Magic Log #8: Isla San Benedicto

On February 5, Lisa and I, along with our guests, my mom, Sue, and her husband, Tim, left Cabo San Lucas to head for Isla San Benedicto, 220 nautical miles to the south and the northernmost island in the Revillagigedos archipelago. We reached the island two days later, spent seventeen days there, then returned over two days, arriving back in Cabo on February 25. It was an amazing, challenging trip.

Traveling to the Revillagigedos was a dream of mine for a long time. Tracing the origins of this dream, I was a hardcore diver for the first few years of graduate school, and in the mid aughts did a lot of solo rebreather diving off a kayak in advanced areas in California and the northwest (Big Sur, Arena Rock, Deception and Browning passes, Cape Flattery, some others). When I bought Grand Illusion in late 2006, it was in part to have a dive platform that could get me to places out of reach of the kayak — the Farallones, Schmieder bank, offshore seamounts like Cobb and Bowie. Looking back this seems pretty insane to me, especially the latter seamounts, and I never did dive off Grand Illusion at any of these spots (though I did come close at North Farallon, arriving at the rock in prime conditions but backing away from diving). My interest in this sort of diving pretty much died, and for several years I hardly did any diving at all. The dream didn’t quite die, though, and was reborn in an interest in diving at remote volcanic islands in the east pacific. Besides the Revillagigedos, there is Cocos, Malpelo, and the Galapagos. Unlike the areas I considered in the past, all these islands are frequented by diving liveaboards, and are reputed to have some of the best diving in the world, particularly for big pelagic animals like manta rays and sharks. The Revillagigedos are geographically convenient to the areas I spent time at in Mexico, and they have a reasonable hands-off permit system, so they became the destination I was most interested in.

In early 2014, when Lisa and I first came to Mexico together, we became friends with our neighbors at Marina de La Paz, Jack and Leanne. They had sailed to San Benedicto a while back and dove with the mantas there. They raved about their trip, and talking to them gave us a lot of information about staying there, making the island seem more real, the idea of traveling there in our own boat more plausible. As time went on it seemed that we wouldn’t have time to go there before leaving for the South Pacific, but after pushing back that departure to 2017 we suddenly had an entire extra season in Mexico we could structure around a trip to the island.

Before staying at San Benedicto, first we had to get there. We were leaving Cabo close to the end of a norther, and were able to sail the first two thirds of the way down, good sized following seas but very comfortable. The wind slacked as we got away from the peninsula and we motored the rest of the way to the island, overall a nice and relaxed 48 hour passage. Along the way we picked up two vagrant birds, the first times that has ever happened to me. Only a few hours after leaving Cabo a female yellow-rumped warbler showed up on the deck. Cautious and tired at first, the bird quickly lost all fear of us and would hop around next to us, even on us as she moved around the boat. Lisa named her Puff, and after getting some water from the herb garden she made her way into the boat and systematically explored all the rooms. After that night Puff disappeared; her corpse turned up in a spare room after the trip, which was sad but what can you do?

The second vagrant was in worse shape. During the second night a petrel (a small seabird) somehow made its way into our sink, and did not have the strength to get back out. After spending the night there, I moved it to a shallow dish in the cockpit, and after ten minutes it got up, waddled over to the edge of the boat and fell off the side.

The island was in sight now and we approached the north end, then motored down the east side of the island and found our way to the anchorage at the south end. Coming in was like entering a new world; the north half of the island is all cliffs, with many birds flying around including some we never see in Baja, like tropicbirds and masked boobies. In the background was the large cinder cone that comprises the south half of the island, steep volcanic tuff with a low lying lava field protruding to the east.

As we rounded the south end of the island I got a brief jolt back to reality, seeing two large diving liveaboards already in the anchorage. We made our way past them and dropped our hook off a small beach in the northwest part of the anchorage.

I dove down the anchor chain and found the bottom was sandy, with great holding. This was a relief, we had been wondering about how much we would be able to trust the bottom here. A bit later I left with Sue and Tim for our first dive, next to the lava flow framing the east side of the anchorage. We found lots of fish here, with many new species exciting me, some coral, mediocre visibility (30 feet), no big animals besides a small squadron of white tip reef sharks we crossed paths with.

I finished with mixed feelings about the quality of the dive, but these were erased when I got back to Magic. A manta ray was swimming around our boat, and several more were visible a few hundred yards away. This is the first time I had ever seen a manta, and even watching from a boat they are amazing animals. The ray was at least twelve feet across, gently flapping through the water, its dorsal fin and wings breaking the surface. Lisa got ready to snorkel and jumped in the water, spending a few minutes with the ray before retreating when a shark showed up.

