Socorro Dive Report
Sailing aboard M/V Solmar V
Diving Mexico's Revillagigedos Archipelago

Whale Shark  Approaching - Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

Copyright Ken Knezick - Island Dreams Travel

Mexico's Revillagigedos Archipelago is comprised of four volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, 250 miles south of Cabos San Lucas. The Mexican government has declared these prolific waters a marine sanctuary. The largest island in this remote and far-flung group is Socorro, and that appreciably easier to pronounce name is used to refer to the entire Archipelago. This report chronicles a diving cruise to Revillagigedos, or Socorro, that took place in the month of December, sailing aboard the M/V Solmar V. Your reporter is Ken Knezick, owner of Island Dreams Travel, a company that specializes in scuba diving travel. Ken's observations are based on 30+ years of world travel while logging over 4,000 scuba dives. Ken's report follows:

Table of Contents
  • M/V Solmar V
  • Captain & Crew
  • Cuisine
  • Beverages
  • Library
  • Geronimo
  • Dive Guides
  • The Diving
  • Marine Life
  • Photo Tips
  • Nitrox
  • Seasonality
  • Assets
  • Drawbacks
  • Recommendation
  • Gift from King Neptune
  • Socorro Photo Gallery

  • M/V SOLMAR V -- I'm pleased to report that the Solmar V proved to be a good boat, with a truly great crew. Sailing out of Cabo San Lucas since 1992, Solmar V clearly has been meticulously maintained. The wheelhouse includes all modern navigation tools including radar, GPS, SATNAV, and even a fish finder. The guest cabins are relatively small, but do include en suite facilities (a small shower, sink and toilet in each cabin). The public spaces, salon, dive deck, and topside lounging areas, are all sufficiently spacious and comfortable. All cabins and the salon are comfortably air-conditioned. Solmar V, throughout, appears to be very clean and impressively well-maintained.

    M/V Solmar V CAPTAIN and CREW -- Captain Gerrardo Pazos, Chief Engineer Urbano, and all the rest of the crew made a strongly positive impression on me. They are uniformly professional and proficient at their tasks. From years of experience cruising these waters with scuba divers, the nine men worked together as a flawless team; orders were apparently unnecessary. At the same time they were friendly and genuinely interested in helping the guests to have an exceptional experience.

    CUISINE -- Our Chef, Pedro, was a hard-working maestro, despite the small galley he had to work with. His cuisine was varied, well-prepared, and plentiful. Breakfasts offered cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruit, toast and eggs cooked to order. Lunches always began with a delicious, freshly-made soup, followed by main dishes such as fajitas, fish and shrimp tacos, grilled chicken, hamburgers one day, and often ice cream as a treat. Dinners always began with a crisp, fresh salad. Main dishes included steak (two nights), chicken breast, appetizingly steamed fish in foil, and a really fun Mexican BBQ with all the trimmings. Appetizers included tuna sashimi one night, and scallop ceviche another. Dinner always included a dessert; including flan, key lime pie, tres leches, chocolate cake, and/or ice cream. Beyond all this there was always fresh fruit, cookies or other snacks, hot coffee, and free sodas including Diet Cokes. While keeping the other guests thus well fed, Chef Pedro also managed to cater to my own vegetarian diet, serving up a number of creative and tasty meatless dishes.

    BEVERAGES -- As it is important for divers to remain well-hydrated, all tap water on Solmar V is desalinated and fine for drinking. There is a soda tap at the bar and a huge ice chest on the dive deck full of chilled Coke, Pepsi, orange and apple sodas, plus a variety of beers. In addition to a large coffee pot, hot water was always ready, along with a nice selection of premium tea bags. Once the diving was done, canned beer was complimentary and mango margaritas were often served as a post-dive treat. Complimentary wine was included at dinner time. One could order harder liquors as desired, or simply bring your own bottle to enjoy in moderation.

    M/V Solmar V LIBRARY -- The salon included a small library with a few dozen paperback books and DVD movies, and a wide-screen LCD video monitor. There was also a small TV/DVD player combo in each cabin. If you enjoy watching movies in your down time, you might care to bring a selection of movies to play and share. Sorry, Netflix does not as yet deliver to Socorro.

