Los Islotes, Gulf of California — “This is one of the few places where one can swim so easily with sea lions and enjoy them from their perspective,” said John Francis, sea lion expert and wildlife filmmaker, before we jumped into the water swirling around a set of rocky islets known as Los Islotes, on the southern end of the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. We were there with the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE), on a field inspection inspired by Francis, the committee’s deputy chairman. (National Geographic and the Gulf of California, a Legacy of Research and Conservation)
Francis had given us a lecture before our swim with the sea lions, warning us to keep our hands to ourselves as the curious mammals had been known to give a “playful nip” to people trying to touch them.
We had been decanted from our cruise ship, National Geographic Sea Bird, into the much smaller “Zodiacs” that took us to within a few hundred feet of the rocks where sea lions were basking. Then, in pairs of “buddies”, we were allowed to snorkel to perhaps within 20 feet of the colony.
Our first close encounter with a sea lion was as it swam past, causing a frenzy of feeding by colorful fish in the cloud of feces it left in its wake. With sea lions and fish about us, and many more sea lions and birds on the rocks in front of us, pelicans dive-bombing occasionally alongside, the experience was certainly an immersion in nature.
Los Islotes is the southernmost “rookery” of the California sea lion, an abundant species that can be found as far north as Oregon and Washington state in summer. Here at Los Islotes, a few miles north of the town of La Paz on the Baja Cailfornia peninsula, the sea lions are accustomed to swimming with tourists and researchers. There have been several studies of the impact of day trippers from La Paz on the breeding colony, and the results have not always reflected favorably on the tourism.
Ordinarily about 400 sea lions may found on Los Islotes, John Francis said. But on this visit the numbers were lower than expected at the rookery, “likely a product of El Nino in addition to visiting in the non-breeding season,”he explained. Even so, it was always a delight to hang out with some of the most amazing creatures on the planet, Francis added.
- Committee for Research and Exploration (includes grant application process)
- Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot (National Geographic Voices, 2015)
- The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011)
- World Heritage Description: Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California
- Wanna Be a Marine Biologist? Here’s How
- Experience the Gulf of California on the National Geographic Sea Bird: National Geographic Expeditions Baja Cruise Itineraries
- Sea Lions of Isolates (National Geographic Expeditions itinerary)
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.