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Marine Life Blog » Sea of Cortez » Pike Blennies, Gecko Gobies, Horn Sharks and Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortez

Pike Blennies, Gecko Gobies, Horn Sharks and Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortez

July 2009 – Northern Sea of Cortez 

July 11, 2009 Phoenix, Arizona Gary Lewis, from the Academy of Scuba is our escort to from the Phoenix Airport to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, where we are to board the Rocio Del Mar, Baja’s newest liveaboard dive boat. I’m very happy to be in his care because the 13-step directions I had printed off when I thought Ned and I would be driving ourselves from Phoenix to the port town included turns onto roads with names like Superstition Freeway and Dead Cow Road and one warning, “DO NOT turn at this sign, it is in the middle of the desert!” My fretting was for naught because the 4-hour drive, with Gary at the wheel, turned out to be amazingly easy and the views of the Sonora Desert with its organ pipe and saguaro cactus were beautiful.

A quick stop at the boat to offload our gear, then lunch along the waterfront of Puerto Penasco (located on the northern curve of the Gulf of California), with Gary’s friends, Layne, Skip, and Larry, who are joining us on the Rocio Del Mar’s first official charter. Full of Mexican food (one of our favorites), we waddle back to the boat to unpack and meet the crew.

Rocio Del Mar

Rocio Del Mar

The Rocio Del Mar is the dream come true of Dora and Lolo Sandoval who have spent the last three years, with their crew, building the boat. Lolo’s sister Lili is part of the crew and Dora’s daughter, Rocio (the vessel’s namesake), a recent graduate of Stanford and on break from her teaching job in San Francisco is aboard for the summer to help. As we chat about the week’s itinerary, which will begin with an all night steam south, and what we might expect to see, it becomes evident that this is a family who not only loves diving, but also revels in the natural history of the Gulf.

July 12, 2009 – Puerto Refugio, Isla Angel de la Guardia

Our first two dives are at the base of La Muela, a small guano covered rock in the middle of Puerto Refugio, at the northern tip of the island. I carry John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez with me every time we travel to Baja. I never tire of matching his chapters to the spots we are visiting, so I was excited to learn that this bay was the northernmost point of his 1940 marine life collecting trip aboard the Western Flyer. Our first find is a colony of Bluespotted Jawfish, some picking plankton in the mild current, others displaying all their fins in the hope of attracting a mate. 

Bluespotted Jawfish Courting

Bluespotted Jawfish Courting

July is Great Annual Fish Count month and I will be taking a survey for REEF every day. I’m really happy to have chosen the third dive of the day for a survey because Las Enagadas, the bommies we drop onto, are current swept with low-vis – no good for video, but excellent for fishwatching. Our dive guide Memo, a former fisherman/scallop diver, can maneuver around these rocks blindfolded and as soon as he realizes I’m logging fish, gets into the spirit of the count by finding rare oddities such a Banded Guitarfish and Bullseye Electric Ray, going so far as to crazy-eight loop us around some bommies to make sure I see the guitarfish. I have set a personal goal of 100 species for the week. Our divemaster Jose Luis, who is a marine biologist, gets into the game  and helps us with numerous identifications. 

Bullseye Electric Ray

Bullseye Electric Ray

A breeze has been cool all day but around 6 p.m. it changes drastically becoming incredibly hot, so hot that by 8 p.m., the metal railings of the boat are almost too hot to touch! Fortunately, the harsh blow was gone by morning and once again a cool breeze prevailed. Our night dive, scheduled for the base of La Muela is called off because of the suddenly rough seas. No matter, we had plenty of hours underwater and were looking forward to our bunks.

 July 13, 2009 – La Vela – “Sail Rock” to Steinbeck, this sharp, intensely white guano-splashed monolith in deep open water off the western side of Angel de La Guardia looks like just the kind of dive Ned and I like to avoid. Dora, who has already figured out that we are shallow water putterers, suggests that we drop in on the western side where there is a nice wide shelf at 30 feet. We immediately find a couple of nudibranchs and lots of skeleton shrimp on hydroids.

La vela nudibranch

La Vela nudibranch

We catch the current, split by the point of the island and whip around to the other side, passing schools of jacks and Pacific creolefish feeding in the swift water.

