Roca Partida, 95 kilometres from San Benedicto and an underwater hotspot © Franco Banfi

Roca Partida, 95 kilometres from San Benedicto and an underwater hotspot © Franco Banfi

It is said the world is a smaller place these days. The Internet allows us instant connection with people and news half a planet away and affordable, convenient air travel means regions once remote and impossible are now within reach. However, happily there are still some frontier trips to be had and none more so than a dive expedition to the Revillagigedo Archipelago, far off the coast of Mexico.

The arch of Revillagigedo is part of an underwater volcanic structure called Las Montañas de los Matematicos. Some peaks reach the sea surface forming the four islands of Roca Partida, Socorro, San Benedicto and the even more remote Clarión. Together with the more famous island of Malpelo, the Cocos Islands and the Galápagos Islands, Revillagigedo delimits the marine area known as the Eastern Pacific Triangle.

Our adventure began at the port of Cabo San Lucas at the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula, itself rated as one of Mexico’s top five holiday destinations. But we were heading further afield, away from mass tourism, away from the relentless march of buildings and people and cruise ships. Our crossing took an incredible 25 hours, showing just how off the grid this destination is. The time at sea can vary depending on weather conditions but, despite being in open ocean, we were blessed with clear blue sky and calm seas. We could not believe the surface was mirror calm, broken only by leaping dolphins and the reflection of boobies flying around.

We were on the Solmar V, a luxurious liveaboard with all possible comforts. There is little to do on the crossing than relax, get to know your fellow travellers, organise your equipment and listen to the instructional briefings by the crew. All this wrapped around eating delicious food and snacks. Wave after wave, mile after mile, the bow of Solmar V ploughed the water of the Pacific Ocean 390 kilometres southwest-wards.

Thanks to the ocean currents and water masses channelled by the underwater mountain chains, an incredible hub of marine environments is created here. The underwater fauna is abundant indeed. This very special area was awarded marine protected area status in 1994. Additionally, much earlier, in 1957, the Mexican government had already set up a naval base on Socorro Island, forbidding all unauthorised people from landing.

A diver has a close encounter with a giant oceanic manta © Franco Banfi

A diver has a close encounter with a giant oceanic manta © Franco Banfi

This act saved the wonderful natural ecosystem. The naval base controls the liveaboard dive boats, recreational fishing boats and the fishing industry, even though the resources are limited and the staff is minimal. Remoteness from the mainland, difficulty landing due to the rough coasts and the absolute prohibition imposed by the government all help maintain this as a unique wildlife reserve.

The ocean floors are volcanic soil, so there is no thin sand or suspended mud reducing visibility. Nevertheless, the visibility was not great for us because the abundance of plankton makes the water cloudy. But of course, this brings in the wonderful wildlife.

This is the kingdom of the magnificent giant oceanic manta, Manta birostris. Like other manta destinations, they gather here to feed and visit regular cleaning stations. However, the mantas of San Benedicto offer much, much more. They are not frightened by divers and actively seek out interaction with exhaust bubbles heading for the surface. I would not have believed this if I had not seen it for myself.

We arrived in San Benedicto Island in the afternoon, in time for a check-dive, if you could call it that. Because this dive, apart from the scarcity of depth and lack of current, did not flow like the usual, tedious checkouts. The bottom is formed from lava flows creating caves and ravines, while towards the open sea it slopes down to a sandy bottom with many blocks of rock. The quality and quantity of life we saw were astonishing: on the very first dive we met whitetip reef sharks dozing in a cave, rays swimming close to the sand, green morays, lobsters, triggerfish, Moorish idols and a fabulous number of other creatures.

"But we were heading further afield, away from mass tourism, away from the relentless march of buildings and people and cruise ships." © Franco Banfi

“But we were heading further afield, away from mass tourism, away from the relentless march of buildings and people and cruise ships.” © Franco Banfi

The two hotspots in San Benedicto are “El Boiler” and “El Canyon”, located at opposite sides of the island. The guides are able to choose the best spot according to the weather conditions, current direction and winds. The crew are extremely experienced and their guidance means the dives are as safe and enjoyable as possible. These sites’ well-deserved reputation mainly springs from the interaction between the giant mantas and the divers. There are many places in the world that offer manta dives but none is comparable to what we experienced here. We can confirm without any doubt that, in the realm of fishes, mantas are the most empathetic animals, in the same way that mammals are, with their natural grace and beauty, the flowing movements, the somersaults, the looping; a creature that combines the elegance and nimbleness of a teenager with the power and strength of an acrobatic jet.

Most fish are cautious and shy around divers, particularly if their equipment creates bubbles and noise. By contrast, the mantas of San Benedicto actively seek divers out and perform enchanting dances that only end for the lack of air in our tanks. They would stop two or three metres above our heads and delight in feeling the touch of the exhaust bubbles from our regulators. They literally “thrilled” when the fragile bubbles of air broke against the white surface of their belly and they clearly enjoyed the hydro massage. Then, each manta screened the group and selected one of us as a companion; it kept that diver a little apart from the group and performed a personal dance. With their powerful lateral fins, they determined the direction and intensity of the swimming, avoiding contact with other divers and the rocks on the bottom. We were stunned by this behaviour and in a dreamlike state, we handed over control of the dive and let ourselves be seduced by the whirls of the dance, forgetful of the time and air we were devouring to keep pace with our “partner” who, in turn, was luxuriously enjoying the bubbles breaking against its belly at as close a distance as possible.

An enormous sadness overcame us when, due to our human limits, we were escorted to the boat by two or three giant mantas who could not believe the encounter was over. Their charming and intelligent eyes scanned us with disappointment. From the bridge of the boat, we could see their dorsal fins ploughing the surface of the sea as they patiently awaited our return to the water.

There was nothing to fear. We were at 8 to 10 metres depth and 50 metres from the Solmar V, along the anch
or rope, and at any time we could climb on board, change our tanks and jump in again to this overpowering passion. Like Ferraris in a pit stop during a Grand Prix, on the boat all is streamlined and efficient. In a few minutes we rejoined our friends.

SDOP4coverTo read more, purchase SD OCEAN PLANET “Budget & Luxury”. Text by Sabrina Monella and images by Franco Banfi