Baja’s Underwater Wonders: Snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez
Home to a staggering number of fish and marine mammals, the Sea of Cortez is a paradise for snorkeling. It was described by Jacques Cousteau as the “world’s aquarium” and much of its area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its crystal clear waters offer exceptional conditions for observing marine life, attracting everyone from tourists to world-renowned researchers.
In this article, discover everything you need to know about snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, from the best places to go to what you can expect to see.
Best spots to snorkel in the Sea of Cortez
Cabo Pulmo National Park
Located off the southeast coast of Baja is Cabo Pulmo National Park, which is easily accessible from the tourist gateway of Los Cabos. Backed by a rugged mountain range and fringed by pristine beaches, it encompasses one of the only hard coral reefs in North America. Its shallow waters have been protected as a marine park since 1995 and 10 years later, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cabo Pulmo’s transparent waters offer exceptional snorkeling, with everything from giant groupers to sea turtles and stingrays regularly spotted.
Isla Espiritu Santo
A short boat ride from La Paz will take you to Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited island that’s separated by a small channel from Isla Partida. Together, they are protected as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and provide a habitat for black jackrabbits, antelope squirrels, and a diverse array of birds. In the surrounding waters, you can snorkel with parrotfish, rainbow wrasse, and Moorish idols, as well as come face-to-face with dolphins, turtles, and sharks. Just off the northern tip of Isla Espiritu Santo is the famous sea lion colony of Los Islotes.
Loreto Bay National Marine Park
Further north is Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which encompasses more than 200,000 hectares in the Sea of Cortez. It is home to five large islands - Danzante, Carmen, Coronado, Montserrat, and Santa Catalina - plus several rocky islets, all of which are surrounded by crystal-clear waters that offer incredible snorkeling. In addition to tropical fish and sea turtles, humpback, gray, and blue whales also migrate through the area.
Best time to snorkel in the Sea of Cortez
December to April is generally considered the best time to visit Baja California, with clear skies and daytime highs of between 60 and 80°F. During the winter months, the water temperatures are around 66 °F in the Sea of Cortez, which is sheltered from the strong sea breezes that can impact the Pacific coast of Baja. February is a great time to visit if you want to see whales, with gray, humpback and blue whales all frequenting the area. Mobula rays also congregate in the Sea of Cortez at this time of the year.
By May, temperatures are on the rise and hovering between 80 and 90°F, with the southern part of Baja Peninsula hot and steamy. The water temperatures rise to around 75 °F in the summer months, with July to December usually offering the best visibility. If hurricanes do occur, they are most likely in September. October and November are the best months for observing whale sharks and enjoying the warm waters.
Top marine animals to see in the Sea of Cortez
With its unique climate and geographical features, the Sea of Cortez supports a rich marine life. Its underwater reefs are just as spectacular as Baja’s above-water landscapes and provide habitat for thousands of fish species. Around one-third of the world’s population of cetaceans can be spotted in the Sea of Cortez, including the critically endangered vaquita, while sea turtles and sea lions nest on some of its 900 islands.
The Sea of Cortez is home to a diverse array of tropical fish, including butterflyfish, Moorish idols, and surgeonfish. During snorkeling trips, you can get up close to colorful parrotfish and bulbous pufferfish, as well as luminescent damselfish and island kelpfish. Bullseye, diamond, and round stingrays are also occasionally spotted, as are vibrant starfish and California sea cucumbers. Both hard and soft corals provide a habitat for fish, as does a colorful array of sponges and sea fans.
Among the octopus species found in the Sea of Cortez are the common octopus and the California two-spot octopus, which features circular blue eyespots on each side of its head. It’s also home to the giant Pacific octopus, so-called because of its huge arm span that can reach more than four meters. Octopi are a particularly popular subject for underwater photographers and are fascinating to observe due to their movement, intelligence, and color transformation.
Around one-third of all the world’s cetaceans either live or migrate through the Sea of Cortez, with many of these being dolphins. The most abundant is the bottlenose dolphin, an exceptionally intelligent creature that can use tools and pass down cultural knowledge through the generations. Also spotted regularly is the long-beaked common dolphin, which is usually found in large and social groups of hundreds of individuals. They can be differentiated by their slender body and less-rounded head.
Endemic to the northern end of the Sea of Cortez is the vaquita, which is the smallest living species of cetacean. It is currently listed as “critically endangered” and is on the brink of extinction, with its decline in numbers largely due to bycatch from the fishing industry. Vaquitas are easily recognizable due to their small bodies and triangular dorsal fin and lack the distinguished beak of dolphins. While their bodies are mostly gray, they feature clear black patches around their lips and eyes.
The Sea of Cortez boasts one of the most varied populations of whales in the world, with blue, humpback, and gray whales all regular visitors. From mid-December to mid-April, huge numbers of gray whales arrive in the Sea of Cortez, with the numbers usually at their peak in January. Blue whales are also more common in the cool winter months and tend to favor deeper waters and the islands around Loreto. Humpbacks can be spotted in winter, spring, and summer, and are often seen breaching and slapping the water with their tails. Bryde’s, sei, and fin whales also visit the Sea of Cortez, as do sperm whales and orcas.
Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and among the most charismatic marine species found in the Sea of Cortez. Despite their immense size, they are relatively gentle animals, with many opportunities to swim and snorkel with them in the area. Whale sharks are instantly recognizable due to their flattened heads and white spots set against a dark blue background. As migratory species, they gather in large numbers in the Bahia de Los Angeles between May and November.
The Sea of Cortez is home to one of the largest colonies of sea lions in Mexico at Los Islotes, which lies off the northern end of Isla Espiritu Santo. It’s here that more than 500 California sea lions gather to breed and socialize, with both mature adults and playful pups inhabiting the rocky shoreline. California sea lions are highly intelligent and aren’t afraid to approach snorkelers or nibble on their fins. It’s for this reason that visiting Los Islotes is one of the amazing wildlife experiences in the Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez provides a habitat for five different species of sea turtles - hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, green turtle, and olive ridley. All of these sea turtles are currently listed as “endangered”, which is why grassroots organizations in Baja California are working tirelessly to ensure their survival. Late August to early December is the best season for observing sea turtles when they come to lay their eggs on the Sea of Cortez shores. In addition to snorkeling with these magnificent creatures, you can participate in hatchling release programs and help a baby turtle on its journey into the wild.
The only seahorse found in the Sea of Cortez is the Pacific seahorse, which can be found along the Pacific coastline from Baja California to Chile. While they are relatively common and one of the largest seahorses in existence, they are difficult to spot due to their remarkable camouflage abilities and are best observed at depths of more than 70 feet. Pacific seahorses are usually seen clinging to gorgonian sea fans and sea whips and range in color from green to brown and yellow.
An underwater paradise
As you can see, the Sea of Cortez is an underwater paradise, with an incredible diversity of marine life to discover. It’s also home to several endangered species that find refuge in its waters. By supporting responsible tourism operations in Baja California, you’ll be helping to preserve these creatures and the organizations that work tirelessly for their long-term survival.