We spend the remainder of the day inside a peaceful bay on the western side of the Isla Angel de la Guardia. While the rest of the group explores the far side of a rock formation called El Monumento, we check out the shallows along the beachfront among boulders that break the surface at spots. The water is so clear and calm that we are able to wallow around in the two-foot shallows finding several species of clingfish scooting around the algae-carpeted rocks for our efforts.

Clingfish

Clingfish

On our third dive, part of the group head off in the panga to explore the southwestern end of the bay and end up catching a brisk current. By their account, a fun, but wild ride. Ned and I, excited by our earlier dive in the shallows, choose to be dropped off by a string of rocks that lead back to the main island. Not the best of ideas as it turns out. The area becomes so shallow that we periodically surface to compare notes on the various blennies and gobies we’re finding. Concentrating on sea life rather than navigation, we wind up within an extensive field of shallows that extend in every direction. The rocks are too shallow to swim over, too slippery to walk on (especially carrying cameras and tanks) and when we stand up to assess our situation, we realize that they go on forever in every direction. Julio, in the panga, standing off on the other side of a rock crest, can’t get to us even if he could see us. With no other option, we lie back down, inflate our BCs and finger walk our way toward what we hope will be deeper water. I don’t remember it taking us 30 minutes to get into our fix but it took that long to get out!

July 14, 2009 – Isla Angel de La Guardia – We’re moving down the eastern side of the island today and stop at an area Dora and Lolo have named “Andrea’s Eagle” The water is cold here – 72 to 73 degrees! We decide to limit our dives to an hour, all we can stand in our tropical wetsuits. Long strands of golden brown Sargassum seaweed anchored to the rocky bottom, reach almost to the surface. I tell myself this is the closest I’ll ever get to kelp diving, so I’d better spend some time looking at all the fish and critters that call this stuff home. At first we only find free-swimming Sargassum Blennies (Exerpes asper), but before long we are spotting crabs, shrimp, nudibranchs and even my favorite, skeleton shrimp attached to the golden fronds!

Sargassum Blenny

Sargassum Blenny

 The colors on the rocks seem to be so much more vivid than other areas; I wonder if the colder water has anything to do with that?

As we travel on, we are joined by a small group of dolphins that break away from what appears to be a huge school, to swim in our bow waves. Jose Luis captures the winning shot:

Dolphins

Dolphins off the bow

July 15, 2009 – Isla Partida – Today we switch focus from little fishes to big animals – Sea Lions! I had forgotten how much fun they are to watch. After the briefing by Jose Luis with the usual warnings to respect the animals’ space, Ned, Wayne Ayer and I ask Julio to drop us close to the rocks so we can get into the middle of the action. There are a lot of sea lions here, far more than we’ve ever seen in any one place. By their curious nature, it seems that this generation of sea lions has never experienced divers. Not appearing to be threatened at all, a group of what must be 30 females, roll and play just feet from where we kneel in the lee of some boulders. One or two females at a time take turns swimming up to us for delightful mask-to-whisker inspections. What a thrill to be so close to so many large animals for an extended period of time. 

Sea Lions

We spend the remainder of the day diving directly under a rock cliff with dozens of booby birds peering down, where we find several species of blennies, including numerous triplefins, that are uncharacteristically fearless in our presence often scurrying across our hands, battling their images in my video port and even hopping on top of my housing.

Bluebanded Goby

Bluebanded Goby

Lizard Triplefin

Lizard Triplefin

Our night dive is productive for Ned who finds a horn shark, but my video is rendered useless by the gazillions of worms and other zooplankton attracted by my video lights. I finally give up, turn them off and scout for Ned. 

Horn Shark

Horn Shark

July 16, 2009 – Isla Salsipuedes – Earlier in the week I found a very appealing little fish known as a Gecko Goby (Chirolepsis zebra) hanging out on a sand bed under an overhang. It was really shy and took a lot of work to get just a bit of video. Today, I find another at the base of two rocks, and after showing it to Ned I wander off. When I return 30 minutes later with the intention of taking him to a really cool scallop, I find him lying flat on his stomach exactly where I had left him, but with his camera and the front half of his body tucked under the ledge. On hearing the sound of my bubbles he waves me away with his fingers. I return 15 minutes later and he is still motionless. All in all it took more than an hour but he returns to the boat with one fantastic portrait of….two Gecko Gobies resting side by side!