Also at Magic was the captain of the Vagabundo, another private boat that had just arrived in the anchorage. A couple and their two children had also sailed down from Cabo, and were also planning to spend a couple weeks at the island. They had been to the island before a while back, and knew a lot about the island and where to go diving. We started making plans to visit dive sites together; having two dinghies and two groups of divers at a site is great for both added safety and easier logistics.

The next day I went diving again with Sue and Tim at a different site, the Canyon. This had been recommended by the Vagabundos and was also where the liveaboards were doing their diving. Just south of the anchorage is a large rocky area, mostly in the 50′-60′ range but dropping off much deeper to the southeast. We found a pinnacle whose top was at 15′ or so and started the dive from there. A big school of bluefin trevally was right on the pinnacle, and after admiring them a few minutes we started off to the south. About ten minutes later we noticed a manta ray cruising in the water column, 10′-20′ off the bottom. This being the first time I had seen one underwater, I stared in awe. The size of the animal and its slow, graceful movements lent it an air of majesty, and yet its overall appearance was almost comical, its mouth nearly a third the width of its body, with eyes on the side of its head and horns (modified pectoral fins) channeling food into its mouth. It was always swimming around, but there was no need to follow it; it would repeatedly swim to the edge of visibility, then circle around and closely pass by us. This went on for twenty minutes or so, with a second manta briefly appearing, and then we returned to the dinghy.

Back at Magic, Lisa was very interested in diving, but was concerned about the sharks we had been seeing. While we hadn’t seen anything except harmless white tip reef sharks while diving, there was another type of shark we weren’t familiar with which we would almost always see near the boat. We thought these were silky sharks, which according to our ID book are usually non threatening but can sometimes be dangerous. Lisa had never been diving with sharks before, and before doing so she wanted to snorkel with them first. We both got in the water, found the shark near the boat and stayed with it a while. It would lazily circle the boat over and over, keeping an eye on us but being pretty wary, keeping its distance and moving away if we approached it. We confirmed the shark was a silky, and Lisa was comfortable being with it, so we went for a nice dive at the Canyon, seeing a lot of lobsters and fish but no mantas.

The weather had been steadily improving since we arrived at the island, and the next day Lisa and I left Magic in the dinghy and headed three miles up the west side of the island. We were going with the Vagabundos to the Boiler, a small pinnacle that reaches up from 120′ of water to within 15′ of the surface. This is the premiere dive site on San Benedicto, and there were already a couple diving liveaboards anchored nearby. We found the top of the pinnacle, anchored, and started down. From beginning to end, this was a mind blowing dive. As we descended I looked down and saw the huge black back of a manta, which looked like a small airplane as it slowly swam around, framed by the bubbles of a dozen divers in the background. We continued down the line to the anchor, checked it was secure, then descended the pinnacle to the same depth as the manta, 60′ or so. The pinnacle was covered with animals. Lobsters in every crack, several free swimming morays, many white tip reef sharks cruising, clouds of big and small fish. A yellowfin tuna swam by, bigger than either of us, eyeing us briefly before taking off like a rocket along the pinnacle. We left the pinnacle and spent most of the dive in the orbit of the manta, watching it cruise around and keep looping back towards us, as the one at the Canyon had done. A second manta came by at a shallower depth, which we watched for a few minutes, but we were running low on air and returned to the dinghy.

Heading to the Boiler had consumed most of the day, and we only had enough time to do another dive at the Canyon in the afternoon. The next morning I headed back to the Boiler with Sue and Tim. For an extra measure of safety we would keep someone in the dinghy at all times, so after anchoring I started down the pinnacle solo. The dive the previous day did not leave me with a good understanding of the pinnacle’s topography, and I did more exploring. I was interested in how feasible it would be to anchor Magic near the pinnacle, and after heading down to the base of the pinnacle at 120′, found a mixed rock and sand bottom that would provide good holding. I slowly came up from there, spotting a galapagos shark (similar to the silky sharks we had been seeing, except larger), and several white tips in a cave. A short ridgeline extended from the east side of the pinnacle, and coming up to this ridge I spotted a few mantas swimming around. There were no other divers in the water, and swimming around among these mantas and watching them was great. After a while I circled the rest of the way around the pinnacle and finished the dive.

In the interim the Vagabundos had arrived in their dinghy, and I waited in our dinghy while everyone else went diving. When they finished we started back towards Magic together, and about half way back the Vagabundos spotted some activity near the island and we all went in to check things out. There were at least a dozen mantas crowded into a small area, feeding at the surface and breaking the water with their wings and short dorsal fins. I went snorkeling, watching them pass under and beside me over and over again, just feet away. It was amazing.

