I'M HOVERING ON THE SURFACE of Mexico's Sea of Cortez with a pod of sleek pilot whales. A few feet away, a 12-footer rolls on its back and eyeballs me for a long moment before slipping into the deep with a flip of its fluke. Then the pod arcs out of the jade water and moves toward the open sea. Having had my cetacean fix for the day, I hop into the waiting panga and head back to desolate, cardón-cactus-studded Isla Espíritu Santo, where iced Pacificos and salsa-smothered fish tacos await.
The Sea of Cortez is Big Animal country. There are few other places on the planet (especially in late summer, when the water is crystal clear) where you can see such a multitudinous array of pelagicswhale sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and even the 80-foot blue whale, the largest creature on earth. With 31 species of marine mammals and 500 species of fish, there's plenty to tick off on your diving life list. But Baja's wilderness isn't all underwater. It gets even betterthis is kick-back-and-camp country, and watching HBO in a five-star resort complex with the A/C blasting doesn't have to be part of the program. Instead, recover from your day of diving with a mellow hike to a deserted beach or a paddle around a well-protected bay, followed by a restful night's sleep under a moonroof zipped open to the stars. But be forewarned: Unless you want to get parboiled in neoprene agony between dives, early fall is the best time to visit, when temperatures drop from their 110-degree July peak.
Base yourself on uninhabited Espíritu Santo, 23,383 acres of rose-colored rock a 12-mile panga ride from Baja California Sur's state capital, La Paz. You'll find a half-dozen of the best dive sites a short boat ride away, which lets you avoid the tiresome schleps to and from the city. Plus, the island's western edge is riddled with coves sheltering white-sand beaches, ideal sites from which to launch diving, snorkeling, and sea-kayaking expeditions.
My scuba buddy Brad Doane and I booked a three-day Dive Safari package with La Paz-based Baja Quest. The trip came with a small crew, who set up base camp (complete with sun showers and a toilet) on the best beach on the island, Playa Candelero. When we arrived, all we had to do was pitch the tent provided by Baja Quest and unroll our sleeping bags. Rosario Nuñez, the chef, prepared picnic lunches and assured us that the cervezas would be chilled upon our return. We shared the quarter-mile stretch of bleached sand with a group of eight Japanese sea kayakers, who didn't speak much English but who plied us with unidentifiable pickled treats they'd brought from home.
AFTER UNPACKING, we chucked our dive gear into the Marazul, a 26-foot panga, and Armando Geraldo, the dive master, and captain Jose "Chino" Hernandez, a 35-year Sea of Cortez veteran, zipped us out to El Bajo, a cluster of seamounts seven miles northeast of the island that are famous for attracting hammerhead sharks. Chino anchored, and we dropped 102 feet down. We missed the hammerheads, but enormous moray eels gaped at us from their rocky lairs. Afterward, we motored about 15 miles to the wreck of the Fang Ming, a 300-foot Chinese long-liner sunk in 1999 to create an artificial reef. We finned through the old barge, past fans of black coral, and circled the wheelhouse, joined by schools of barracuda. Over the next two days, we encountered an aquarium's worth of wildlife: pods of dolphins, mobula rays, sea lions, and a pair of 45-foot humpback whales.
On our last night, I hung my wetsuit to dry in the balmy sea breeze and returned to camp to find fresh pitchers of margaritas and the Japanese belting out their favorite tunes from Tokyo. Then Armando and Rosario broke into a soulful Mexican duet. Soon everyone was singing something as the sun fireballed beyond the tall cliffs of the Baja peninsula and was replaced by a full moon. We thought our crooning beat the hell out of Jimmy Buffet sing-alongs back at Carlos 'N Charlie's in La Paz, but the lurking pelicans might have begged to differ.
ACCESS + RESOURCES
OUTFITTER Baja Quest offers Dive Safaris starting at $856 per person for two nights of camping and three days of diving; three dives per day, food, scuba gear, tents, round-trip transportation from La Paz, and a four-person crew are included in the price. For $880, Baja Quest offers a four-night, three-day package, which includes all of the above, plus your first and last night at a La Paz hotel and transportation between the airport, the hotel, and the boat. (011-52-612-123-5320, www.bajaquest.com.mx)
GETTING THERE Most dive trips in the Sea of Cortez leave from La Paz. Direct flights on Aerocalifornia from Los Angeles to La Paz start at $300 round-trip. (800-237-6225, www.reservaciones.com/airlines/aerocalifornia.shtml)
LODGING Baja Quest's dive boats can pick you up at the pier by the Hotel Marina, built around a handsome central garden and swimming pool, just east of La Paz's lively Malecón. Doubles start at $85. (800-826-1138, www.hotelmarina.com.mx)