Gecko Gobies

Gecko Gobies

All week we’ve been spotting holes in the sand about an inch in diameter. They are the burrows of pink, hairy-legged shrimp lobsters, related to the ones Ned photographed last month in Key Largo. There he found two species, about the same size, but with entirely different appetites. One of the Key Largo shrimp lobsters could only be coaxed out for a portrait with a shrimp, while the other was a pure vegetarian only reacting to grass stems and algae sprigs. Not having a shrimp handy, we try to entice a little Baja monster up with algae,  which it greedily grabs from our fingers before disappearing with its free lunch!

Shrimp Lobster

Shrimp Lobster

Shrimp Lobster

We had been sighting scattered colonies of Orangethroated Pikeblennies on shallow sand and rubble bottoms all week, but in this bay, the wispy little soda straw-sized blennies are everywhere, so we decide to dedicate the rest of the day to observing their behavior. Wow, finally a right decision! Apparently we have found an extensive colony at its population zenith when courtship and reproduction behavior are at their best. Most conspicuous are the larger (maybe three inch) males that are dancing like demons in the entrances of their hiding holes in an attempt to attract mates. When out of their holes the males wear camouflage coats that match the bottom, but when trying to lure local females their way they flush black with bright orange throats and set their dramatic dorsal fins on high. Occasionally, rival males challenge each other in mouth-to-mouth combat in an attempt to gain a hole closer to the females. At one point, a feisty male finding a nearby shrimp more appealing than his love interest, slips off and snags the careless crustacean. After several hours of observation, just when we decide that the male’s gallant courtship efforts will go to naught, a spindly female slips into a hole beside a displaying male. 

Pikeblenny Courtship Display

Orangethroat Pikeblenny Courtship Display

Pikeblenny fight

Pikeblenny mouth-to-mouth combat

Pikeblenny with a shrimp

Pikeblenny nabs a shrimp for lunch

Pikeblenny spawning

Pikeblenny spawning

Our night anchorage is not really conducive to a night dive, so we’re enjoying a barbeque up on the top deck. Just as we finish our meal, a cry goes up from the lower deck and we all rush to the rails to see hundreds of large squid, feeding in the lights of the Rocio Del Mar. Dora quietly asks if we would mind if they caught just a few for tomorrow’s lunch. Lolo immediately goes below to retrieve a hand-line. What a show they put on, darting and flashing about the vessel for the better part of an hour.

July 17, 2009 – Isla Las Animas We don’t quite make it to Isla San Esteban this week but our last stop ends up being one of the best. In order to make the long run back to Puerto Penasco, we need to finish diving by lunchtime, so we’re all in for our first dive at 7:15. The underwater terrain is a little different here – the 20-foot shallows seem to go on forever so we never find deeper water.

Years ago, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, REEF’s Director of Science, showed us a short clip of some tiny shrimp living on a scorpionfish. I forgot all about it until a few years ago when during one of our dives out of La Paz, I noticed that the skins flaps on the scorpionfish I was taping were actually living creatures. They were caprellids, commonly called Skeleton Shrimp. Ever since that dive, I have been obsessed with these tiny creatures (see our KBR 2009 Blog entry.) I tried to video a scorpionfish at the beginning of this week but it was too skittish, as was every other one I approached, so I gave up. However, on our final dive when we luck up on a convention of scorpionfish all with varying degrees of skeleton shrimp “infestation.”

Skeleton Shrimp

The sea is flat calm for our overnight journey back to port. We are now conditioned to run out to the deck whenever the tempo of the engines change and this time it is because the crew has sighted a whale. For me, the best part of the 45-minute whale watching stop was seeing several large schools of Dorado (Mahi-Mahi) flashing in neon greens and blues around the boat, just inches below the surface. It is only fitting that our week-long trip of high notes finishes on a high note! ~  Anna DeLoach

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