    GERONIMO -- A longtime staple of the Solmar V crew is able seaman and panga operator Geronimo. A font of knowledge, and an excellent wildlife photographer, Geronimo added information about the birds and sea life, and a generous helping of good humor.

    DIVE GUIDES from AMIGOS DEL MAR -- The Solmar V dive guides are supplied by Amigos del Mar, a well-recommended Baja dive operation. On this trip, our dive guides were Daniel, Roberto, and Ramon. They were uniformly capable, attentive and friendly. The dive briefings were informative and accurate. In the water they proved to be professionally watchful, without ever seeming overbearing.

    The DIVING -- To begin, one must acknowledge that this is definitely not diving for the inexperienced. Water temperatures and visibility in the Revillagigedos Archipelago can vary widely. You are sometimes diving in waters many hundreds of feet deep so buoyancy control is critical. Current is changeable and wave action and surge are common. You don't have to be a swimmer of Michael Phelps caliber, but you must be a solid diver with sufficient watermanship skills to remain calm, monitor your depth and air supply carefully, and deal routinely with a variety of sea conditions --- all while fiddling with your new digital camera as you are circled by giant manta rays.

    M/V Solmar V Each diver is assigned a dive station with one tank, which is refilled at your station. There is bench seating, a large plastic crate to keep your gear, and rack to hang wet suits and skins between dives. All tanks are aluminum 80's, filled to 3500 psi hot, which cooled to a generous fill over 3000 psi. If you elect to make use of the Nitrox option, you are asked to analyze your mix after your tank is filled. My fills, from a membrane system, came in at consistent 32 percent Nitrox.

    When dives are conducted directly from the mother ship, water entry is by giant stride off the well-designed dive platform. Return to the boat is enabled by two excellent heavy duty aluminum ladders incorporated into the platform. Certain of the dive locations make it necessary to dive from the two inflatable boats, locally known as pangas. With eleven divers plus two divemasters and a boat driver, these pangas are a tight fit. Entry is by a coordinated back roll on the count of three. Return to the panga required removing weight belt, BCD, and fins (in that order), before climbing aboard on quite an effective ladder (for an inflatable boat). The pangas are operated with considerable skill and care, and do not return to the Solmar V until all divers are present and accounted for.

    When diving from the stern of the mother ship, bottom time is 60 minutes per dive. To accommodate the time spent in deployment and pickup, panga dives are limited to 50 minutes. Most full days on site, four dives per day are offered. Around Roca Partida, three daily dives are the rule. By decree of the Mexican government, there are no night dives permitted within this marine reserve. The dive deck has two fresh water showers, and dry towels are provided. You will also find large fresh water dip tanks for your gear, with some dedicated only to camera equipment.

    Manta Ray - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams MARINE LIFE is the REWARD -- The underwater terrain here is almost entirely volcanic, with a nominal dusting of hard coral and encrustations of large barnacles. Formations at the dive sites include everything from lava tube caverns and arches to immense vertical cylinders of lava towering up out of the depths. But the primary reason to make the lengthy trip to Socorro is not the reef, but the opportunity to swim with large pelagic sea dwellers. One of the most famous dive sites is the Boiler, just off San Benedicto Island and often the first dive site of the trip. We got our money's worth here as a quartet of giant manta rays, as large as 15-feet across the wings, performed a one-hour water ballet around us, under us, and over our heads. These immensely graceful plankton feeding fish are as curious about us as we are of them, and approach within touching distance, though we are admonished not to do so. They seem to enjoy the feel of a diver's bubbles washing over their bodies, and will intentionally swim above a diver, and stop there in the exhaust stream seeming to quiver with pleasure. On any other dive trip, one might be happy to come home with a single manta sighting and one or two good manta ray photos. On this trip, I came away with at least 50 such shots.

