rays were swimming erratically in all directions and on many occasions, they sought protection around us, to the point that they would hit our fins. And every so often, we would see the orcas around our perimeter or under us getting ready to shoot themselves in the school of mobula rays to take one of them. Not everyone had a chance to see them underwater as they were very quick and hard to see between the bad visibility and all the tiny bubbles in the water from the mobula rays splashing at the surface. But just taking your head out, you could clearly see all the orcas swimming very close to us and taking constant breaths on the surface. We were maybe around 15-20 minutes in the water trying to follow the mobula rays and see the action, until the orcas chased the mobula rays out of our reach and decided to go back onto the RHIB. By then, the sun had set and we saw as they left in the distance. Everybody with great excitement, but even more so of knowing, and seeing, that the Nautilus Gallant Lady was just a few minutes away from us. The only reason why we were able to stay that long and experience that. On the way back, everyone wouldn’t stop talking about what they had each seen, and making jokes to Juan and I about what we were going to do for the rest of the trip after an unbelievable first day.

The next day, we woke up to a surreal scenery having slept by Espiritu Santo, where the water looked like a mirror by the time everybody got up and had breakfast.

We headed north towards Punta Coyote where we saw lots of lone mobula rays jumping around. Without any luck to have big schools to jump in with, we decided to cover all the coast to see what we could find. Between schools of fish, turtles, and even a mako shark swimming calmly on the surface, we eventually stumbled upon a pod of roughly 2,000 common dolphins. The first sighting was something hard to believe as we could see the Gallant Lady in the channel between us and Espiritu Santo, and a very pronounced dark shape in the horizon. Not knowing what to make of it, we looked through the binoculars until we saw it was all the dolphins. Not soon after, the Gallant Lady called over to let us know as well. We headed their way and the sight was incredible. They surrounded us on several occasions and everybody had dolphins in their eyesight. Playing in the bow of the RHIB or jumping in the distance, we decided to test our luck and try to jump in to see them underwater. We tried a few times, but they were not very interested in seeing us, as every time we jumped they would quickly change course. A few guests did have a chance to see them, but what everybody was mesmerized about was the pure feeling of being in the water with them and the sound of a couple thousand dolphins communicating with each other. We decided to enjoy their company better from the surface and they allowed us to be around them for a while. Shortly after that the hydroplane pilot reported some more dolphin action by the San Lorenzo Channel, so we decided to head south, as we were going later in the afternoon that direction anyway. Mid way there, we saw a few spouts scattered in the distance. They were very irregular and were talking a while between one another. We eventually were able to identify that they were fin whales. Quite a few solitary, and a couple of bigger pods between three or four individuals. Very shy from us, we kept our distance and admired them from the surface. I decided to fly my drone and see them from another perspective, one which all the guests were blown away from seeing those animals so close.

As the day continued and we eventually found our way back towards the La Ventana area, we found a couple of decent sized mobula ray schools to jump in with. Having not seen many except for some solitary jumpers here and there, all the clients were very excited to see more jumping out of the water. We jumped in the water, with quite bad visibility, but enough to see the big school underneath us. Some would free dive down, and the majority viewed them from the surface of the water, but everyone was able to enjoy the moment.

It took some time for them to get used to our presence and they would constantly dive down, but we were able to keep up with them. We ended the day having a beautiful sunset behind us, mobula rays under us, and the Gallant Lady in front of us, waiting with hot showers and an incredible dinner, which everybody looked forward to.

The rest of the days were somewhat more calm to the first two, filled with so much life, although we did see a lot more between the dives, and the occasional dolphins, turtles, mobula rays and other surface dwellers that we would encounter during the day.

The fifth day was absolutely unexpected as we went diving in Gordo Banks. The majority of the dive was not the best as there was extremely poor visibility and the water temperature went down to 17°C at one point. But as we headed up to our safety stop, and after passing the extremely dense thermocline that looked like a dark brownish cloud at 15 meters, the best part of the dive began. We started to see a few silky sharks swimming around, which eventually lead us to a big school of fish. Around that school, massive amberjacks swam close to us and the occasional hammerhead shark would appear in the distance. But it wasn’t until we saw a huge shadow coming straight towards us from the blue to check us out. A massive 10-12 meter female pregnant whale shark made its way between us and one could hear the screams of joy and excitement from the divers. The whale shark swam passed us a few times, in clear warm 26°C degree water, ending the dive with an immense cherry on top. We could see there was so much life around, that we decided to come back after leaving the tanks and a few guests that wanted to go back to the Gallant Lady, and we snorkeled around the buoy we left on the mark of the bank. Schools of skipjacks, amberjacks, silky sharks, hammerhead sharks and other smaller fish was what we were able to see around and kept everybody quite entertained for a couple of hours at least.

And to finish the trip, Cabo Pulmo didn’t disappoint, as everyone managed to see quite a good amount of bull sharks and the amazing reef with tons of life from the schooling big eye jacks, cownose rays, huge groupers, turtles, and the seemingly infinite amount of macro life living on that reef. 

  • Dan Taylor, Mexico onboard the Nautilus Gallant Lady

By Nautilus Crew

Recent blogs and dive reports from the crew onboard the Nautilus Liveaboard's vessels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *