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The Best of Mexico: Sea Lions, Cenotes and the Sardine Run
By Anita Verde, December 11, 2023 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A young Californian sea lion curious of its reflection in the camera’s dome port
 

Mexico is indeed a place of contrasts. Buzzing cities, all-day fiestas, palm-fringed golden beaches, verdant jungle, and cactuses as far as the eye can see—you’ll immediately be enchanted by this fascinating and welcoming country. Yet beyond the color and culture, underwater, an immense wildness takes hold—and it delivers in spades.

The sheer diversity of diving in Mexico makes it one of the best diving destinations in the world, and there is no shortage of things to see and photograph during your dives. But after recently spending two months in this phenomenal country, there are three experiences in particular that captivated us, and our cameras—the Yucatán Peninsula’s incredible cenotes, the playful sea lions of Isla Los Islotes, and Magdalena Bay’s mind-blowing sardine run.
 

Cenote Maravilla and its famous ethereal light well provides endless photo opportunities
 

Mahi mahi dressed in their dazzling hunting costumes of purple, blue and green

 

The Subterranean Underworld of the Maya

Scattered among the dense, verdant jungle of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, a labyrinth of sink holes, or cenotes, gave us access to the longest and most complex flooded cave system on Earth: Sistema Sac Actun. Extending for more than 230 miles, the Sac Actun cave system is not just a playground for divers, but it is one of the most significant submerged archeological sites in the world, with evidence of extinct fauna and remnants of the Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that flourished here. The Maya, who populated the Yucatán Peninsula in the first millennium CE believed the cenotes were a way to the “underworld”—the crossroads between the living and the dead. Ancient Maya writings even describe entering these sacred waters as a euphemism for dying.

As we transcended between the living and the dead and descended into the abyss, the underworld presented us with the most striking opportunities for underwater photography. Unlike many other cave systems in the world, here even an open water qualification will allow you to experience, and photograph, some beautifully adorned caverns. For divers without cave diving credentials, it’s a great introduction to the overhead cave environment, while experienced cave divers can push the extreme limits of cave exploration.
 

The vegetation at Cenote Nicte-Ha casts an emerald hue across its crystalline waters
 

Formed via a complex interplay between the cave’s water and the microorganisms living there, bell-like structures of carbonate adorn the cavern at Cenote Zapote
 

But photographing the underworld is not as simple as it first appears. And while the cenotes are indeed an underwater photographer’s dream, they also deliver an endless nightmare of technical challenges, alongside the opportunity to push creative boundaries.

Depending on the cavern you are diving, the sun can be one of the most important elements when photographing in this low-light environment. Its angle and position in the sky changes throughout the year, as well as throughout the day, so timing is important, and patience is needed. There will be times when you are simply waiting for that dreaded cloud cover to shift!

In some caverns, there is little ambient light to play with, so more-creative lighting techniques must be used. Placing video lights strategically in sections of the cavern, experimenting with and without strobes, or backlighting your model can create a magically ethereal scene.

Flooded caves can also be very dark, so you will be asking a lot from your camera. You will need to push your ISO further than you typically would in normal wide-angle photography. Keep your ISO in check and reduce noise by shooting a wider aperture, like f/5, and by choosing a lower shutter speed, such as 1/30s, to expose your image.
 

Backlighting of a diver creates a stunning halo effect at the magical Cenote Taak Bi-Ha
 

A diver floats above Cenote Angelita’s dense layer of hydrogen sulfide
 

Some of Our Favorite Cenotes
 

Cenote El Zapote—“Hells Bells: At around 90 feet, the mystical El Zapote is adorned with incredible bell-like structures of carbonate that can reach up to 6.5 feet in length. This stunning labyrinth of speleothems is believed to have formed through a complex interplay between the water in the cave and microorganisms living in the cave.

Cenote Angelita: One of Mexico’s most famous cenotes, Angelita displays its magic at 100 feet, where a dense layer of hydrogen sulfide makes you feel like you’re floating over the top of a cotton wool cloud. An ethereal dive and a photographer’s dream!

Cenote Aktun Ha: Traditionally known as Aktun Ha, meaning “water cave” in the Mayan language, this gorgeous cenote was one of the first cave divers explored. Amusingly, it is also commonly referred to as “Car Wash”—a name that originated from the fact that taxi drivers would wash their cars here.

Cenote Nicte-Ha: Beneath the Mayan jungle floor is the stunning Nicte-Ha, a peaceful and serene cenote with gin-like waters. The stunning green lilies here cast a verdant glow across the entire underwater landscape.

Cenote Taak Bi Ha: Meaning “hidden route of water” in the Mayan language, Taak Bi Ha is a spectacular labyrinth of fragile stalactites, stalagmites, and spectacular columns. Photographing here requires a team effort, with a dedicated model and off-camera lighting requirements.

Cenote Ponderosa: Also known as the “Garden of Eden,” this striking cenote gets its name from the lush spearmint colored bottom that forms the entrance to the cavern. When the light is good, beautiful sun rays pierce these crystalline waters.

Cenote Maravilla: When the sun is high, Maravilla has one tremendous beam of light penetrating the depths from a single hole in the cavern ceiling. Beam me up, Scottie!

Cenote El Pit: This cenote is a deep, rugged gash in the jungle floor. Arrive early for this deep dive and for the best light penetration.


With its gorgeous spearmint hue, Cenote Ponderosa is known as the “Garden of Eden” for good reason
 

Sadly, the future of this incredible sunken labyrinth hangs in the balance from a controversial mega-project known as the Tren Maya (Maya Train), an intercity railway line that will stretch 950 miles around the Yucatán Peninsula. The train, which will move tourists from the Mexican beaches of Cancún and Tulum to significant Maya archeological sites deep in the jungle, will make the maiden voyage of its first two stages in December 2023.

It has been argued that the project has already destroyed vast swaths of jungle and local lands, dissecting important wildlife corridors, and may even have the potential to cause the collapse of parts of the fragile limestone Sac Actun cave system beneath its tracks. The cave diving community continues to monitor the impact of this project closely.
 

Surreal photo opportunities abound at Cenote El Pit with its gin-like waters and piercing sun rays

 

The Playful Puppies of Los Islotes

When it comes to wild animal encounters, there are few places in the world that deliver like Los Islotes. Home to the southernmost rookery of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), this small craggy outcrop at the northern tip of the Espíritu Santo Island chain, off Mexico’s Baja California Sur, exudes nothing but happiness. This is a reliable, wild and untamed interaction, and everyone here is having a good time!

While we do our best to maintain a respectful distance to these wild animals, they do not always comply! With boundless energy and curiosity, the pups approach divers using their mouths to explore and to touch. Expect them to playfully pull out your camera’s fiber-optic cables, bite your camera’s strobes, and pull at your fins. They also find hair rather interesting, so wearing a hood is a good idea!
 

One of the many challenges in photographing young Californian sea lions is that they often come too close to your port to frame, focus and light them properly!
 

It is easy to become bewitched by the lovely underwater landscape of rocky outcrops, and the underwater symphony of little sea lions barking, but photographing them in the wild presents many challenges. Their quick movements and unpredictable behaviors demand a nimble approach. As the pups exuberantly race towards you, the biggest challenge in photographing them is not just their lightning speed, but being able to light them properly. Because they approach at all variety of distances—whether they’re three feet away or actually biting your port!—getting the right strobe position to light them properly is sometimes not easy.

Learning to swim inside a small cave, the pups dive back and forth, playing with all manner of objects, from pufferfish to shells, stones, and pieces of coral. Their mothers, meanwhile, spend their time relaxing on the rocks or sunning themselves on the surface. Everyone seems to be having fun except for the dominant males, who spend most of their time patrolling their harems of females and barking loudly. Sea lions are polygynous, meaning that one male will mate with several females in the territory, so it takes a huge amount of effort for him to defend all his ladies.
 

Gracefully juggling a rock, a young Californian sea lion turns playtime into a ballet performance
 

Three dominant male Californian sea lions out on “barking” patrol

 

More Than Just Marlin in Magdalena Bay

“Go, go, go!” our boat captain screams, as six of us, cameras in hand, launch off the side of our boat, doing our best impression of a Navy Seal team. In the water, hundreds of sea lions round up a ball of sardines, the sardines’ eyes wide and seemingly filled with fear as frigatebirds survey a snack from above.

Mahi mahi—dressed in their dazzling hunting colors of gold, blue, purple and green—are also here. Sleek and powerful, striped marlin slice through the water with precision and speed, picking off the odd sardine amid the predatory chaos. This primal dance of predator and prey unfolds with a sense of urgency, and we move fast to fire off our shots, as we know it may only be a few minutes before other boats arrive. Local boat captains here work closely with each other, communicating via their marine radios when a cooperative baitball is found. Working together like this ensures everyone has the best chance of returning home with some great images.
 