    The manta rays of the Revillagigedos Archipelago have plenty of company. Sharks routinely encountered include white tips, silky, hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, with the occasional tiger shark or a whale shark swimming by for good measure. Smaller creatures include beautiful clarion angelfish that are the preferred cleaners of the manta rays, and schools of yellow bannerfish that set up hammerhead shark cleaning stations. The entire region is a protected marine sanctuary, fishing prohibited, so large lobster are commonly found out and about during the day, along with eels and many other fishes.

    The island of Socorro has some appealing sites. One that we enjoyed very much was aptly name The Aquarium. The reef top was relatively shallow, had a couple of nice lave tube caverns, swim through arches, and some good "fish face" photo opportunities. On two consecutive dives at Cabo Pearce, a playful pod of dolphin buzzed us at close range, spun a few circles around us, and then effortless finned off into the blue. They were followed by a friendly manta that gave me 15 minutes of close-up face time. At The Canyon on San Benedicto, a baby whale shark spent a couple of hours swimming curiously around our anchored Solmar V. Though they can grow to be as much as 50 feet, this animal was only about 12 feet long. The markings on a young whale shark are beautifully defined, and this one was moving just under the surface in sparkling blue water. What a treat just to see such a fish at close range, much less to come away with a few properly exposed photographs.

    Roca Partida But my most favorite dives of all were around the aptly named Roca Partida (split rock). This site is composed of vertical lava tubes that rise out of very deep water in otherwise open ocean. Covered in booby birds and stained white with their droppings above water, beneath the sea Roca Partida is a congregation site for every manner of pelagic marine life. White tip and silky sharks patrol the shallower waters, while hammerhead sharks school in the depths around the rock. The hammers come in close to patronize cleaning stations, but shyly do their best to stay away from intruding bubble-blowers. Higher in the water column clouds of Creole fish and jacks swim, sometimes completely encircling the divers. I hovered at 50 feet, mesmerized by a seemingly endless school of large yellow-fin tuna. Thousands of these powerful tuna streamed by just at the edge of visibility, while a magnificent king fish raced through the shallower water chasing its prey. I was loath to return to the surface, and wished I could have spent a week at just this dive site. Roca Partida serves up the kind of prolific ocean life that divers dream about.

    That dream really came true for consecutive Solmar V groups a few years back, when a mother and baby humpback whale spent more than a month around Roca Partida. A patient videographer with a fine, steady hand produced balletic sequences of mother and calf swimming, playing and resting with the baby sheltered beneath the mother's great pectoral fins. That is a dive of a lifetime. The bottom line is that there are few other places in the world where divers can routinely expect to find such encounters as the mantas, sharks and whale sharks of the Revillagigedos Archipelago.

    TIPS for PHOTOGRAPHERS -- Solmar V strives to understand and accommodate underwater photographers' special needs. The dive crew is trained to handle cameras and will hand yours in to you (never jump in holding your camera).There are two large dip tanks on the stern reserved solely for cameras and a large camera table on the dive deck. Electrical outlets throughout the boat provide 110 volts. There are a few shelves in the small library area equipped with 110 volt power strips for battery charging, as well as one inverter strip for those who require 220 volts. Videographers are encouraged to show their work on the large LCD TV in the main salon, and laptops are routinely passed around in the salon to share still images.

    On this trip, I limited myself to a single lens, a super-wide fisheye. This proved to be a great choice for capturing the close encounters with big critters like mantra rays and the whale shark. I personally find that concentrating on a single lens, as opposed to changing my system every few dives, helps me to get better results. But there certainly are interesting photo subjects for your longer lenses, from beautiful clarion angelfish, golden trumpet fish, big lobster and free swimming green moray eels, to tiny gobies, blennies and even nudibranchs. From the diminutive creatures to the behemoths, the most important factor is to get close to your subjects, and aim your strobe(s) carefully to avoid backscatter. After that, it comes down to elements of composition and negative space, plus your skill in approaching these often shy photo subjects, and that will result in good images.