After snorkeling with the mantas we returned to Magic and soon afterwards headed out for a second dive at the Canyon. Almost as soon as we descended we saw a manta swimming around, which made a few passes and then, as I was watching, caught our dinghy’s anchor line between its horns. It reared back, lifting the anchor off the ground and wrapping the line around one of its horns, then took off in a panic, out of sight into the green water. Leaving Tim and Sue, I shot to the surface and saw the dinghy being dragged away. One of the boats off the Rocio del Mar (a diving liveaboard which had just anchored) was already on the way over, and I caught the pilot’s attention and came aboard. I took off my dive gear, we drove over to the dinghy, and I hopped in. The dinghy was flooded with water, and while I struggled to untie the anchor line the manta seemed to be trying to dive deeply, pulling the tubes at the front of the dinghy underwater, completely flooding it and sending its contents floating away. I couldn’t untie the anchor line, and didn’t have a knife to cut it, so after a couple minutes I gave up, got out of the dinghy, and was picked back up by the Rocio del Mar’s boat. The manta stopped trying to dive and came up near the surface; I put my dive gear back on and was dropped off at the dinghy again. I pulled my way down the anchor line to see if I could untangle it from the manta. The line was going down the manta’s back, around a horn, then across its back before trailing down to the anchor suspended in the water. Without a knife and without taking tension off the line there wasn’t any way I could untangle it, and I surfaced and was picked up yet again by the Rocio del Mar’s boat.

At this point I lost all agency in what was going on. We headed to the Rocio del Mar, and waited while the captain and a crew member put dive gear on and prepared to come with us. After fifteen or twenty minutes they were ready, and we headed towards the dinghy. In the meantime the manta had been dragging it away from the island, and was maybe a mile out. Tim and Sue had gone out with one of the Vagabundos in their dinghy, and when we arrived we found they had just cut the anchor line. This was a problem — we didn’t know where the manta was, and if it was still tangled in the rest of the line and the anchor then it could get caught on a reef somewhere and die. The dinghy was just floating there, still full of water, and there was a manta swimming nearby. The captain and crew member got in the water, saw that the manta did not have any line on it, and — thinking this was the wrong manta — looked around a bit more before giving up the search. The gear that had floated off the dinghy was rounded up, and we were dropped off near Magic, returning to the boat with the outboard still (miraculously) working fine.

I headed with Lisa into our bedroom and collapsed. The whole experience had been thoroughly horrible, and now I felt like I was quite possibly responsible for the death of one of these magnificent animals. I spent the rest of the day turning the accident over in my head, and in the night finally managed to piece something together. I believe the manta that was hanging out near the dinghy after the anchor line was cut was the same manta that had been tangled in the line. This manta was much farther from shore than any other manta we saw the entire trip, and it seems like too much of a coincidence that there just happened to be another manta right there, right then. Given the weight of the anchor and how little tangling there was, the line should have slipped off the manta after being cut away from the dinghy, and the manta, exhausted, would stay around to recover.

How could this have happened? I’m supposed to be an experienced diver and should know how to mitigate or prevent this sort of accident. I’d heard of animals getting tangled in fishing gear, but never in a boat’s anchor line. This apparently happens to mantas with some regularity, however. Another private boat we talked to later had a similar accident on a trip to San Benedicto, I’ve heard about it happening to some of the commercial liveaboards, and later in the trip I saw a manta at the Boiler with what looked like fresh injuries from a rope that had been wrapped around its horn (this was a different manta from the one tangled in our anchor). I’ve written a companion piece here that has ideas about preventing mantas from getting tangled in lines. Ultimately, this was not something that my diving in California and the northwest could have prepared me for, and this was a loud warning that the diving here and at the other far flung places we’ll visit is a different game.

The next day I started to feel better but didn’t want to dive. After my experience snorkeling with the mantas, Lisa wanted to see them for herself, so we went out in the dinghy to look around. After a bit of searching we found a large dispersed group, and Lisa and Sue went snorkeling while I drove the dinghy. They had a great time, and even watching them from the dinghy was a captivating experience, such huge animals swimming around, one in particular doing somersaults over and over just under the surface.

We did some more diving at the Canyon, but were mainly interested in getting back to the Boiler. After a day or two we took Magic up and anchored it in the sand near the pinnacle, among a couple liveaboards already there. I had a great first dive with my mom, with two or three mantas at a time circling us almost the entire dive, and two dolphins buzzing us at the very end. Tim and Sue did a second dive together, then I dove with Lisa, though we aborted pretty early due to the current.

