Baja, El Mar

Monument designating Todos Santos Bay a World Surfing Reserve.
Monument designating Todos Santos Bay a World Surfing Reserve.

 

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Female sheephead fish peeking around kelp.

While Northern Baja California is so well known as a surf destination that Todos Santos Bay has been designated a World Surfing Reserve, diving has been less celebrated. One of the reasons may be that when novices visit this region, roll off the panga, and knock their fins together a few times, they immediately realize that they’re not in the Caribbean anymore. Strong upwelling in this region ensures that water temperatures rarely rise above 60ºF and the high nutrient concentrations in this upwelled water feed phytoplankton, which blocks visibility. Finally, the same swells that bring surfers careening to the beaches from Southern California and beyond can create challenging amounts of surge, particularly on shallower dives.

Anemones and sponges on a rock wall.
Anemones and sponges on a rock wall.

To divers experienced or crazy enough to brave these conditions, however, diving in Northern Baja California can be very rewarding. The upwelled, cold, nutrient-rich water creates ideal conditions for healthy kelp forests, an underwater environment that rivals coral reefs in terms of beauty and complexity, even if the kelp forest is less colorful. Kelps fed a once highly productive abalone fishery and the ones who evaded every fisherman can still be occasionally found hiding between rocks. The same viz-blocking phytoplankton forms the base of an impressive marine food web, which supports a lot of big fish including rockfish, kelp bass, sheephead, and halibut. Filter feeding organisms can also be found clinging to every rock: and one can discover sea slugs and shark eggs nestled between anemones and sponges.

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Shark egg with visible embryo.

Some might describe Northern Baja California as a “South of the Border Monterey Bay”, but that only describes part of its appeal. While it’s true that Baja offers a Monterey-like ecosystem much closer to San Diego, it also offers a sense of venturing into the unknown that cannot be found anywhere near Cannery Row. Diving in Baja California may be the closest marine equivalent to backcountry camping; challenging, uncrowded, and dirt-cheap.

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Lone red abalone hiding in a rock crack.
Photo in a bar at La Bufadora showing that large abalone used to be much more common.
Photo in a bar at La Bufadora showing that large abalone used to be much more common.

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