During and after the whaleshark adventure windspeeds increased, making other trips on the Sea of Cortez impossible. Quickly we packed our bags to do the only wise thing: drive to the Pacific side of the peninsula in search of more favorable conditions. Within a day we drove to the fishing town of Puerto San Carlos; the step off to tours into Magdalena Bay.
Arrived in the fishing town we stayed in Hotel Brennan and left the sandy ramp with the panga of MagBayTours the next day. We set course for the camp which was being build by the team of MagBayTours. We had arrived early in te gray whale season, however there was good news. The whales had arrived early as well. Various whales we could spot spouting in the distance close to isla Santa Margarita. Arrived in camp we quickly checked it out, dumped our packs and jumped back into the boat.
We were heading for the whales. We could not wait to see them up close to observe their behavior. On the way to the whales however we planned for a stop at the sea lion colony of Santa Margarita island.
The first whales we came close to, seemed to avoid the boat. They changed course as soon as we arrived, so staying with them was not much of an option. Therefore we continued our journey alongside the Pacific coastline until we closed in on the sealion colony. The colony was huge with over a thousand animals.
Once the boat stopped near the sea lion colony all hell broke loose. More and more sea lions made a break for the watersedge and came swimming in our direction while barking out loud. We didn't know where to look! Quickly we scrambled to find our freedive gear and camera's to be able to meet the playful creatures in their own realm.
Once we entered the water the chaos was complete. It seemed as if we entered a huge schoolclass full of testosteron loaded toddlers. The sea lions seemed to be attention starved and where most interested in our presence. They came wizzing in and out of view. Some deared to come closer than others.
As Sandy dove through the group of sea lions they parted and followed her around. An incredible sight to see. These animals are curious beyond believe. As soon as we would dive down they would come over to check us out. Every once in a while they all would quickly disappear away from us as if they were scared of something. It would not take long though before curiosity would win them over and would make them return for more playtime.
Funny thing was that some of the sea lions came over with toys as well. One of the sea lions chose a sand dollar to play with. Somehow he'd let the exoskeleton drop just in front of me, much like his landbased cousins would do.
Sea lions like this are put on show everywhere around the world in dolfinariums to perform circus-like acts. It's their intelligence which makes them easy to train. The US army actually trains them for sub-aquatic militairy operations like patrolling areas and finding foreign objects. Males reach a length of 2,5 meters and 400kg's; they can be huge. Females are slightly smaller with a max length of about 2m and about 90kg's.
Another sea lion came over with a chip from an orange that our captain Cruz was eating. The bright yellow piece must have been easy to spot for the animal.
Natural enemies of the sea lions are the big sharks and orca. I'd expect tiger's, bull sharks and of course great whites to be feeding on these pinnipeds. As a matter of fact, when we asked our captain for the presence of sharks before we entered the water he simply nodded and pointed out there were three big sharks around about three months ago. The arrival of the sharks must have coincided with when the young pups took their first plunge into the sea. It would be interesting to come back another time to see the collision between these agile swimmers and hungry sharks..
The wild population of Californian sea lions inhabits waters from Canada till about the southern tip of Baja California. Breeding populations seem to stay primarily in waters along the Californian and Mexican coast of the Baja peninsula. Isla Santa Margarita has a sea lion colony of around 1200 animals whereas the population in the past has been estimated around 4000 animals. The populations of different colonies seem to fluctuate over the years in synch with the fishstock numbers in the region. This year however seems to be a record year in terms of sea lions in trouble with lots of the young starved pups washing ashore. Fishstock numbers are often influenced by natural events like el Nino and la Nina, but are also negatively impacted by overfishing in the region.
Since the sea lions often feed on the same fish that fishermen target competition is inevitable. Regularly fishermen propose culling the animals since "their" fish is "stolen" by the sea lions. Luckily the sea lions are protected in the wild both in the U.S. as well as in Mexico. Every year however animals are illegaly shot by fishermen. Despite protective measures the U.S. government has granted several states permission to kill any sea lions which allegedly have been repetitively decimating fishstocks and salmon in particular. On Sea Shepherds website some of the accusations and reasons for the cull are busted..