A heavy swell started the next day which would close out the Boiler and severely limit our options for several days. We continued to dive at the Canyon, still seeing mantas, and one day we went with the Vagabundos to dive at a new spot far up the island’s east side. There was still a fair amount of swell here, and horrible visiblity, but good life, several turtles and lots of lobsters and sharks and so forth. Staying on the boat started getting dull, and one time I went out on a paddleboard to try surfing the break at the south end of the island, which I had been watching since we first arrived. This was a stupid idea and when I got in close and saw the size and unpredictability of the waves I quickly backed off and returned to Magic to resume waiting.

After a few days the swell started to come back down, accompanied by a long period of light winds. The Vagabundos took the opportunity to head back to Cabo, while we headed to the Boiler with Magic. There were no other boats around, and after anchoring at a spot I felt was sufficiently far from the pinnacle, I went in the dinghy to find the top of it. After searching fruitlessly for 15 minutes I had no idea what was going on; the previous times we’d been to the Boiler I’d gotten and later used a GPS waypoint for its summit, but now, with a different device (the one I used earlier had died) there was no sign of the pinnacle. We went back to Magic and then noticed that the pinnacle was less than one hundred feet away, and our anchor was hooked right to the side of it. What’s more, some waves were peaking and breaking on top of it. After some discussion we pulled the anchor (kind of scary) and retreated.

While far less dramatic than the earlier accident, this again shined a spotlight on my incompetence. When anchoring I had noticed the peaking waves but had ignored them, thinking the pinnacle was several hundred feet away. I was using the GPS as a crutch and was ignoring what was going on around me, a mistake I should have been able to avoid making.

The swell continued to come down and a couple days later we made another attempt at the Boiler. We anchored Magic well away from the pinnacle (for real this time), watched the pinnacle a while without seeing breaking waves, then started diving. I was planning to do the second dive solo, with Lisa waiting to watch conditions and hoping to join me later in the day. As I started to get ready for the dive she noticed the boat had swung quite a bit since we arrived, with a shift in the wind. Given the amount of chain we had out I felt the swing was alright and didn’t indicate the anchor was dragging, but left without really explaining this so that I could get in before the divers from a liveaboard that had just arrived. It was extremely selfish behavior on my part, and after finishing the dive I found that Lisa had been worried about the boat the entire time. We headed back to the south anchorage, things feeling like they were fraying. I had never behaved this way around Lisa before; she had wanted to dive again at the Boiler more than anything, and I had deprived her of that chance.

Rather than leave the island in anger we tried to find a way to repair things. The next morning was calm, and I went out in the dinghy with Lisa to look for mantas. We found several close together near some cliffs a mile west of the anchorage. Lisa had a great time, and a couple hours later Tim took us out so we could try diving with them. We found a few again closer to the boat and we went in, diving about 15′ down and finding the mantas to be very friendly, circling around us as we watched. A few silky sharks got interested in us, with one passing between me and Lisa which I chased after to bop on the tail with my camera. It left, but the others were still hanging around, so we ended the dive pretty quickly. Still, it was a great time and things felt good as we got back to the boat.

The day stayed calm, and in the afternoon I left to kayak around the island, an excursion I’d wanted to do since we first arrived at the island. This went smoothly, letting me get a closer look at the sheer cliffs, several hundred feet high, which run all around the northern half of the island. Lots of tropicbirds here, though they kept their distance from me. On the northwest part of the island I had a chance to explore among the steep sided islets inshore of the Boiler, and checked out the bay to the south of these islets, which seemed a great place to anchor overnight in calm conditions.

We weren’t sure if we would be able to go back to the Boiler. The swell was forecast to start building again, and we were planning to leave before it would come back down. Fortunately, though, the calm conditions continued to hold, and the next morning we decided to give the Boiler another try. A liveaboard was anchored right next to the pinnacle, which was very reassuring, and we anchored nearby. Lisa was keen on diving, and the two of us headed in first, and had an amazing time. There were no other divers in the water, and It was just the two of us on the pinnacle, surrounded by all the incredible life and spending most of the dive with several mantas. It took a while, but spending so much time with these animals over two weeks, seeing them nearly every day, left a deep impression in me. I’d never before been around an animal that had such genuine curiosity about people, even though it clearly had nothing to gain from spending time with them. Mantas are intelligent animals, and it’s a wonderful thing for them to share this island with us.

We all did several more dives in the morning and afternoon, arriving back at the south anchorage near sunset. It was a thoroughly great day. Afterwards the swell and wind both started to build. We had a couple good days diving at the Canyon and some great snorkeling with mantas near the anchorage, but as the wind tapered and the swell continued to build it seemed like the right time to leave the island. We uneventfully motored north for a little over 48 hours to return to Cabo and end the trip.

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