Mike Gerken's
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"The Story Behind the Shot"

 

Sea Lion Craze

March 11, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

My mood as a diver and underwater photographer fluctuates from highs to lows. It is the typical adrenaline junky scenario. "What can I do to top the last dive; the last photo?" After 4-5000 dives it gets more and more difficult to sate my appetite. Fortunately the world and all its wonders above and below the water is vast. It is merely a matter of time and commitment before I discover something new and exciting to experience. 

I returned to the US from being "Stuck in Truk" in March of 2022 where I participated in some of the most intense wreck diving of my personal life. I was now looking for the next tower to climb. (See previous "Stuck in Truk" Blog Reports).
After a stop off in North Carolina where I conducted the Wreck•Shark Shootout and a few other shark-centric dive trips, I received an email from friend and fellow photographer Scott Johnson. In short, he said, "Mike would you like to join me in La Paz, Mexico to photograph the Sea Lions of Los Islotes on the Sea of Cortez? I have it all set up." I'm pretty sure I responded rather quickly with an emphatic, "Absolutely". 

The trip was in October of 2022, a time I am told the sea lion pups are old enough to stray out of the protection of "Mom & Dad sea lion" and still young enough to be adorable. I have always wanted to dive and photograph sea lions and have heard plenty of stories and seen enough photos to support my desire to do so. Now another box would be ticked off the proverbial bucket list. 

In short, Scott with his wife Lauren flew into Mexico and we dived with The Cortez Club located in La Paz. The plan was to dive 10 days and spend as much time as we could at the sea lion colony of Los Islotes which is about a 70 minute boat ride from The Cortez Club. You might think that is a long trip but it is well worth it. Trust me. 

My first sight of the guano covered rock outcropping of Los Islotes was impressive as was the strong odor emanating from it. The sound of sea lions barking at each other could be heard over the hum of the engines and the dozens of vultures flying over head reminded me of the harshness of nature present here. Wasting no time Scott and I rolled over the side and swam towards the island. It didn't take long before several females came over to "flirt" with us. I was to understand that touching them was not allowed but didn't hear the part of the briefing that said "unless they seek your attention". One female was nuzzling up to me and I foolishly ignored her. Soon she swam around behind me and gently bit me in the ass for not petting and showing her some respect. I have never experienced this behavior from a non-human before (but humans yes). 

I quickly became enamored with the sea lions and the stare from their sentient eyes. I was hooked. We spent 2 dives at 60 minutes each before starting our way back to La Paz and diving some other sites on the way home each day. Scott and I, before we even arrived here, agreed that we would spend as much time at the sea lion colony as we would be allowed.  As a photographer you don't want to spread yourself too thin. Focus you camera on less subjects for longer periods of time to obtain the best quality images possible. We went back 7 out of the 10 days of our total diving package with each day yielding new experiences and photo opportunities.

By far the most fun I had was diving with and shooting the sea lion pups. Their eyes could melt the hearts of even the most hardened criminal. Photographing them was like trying to get a group of 2 year olds to sit still for a portrait. Frustrating but at the same time delightful.

Sometimes when I was trying to line up a shot I could feel the tugs on my fins. Looking down I would see these impish little eyes staring at me as if to say, "Play with me, now!" They would bite and tug on my strobe arms, my head or any thing else they could get there mouths on. It was too much fun. 

The delighted feeling I had most of the time was occasionally switched off with sudden anxiety when a 600lb bull sea lion would patrol near me to check on his harem of "ladies". The loud barking and bubble blowing was a warning to all us humans. I did as instructed and looked down and away from the bull and moved away from his territory each time this happened. On one occasion I was photographing a female up close. As I was focusing in on her suddenly a black mass with huge whiskery face appeared in my view finder. I believe this bull thought I was too close to his "girl". Although I backed away the bull swam atop me and pressed me into the rocky bottom with his huge belly. After the mass passed by I looked over at Scott and all he could do was shake his head in disbelief. There was definitely a smile beneath that mask though. 

Overall, the experience left an indelible mark on me. It is not often in nature where a wild animal will voluntarily interact with humans in their territory and on their terms and even do so with displays of affection. The sea lions were not just photogenic as stand alone subjects but the background that was the rocky island of Los Islotes made the perfect underwater studio. Composing images that went beyond sea lion portraits was most satisfying. 

The exploratory trip to the Sea of Cortez went so well that I went ahead and booked a group trip there in Oct of 2023. I would very much like to share my experiences with you and maybe help you achieve some great imagery. I will guide you through the process of diving La Paz while staying at a luxury resort and spa. Besides sea lions we will be diving other famed sites there such as wrecks and La Reina dive site to look for mantas, pelagics, eels and much more. It is not just the sea lions. 

Please visit this link that will take you to the trip page in this web site:

https://www.evolutionunderwater.com/la-paz-baja-mexico-sea-lions

 

See complete photo gallery here: https://www.evolutionunderwater.com/p145625210
 

 


 



 

 

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