A raft of Californian sea lions decimate a baitball at Mexico’s annual sardine run
 

Watch me! A Californian sea lion seemingly gives us a cheeky sideways glance before his next feast
 

We are in Magdalena Bay, a small fishing village in San Carlos, at the second-largest sardine run in the world (after the one along the Wild Coast of South Africa). Each October to early December, this seasonal event draws photographers from all over the world to witness exhilarating pelagic action.

Perhaps the biggest drawcard is the opportunity to photograph one of the fastest fish in the sea, the striped marlin. Found only in the temperate and tropical regions of the Indo-Pacific, striped marlin are a mesmerizing sight in the water, growing to over 13.5 feet long and weighing in at over 440 pounds. And these fish are fast! Known as one of the fastest fish in our oceans, a striped marlin hurtles along at around 50 miles an hour, on average. Of course, because of their speed, photographing them is next-level challenging. 

While most people come here to photograph fast fish, there’s plenty more action besides marlin. Bryde’s whales and humpbacks often visit to gorge on sardines. Orcas, super-pods of bottlenose dolphins, and thousands of mahi mahi and sea lions demolish gigantic baitballs, while an array of marine birds, including cormorants, frigates, pelicans, and shearwaters, dive-bomb the surface. Mag Bay is nothing short of magic.
 

Magdalena Bay’s resident pelicans muscle in, searching for a snack

 

Sardine Run Photo Tips

  • Leave your strobes at home: As all the baitball action takes place near the surface, you won’t need strobes. You will be nimbler in the water and you will find it easier getting in and out of the boat—something you may do more than 30 times each day that you are on the water!
  • Keep your distance from the baitball: While this is not always easy, particularly when the baitball has been decimated and the bait fish are looking for a safe place to hide (i.e., around you!), staying back from the baitball is essential. That’s not just for your safety, but also so as not to disrupt the predators and their natural hunting behavior.
  • Move constantly: Because the baitball is always moving, you also need to keep moving to keep the sun in the right position (behind you)—and to not become consumed by the baitball.
  • Shoot in burst mode: This will help you get the best out of each action sequence.
  • Freeze the action by using the highest shutter speed your camera will allow without compromising your ISO or depth of field: Most newer cameras will allow you to shoot at quite high ISO without generating too much noise, meaning you can ratchet up your shutter speed. Those on our trip using the Sony Alpha 1 got excellent results using a shutter speed of at least 1/1600s at ISO 1600. A shutter speed of 1/800s didn’t quite get the sharpness we were looking for. Be sure to review your images after the first day. You will be shooting far differently than you typically would in normal wide-angle photography, and will need to change and adapt your settings.


A striped marlin, Mag Bay’s most challenging photo subject, effortlessly moves in on the synchronized dance of a baitball

 

Planning Your Trip to Mexico

Yucatán Peninsula

Most visitors choose to fly internationally into the popular tourist destination of Cancún. Numerous airlines service Cancún International Airport (CUN) daily. Playa del Carmen and Tulum are common hubs for diving the cenotes, with many cenotes only a few miles inland.

The cenotes can be dived year round, with the water a constant 77°F. You will be diving in an overhead cavern environment, so if you are not already cave qualified, your guide must be a fully trained cave diver, will dive with two tanks, and will not guide more than four people. We chose to dive with Luke Coley, an experienced cave diver and accomplished underwater photographer who has the unique expertise of guiding and assisting photographers in the cavern and cave environment. He also made a great model!

Baja California

Diving at Los Islotes is approximately two hours by boat from La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. The sea lion rookery at Los Islotes is closed for the breeding season for three months from June to August. October is a great month to dive with the sea lion pups, as they become more confident and learn to swim.

Mexico’s annual sardine run occurs from mid-October to early December each year in Magdalena Bay, 177 miles northwest of San José del Cabo, along the Baja California coastline. The area can be accessed by air via San José del Cabo or La Paz.

We chose to travel in Baja with Richard Barnden from Unique Ocean Expeditions, who curates specialized trips to this wild and remote part of Mexico. Contact Richard for details on trips for 2024.
 

A male Californian sea lion breaks through a large baitball
 


 

About the Authors: Based in Melbourne, Australia, Anita Verde and Peter Marshall have a passion for the planet’s wild places, and through their images and narratives hope to inspire better appreciation and protection of the natural world. When they are not underwater or in the mountains, they also work professionally as strategic consultants, advising governments and industry on sustainable destination planning and development, investment attraction, government relations, brand strategy and marketing. www.summitstoseasphotography.com

 

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