For the first six weeks in the Sea of Cortez living aboard our Maritimo motoryacht, we remained high and dry aboard Tangaroa. Our late arrival due to covid resulted in our missing the wildlife gatherings we’d planned to film: gray whales, blue whales, mobula rays, and more. The places we’d planned to dive around La Paz were closed due to covid restrictions. When we arrived in Marina Puerto Escondido just south of Loreto, we were busy with other stuff, including a 2-week business trip back to the States. We began to wonder if we’d remember how to breathe off a scuba tank!
Decades ago, Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium.” This narrow sea bounded by the Mexican mainland and the Baja California peninsula, is a biologically diverse body of water. Over 900 species of fish, thousands of species of marine invertebrates, and a wide variety of marine mammals call it home. A dazzling region above and below, Tom has been coming down here to dive for over 40 years. He saw it when it truly was that aquarium.
Tom remembers diving with schools of gentle hammerheads. He recalls falling into a kaleidoscope of reef fish. But the Sea has changed. Like many places in the world, decades of commercial development has created pollution that has affected the sea. Overfishing, gill netting, and poaching have decimated the marine life in this aquarium. Many of you may have heard, for example, of the tiny vaquita dolphin, which is on the brink of extinction because a fish, called a totoaba, has a bladder considered an expensive delicacy in China. The deadly gillnets that trap the fish, also catch and kill the tiny dolphins and many other marine animals.
If you’ve not seen it, Tom & I recommend watching “Sea of Shadows,” the story of the vaquita and efforts to protect the species: https://films.nationalgeographic.com/sea-of-shadows/
Here’s an ABC preview of it: https://youtu.be/h6km0IKCqiI
Thankfully, the Mexican government is working to crackdown on polluters and to reduce overfishing. Marine parks and reserves have been set aside, such as the Loreto National Marine Park that adjoins where we are at Marina Puerto Escondido. There are a number of organizations working to raise awareness & provide education, and to help protect the marine environment. So, we are eager to explore the many reefs and underwater areas to see the marine life for ourselves.
One day, our friends here at the Marina, invited us to join them on a dive: they would be on their boat with family & friends, we would be on Tangaroa. We jumped at the chance to learn about some local diving sites! It didn’t take long for us to get all of our gear ready. The space on this Maritimo is so well designed: all of our dive gear, the scuba compressor, and much more fits neatly into the lazarette, the “basement” under the stern (rear) end of the boat. Tom passes up the steel tanks to me, we attach our BCDs and regulators to them, then latch the tanks into their holders on the deck. We’re ready to dive.
Tom and I headed out to the GPS coordinates our friends shared for the first site, a pinnacle on the south side of nearby Isla Danzante that rises from the seafloor to within a dozen feet from the surface. It was a quick run on a calm blue sea out to the area. Barely a breath of air rippled the surface. While we waited for our friends to arrive we turned off the engines, gently drifting. Tom sent his new DJI Mavic Air 2 drone up to take some aerial photos. It looked like we had the sea all to ourselves!
When our friends arrived, we followed them to the site, dropped the anchor and suited up. The water is so warm we only need a thin suit. With our steel scuba tanks, it means we don’t need to wear a lot of weight in our belts, either, which is nice. We dropped in and swam down to 75 feet to the bottom of the pinnacle. Mostly, it was a checkout dive for us but it felt good to swim around, watch the fish, and be immersed in the ocean.
Our second dive, after a surface interval, was on a sunken ship. In 2000, a WWII era minesweeper was purposely scuttled to create an artificial reef and attraction for divers. (We went back to the ship recently, with our friend Masha, a producer with whom Tom has worked on many documentaries over the years, who came in from LA for a lovely week. The visibility was quite poor but we got a few photos to share.)
The ship lies in about 75 feet of water, is located a very short ride out from the marina and offers an easy and relaxing dive with the upper deck only about 40 feet down. Unfortunately, the visibility was quite poor, especially since the water all around the ship teemed with teeny baby fish literally clouding the water.
Huge propellers around which fish lazily school lie on the bottom, large open spaces make it easy to access the interior, and there’s plenty on the outside of the vessel for divers who do not want to go inside. Exploring the sunken ship reminds us of the history of these vessels.
The USS Device, AM-220, was commissioned in 1944 in Tampa, Florida. Following a training run, she sailed to Pearl Harbor serving there as an escort vessel to other ships and convoys. Later that year, the USS Device sailed to Palau to patrol those islands. In January of 1945, the ship resumed duties as an escort vessel, traveling to Guam, Saipan, the Philippines, and Okinawa.
On April 6th, 1945, the warship USS Mullany was attacked by kamikaze fighters. The Device rescued 16 of the men cast into the sea. Over the next few days, the Device helped other ships hit by firepower and rescued another 21 survivors from two vessels struck by deep mines. For the remainder of the year, the Device continued to sweep for mines, supporting the operations of the US 3rd Fleet. Eventually, the heroic ship returned to Pearl Harbor, finally sailing home in June of 1946 where she was awarded with 3 battle starts for service during WWII.
In 1950, the USS Device was recommissioned, serving mainly as a training vessel along the East Coast, from the Caribbean to Canada. In 1955, she was reclassified as MSF-220 and sold in 1962, to Mexico. The Mexican Navy acquired it at that time, renamed it ARM DM-11 (E-1) and later, in 1994, renamed ARM Cadete Agustin Melgar (C-54). Not long afterwards, the ship was prepared for sinking, and in 2000 was towed to her current resting place within the Loreto Bay National Park, just south of Marina Puerto Escondido.
Because it is a quick ride from the marina out to the location of the sunken ship, I’m sure we’ll explore it again. In the meantime, we’re going to explore some other dive sites soon!