I first set foot in Baja California Sur in February, eagerly escaping the rainy season that relentlessly absorbed San Francisco this past winter. Maybe it was the lack of vitamin D, given that I hadn’t seen the sun in months, but this trip felt absolutely spiritual. Baja California Sur is home to one of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world. The desert meets the sea in an array of colors and cactus that take your breath away. The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of Mexico (or as Cousteau called it “the Aquarium of the World”), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is filled with a diverse range of marine life, including California Sea Lions. Snorkeling with sea lions was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life so far, and I can’t recommend it enough!
On the protected island of Espiritu Santo, about a 45 min boat ride from La Paz, you will find the Los Islotes colony of Sea Lions living their best lives. While other Sea Lion populations have been in decline in recent years, they are thriving here. They are able to rest and reproduce in the safety of this beautiful Baja sanctuary. Tourists are allowed to swim with them during certain times a year with a designated guide. My excursion was arranged by Uncruise, a small ship adventure cruise, that worked with a local tour service. (you can check out more about Uncruise here). The trained tour operators respect the sea lions, allowing the pups to come interact on their own terms and steering clear of the territorial males.
While mom and dad are soaking up the sun on the rocks, the pups are curious and playful. They are accustomed to humans, and because there are not too many predators around, they are able to swim freely and explore openly. They reminded me so much of dogs. One of them was tossing a shell to himself in a self-guided game of fetch. Others were curious about my go-pro and in true-dog-fashion, they explore things with their mouths. The more you interact with them, the more curious they become! I had one come mouth my hand (in the most gentle way). They can be found gently nibbling on flippers or snorkel gear. If you have any sort of strap or loose string, they will find it. I had two of them pull on my life jacket straps trying to initiate play!
If you decide to embark on this adventure, it is really important to remember you are a guest in their natural habitat. Although they reminded me so much of my own pooch, (and I really wanted to give them a smooch and a chin-scratch), these are wild animals. There are several things to keep in mind when planning a visit to the colony:
Stay with the guide and listen. They are there to make sure you are safe and ensure that the animals are not disturbed. Always let the sea lions come to you and do not chase or pursue them.
Do not swim too close to the rocks. Be wary of the current as well as territorial males. It’s easy to get tunnel vision while wearing a snorkel mask but staying aware (and poking your head up every now and again) will keep you safe.
In order to keep this wild place wild, regulations have been put in place to limit the number of visitors during only certain times of year. September to May is the season for swimming with them. Breeding season is during June-August so it is illegal to disturb them during this time. The males get more territorial and the pregnant mama’s need to relax! They don’t need us in their business.
Bring a towel and waterproof jacket for when you get out. The water is VERY cold here (even in warmer months) and you must wear a wetsuit to get in. I was very thankful to have warm, dry gear waiting for me back in the boat.
Make sure you hydrate. It is really easy to get dehydrated while swimming. You don’t even realize you are sweating but your body is working hard. Properly hydrating before and after your adventure is crucial.
If you can get your paws on a go-pro or waterproof camera, I guarantee you will not regret bringing it. I am so thankful I got video of my experience, despite my very amateur videography skills, so I can relive it again and again!
Sea Lions aren’t the only amazing creatures in this area. This is also an incredible spot for bird watching. Keep your eyes peeled for Brown Pelicans, Blue Footed Boobies, Double Crested Cormorants, Magnificent Frigate Birds and more. We also saw a dolphin pod on our way back as well as mobula rays that fly feet above the water like birds themselves.
I am a firm believer in “the more you know, the more you care” and learning about this place unlocked a new level of respect for marine life and our oceans. Bearing witness to these amazing creatures in their wild habitat was something that I will never forget.
If you want to learn more about my Uncruise adventure check out the Tilted Map’s full review of our experience in Baja.