    NITROX CERTIFICATION -- As an aside, permit me to strongly recommend that all sport divers (and especially underwater photographers) consider the merits of becoming Nitrox certified, and spend the extra dollars to dive Nitrox whenever available and applicable to the dive profiles. Beyond staying well hydrated and well rested, there is no other single element that can better help to ensure your diving safety. A Nitrox certification course involves only two classroom sessions. No pool work is required. You will have to exert your brain for a few hours doing multilevel dive calculations. After that, buy a Nitrox dive computer and enjoy the benefits of Nitrox with no further mental heavy-lifting required. Nitrox is a valuable hedge against decompression sickness, and can literally save your life.

    SEASONALITY -- As is often the case, this is a region where visiting at the proper time of year is critical to the success of your holiday. Solmar V adjusts their itinerary carefully, moving the vessel to best coordinate with typical weather conditions in the Sea of Cortez, Socorro, and Guadalupe. The cruises to Socorro operate November through May. My own visit was in December, which afforded the bonus of warm water (79-80 degrees F.). Water temperatures will cool by as much as ten degrees as the season progresses. Sea of Cortez cruises operate in October, when the water there is warm bathtub warm and sightings of big animals are most probable. There are also some "Baja Nature Cruises" in June that cater to snorkelers as well as divers, and include land excursions to enjoy the prolific bird life in this region. The remainder of Solmar V's year is spent in sailing to Guadalupe Island off the western coast of the Baja Peninsula. These unique trips are dedicated to doing cage diving with Great White Sharks, providing uber-adventurous divers with an electrifying dive experience.

    ASSETS of the SOLMAR V EXPERIENCE -- Having made 40 plus trips to Asia, which often require 24+ hours of continuous air travel, it was quite a delight to jump the short flight to San Jose del Cabo (SJD), gateway to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico. For a change, my premium dive experience included no jetlag issues, no overnights, and very little time wasted in transit to the boat. Another treat was the 80 degree F. water we enjoyed throughout the trip. Quite a luxury to swim with all of these big animals, while avoiding the shivering that usually accompanies a Galapagos dive trip. Above all, I appreciated the competence and experience of the Captain and crew. All boat handling, diving and other services were done safely and professionally, with the diving experience ad guests' enjoyment foremost in mind.

    DRAWBACKS to CONSIDER -- The major consideration is that the Socorro trip requires a seriously long boat ride. It is at least a 22 hour continuous cruise from the dock in Cabos San Lucas to the first dive sites around San Benedicto Island. The Solmar V is an excellent base of operations offering a relatively stable ride. But this long run is in open-ocean, and can be in 5-6 foot quartering seas on a good day. If you are prone to sea sickness, this is not the trip for you.

    Beyond that, be advised that the cabins are relatively small, and in-cabin storage space is at a premium. The solution is to travel light. Beyond your dive kit and a few bathing suits, all you'll need are a handful of t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and a comfy warm-up suit to equalize the air-conditioning.

    RECOMMENDATION -- Both above and below the sea, Baja California Sur is a delightfully unique and appealing natural environment. For divers, the attraction is the prolific sea, offering the opportunity to swim with big animals and immense schools of large fishes. Solmar V offers an array of enticing adventures. It is an extremely well run operation with decades of experience plying these waters. Seasonality is the key to a great trip, but truly inspiring diving awaits those who are ready for something new and exciting. I recommend Solmar V heartily, and hope you will soon find an occasion to enjoy one or more of these remarkable diving experiences.

    PARTING GIFT from KING NEPTUNE -- As we sailed back into Cabos San Lucas at the end of our trip, a pair of humpback whales passed us, leisurely heading out to sea. Their graceful swimming and diving, with tale flukes prominently raised, was punctuated by a sailfish making repeated leaps into the air. The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" kept coming to mind. As the crew passed out drinks and hors d'ouerves, I felt extremely fortunate to have sailed with Solmar V and again partaken of the spectacle that is the Sea of Cortez and the Mexican Pacific. As we made port I was already planning my next visit to Socorro and the Revillagigedos Archipelago.

    Yours in diving, Ken Knezick - Island Dreams Travel

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    Los Arcos at the tip of the Baja California Peninnsula