Baja of California

Posted on March 20, 2017 by Chris Doherty | 0 comments

October/ November 2016



For my next adventure, I am off to the Baja of California. The Baja is a giant peninsula located south of California and on the west side of Mexico. It is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on it's west and the the beautiful Sea of Cortez on it's east. My mission is to photograph the california sea lion, swim with migrating whale sharks, chum for makos, and try to photograph the elusive striped and blue marlins. Let's get wet!

Whale Shark Selfie

Every winter whale sharks migrate to the shallow waters of La Paz to feed on the plankton rich waters. I left by boat around seven AM just as the sun crept over the horizon. It only took forty-five minutes motoring around the coast to find our first whale shark. The water was extremely calm and there was no mistaking the gentle giant's dorsal fin and tail fluke breaking the surface. It was a small fifteen foot juvenile swimming near the surface trying to gulp up as much plankton as he could.

Whale Shark 

I quietly slipped into the water so I didn't disturb this friendly giant. The water was murky and green, not great for photographs. But nevertheless, I held my breath and dove down to the bottom in front of the shark.  With the low visibility, I couldn't see where the whale shark had gone. All of a sudden, he appeared out of the murky water right in front of my face. I tried to get out of his way but was too late. I had to lay down with my back on the sand as he passed just inches over my chest.

Whale Shark 

It's such a surreal experience swimming next to these massive creatures, and I spent four hours swimming alongside and diving with the biggest fish in the ocean. Keeping up with this guy was no small feat and having to hold my breath constantly made it even harder. It was definitely not an easy photo shoot, but I am extremely pleased with the images I obtained.

Whale Shark

Whale Shark

Next, I'm going to take you to a sea lion colony, located north of the isolated Isla Espíritu Santo, to photograph the lobos del mar (Sea Wolves).  The sea lion colony is located at a cave with a collapsed roof forming a crater and hidden sanctuary for the pups. It takes a two hour boat ride from La Paz to reach the colony, so I jumped in, strapped down, and enjoyed the ride. 

We pulled up to the small island and dropped anchor. I immediately heard the bark of the sea lions playing in the distance, and could tell I was going to have a great day. After I suited up, I slid into the water and began a one-hundred yard swim over to what looked like a giant rock sticking out of the water.

My first encounter was with a full grown female who seemed not have a care in the world. As she lazily swam around the reef, she would slowly make passes at me and acted very interested in my camera. At one point she swam up to me, looked in my lens, then scratched her head as if to wonder "what in the world do you have in your hands?" As I swam further in, I started to see a few more adults lazily swimming around. I even snuck up on a sleeping male for a quick shot. 

Female Sea Lion Blowing Bubbles

Sleeping Sea Lion

After spending some time with the grown ups, I swam over to the rookery where there were dozens of pups playing. These curious pups swam right up to me and started biting anything that looked like it was fun to play with.  At one point I had three pups biting my fins, two on my strobe lights, one on each arm, and one trying to pull the snorkel out of my mouth. Their playful bites didn't hurt. It was exactly like playing with a puppy, but It made it very difficult to maneuver my camera.

Sea Lion Pup Biting Fin

California Sea Lion Pup Open Mouth

As I was swimming along the Island, I noticed a cave and decided to go in and check it out. To my surprise there were at least 30 pups swimming around playing together. They all looked at me when I swam in as if I were a giant chew toy. I was instantly swarmed. It was very difficult to get any photographs with all of the closeup action, but it was an amazing experience to interact with all of the pups. My favorite image of the trip was one of the younger pups who swam right up to the front of my lens and gave me the cutest look I have ever seen. There was always at least one adult female watching the other pups as the other adults went outside of the cave to forage for food and get some alone time. 

Puppy Dog Eyes California Sea Lion


Nursing Sea Lion Pup

After I left the cave, I wiggled my way through a small opening in the rocks and found a hidden portion of the island. As I swam in, I was immediately greeted by the large alpha male of the colony. He looked over at me and charged. As he made a pass at me, he began to threateningly blow bubbles; warning me to get out. I decided to take one quick picture and get out of his space. I was in no mood to get attacked by this very large and intimidating male.

Alpha Male California Sea Lion

I spent about six hours a day for the next few days out with the sea lions. There was lot of swimming, playing, and laughing with the pups. It is such a rush to immerse yourself in the ocean and experience the world of the sea lion.

Surprised Sea Lion Pup

 After I finished up with the whale sharks and sea lions, I made my way over to Cabo San Lucas with hopes of finding Marlins and Mako sharks with Cabo Shark Dives. As I walked up to the marina in Cabo, I was greeted by my captain and we loaded the boat with my gear and lots of bloody chum for attracting the sharks. We had a twenty minute boat ride out to the spot where we were going to chum for the makos. Once we arrived, we shut off the engines and started chumming as we slowly drifted with the current. It only took around twenty minutes for our first sharks to show up.

Silky Sharks Eating Chum

The first shark was a six foot silky. I grabbed my camera with excitement and rolled into the water. I positioned myself right next to the chum box, as that is usually the best place to be for very close interactions with the sharks. Right away he swam right up to me for this awesome close of up him. I was using a fifteen millimeter fisheye lens, so it was very important that I get as close to the sharks as possible. In this shot, he is actually bumping my camera dome. The lighting and water clarity were ideal for these shots and I was extremely pleased with the detail I picked up in his face. After fifteen minutes or so with this shark, I turned around and there was another silky coming in behind me. Then another. And another! Soon I had five silkys circling around me. I had some great action that day and was very pleased even though no makos showed up. Maybe next time.

Silky Shark

The next few days were going to be very long. Marlins are one of the most difficult fish in the ocean to get close to as they tend to be very shy. I got on the boat in the early morning and we took off.

Chris Doherty Underwater Gear

As we motor boated along, we looked for frigate birds flying in the sky. That is a good sign that a baitball is below. A baitball is a school of fish that swarm together in a spherical formation as a last ditch defensive measure against predators. These large schools of fish swimming in unison makes it very difficult for predators to pick out single fish. However, these baitballs look like an all you can eat buffet, and can be very easy to spot for all kinds of predators. Hence, the frigate birds flocking above them.  

But just as the mackerel and sardines have developed this incredible defensive strategy, the marlins have developed quite the offensive strategy. The marlin will work together to swarm the fish and force them to form the baitball. They will herd the fish off the bottom and push them up to the surface. Once the baitball is formed at the surface, the marlins will charge one at a time into the ball slashing with their spear like bills killing, injuring, or stunning the fish. After they charge through they will turn around and collect their prize.

As we continued looking for baitballs with no luck, we tried another tactic by fishing for them without hooks. We put our lures in the water, and using the boat's outriggers, we began to trawl for the marlin. We spent hours each day boating around and listening for the marlin to hit the bait. My plan was to jump in as soon as the bait was hit and hope the marlin would still be around chasing our bait. 

On our third day looking for marlins, I heard the engines suddenly shoot off. I ran up to the bridge to see what was happening when I heard the captain yell, "Marlins!" It was a large striped marlin sleeping at the surface. All you could see was his dorsal and tail fin breaking the surface. He was just rolling with waves taking an afternoon nap. I quietly rolled into the water and swam up towards him. It took me about five minutes to get to him. I slowly edged closer and tried to be quiet, but I woke him up and he promptly swam off. I took one photo from far away just to prove my story but nothing I was happy with. They are such a beautiful animal with all of the electric colors they display.

MarlinI spent ten hours a day for three days straight riding in the back of the boat without ever finding a baitball. I hurt my back from the rough waves and didn't get the shots I wanted but it was still an amazing experience. We saw some amazing animals on the surface including a thresher shark, humpback whale, common dolphins, and the critically endangered vaquita.

The vaquita, spanish for little cow, is a porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California. It is the most endangered cetacean in the world and has been critically endangered since 1996. The most recent survey in November 2016, estimated there to be only around thirty left living in the wild. Many are worried the species will soon be extinct. A protective housing/captive breeding program, unprecedented for a marine mammal, has been developed and is undergoing feasibility testing, being now viewed as necessary to rescue the species. However, the sea pen housing needed will not be implemented until October 2017, which many fear will be too late for the vaquita. 

 Chris Doherty Underwater Photographer

Dolphin Jumping


Even though I didn't have much luck with the marlins and makos I did get some amazing shots this trip. The Baja of California is such a unique place with so many species of amazing animals living in the oceans. I want to extend a big thank you to Jacob from Cabo Shark Dives for taking me out, and plan to be back very soon. I'll see all of you again next time.



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