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Dive Guide: Socorro & The Revillagigedo Archipelago

The Revillagigedo Archipelago, more commonly known by its largest island, Socorro, is widely considered by divers to be one of the most amazing big animal dive destinations on our planet. And rightfully so! This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mexican National Park located in the eastern Pacific Ocean is one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world. More commonly known by the name of its largest island – Isla Socorro, these islands are packed with jaw dropping encounters. It is a playground for giant oceanic mantas growing upwards of 7 meters wide (23 feet). A location where over 10 species of sharks can be seen, friendly pods of dolphins join divers, and schools of massive tuna can be seen hunting. But it is not just the biodiversity & abundance of pelagic marine life that makes this area so special. The unique interactions with the beautiful creatures of Socorro are what scuba diving dreams are made of. Diving here is emotional. Imagine a massive oceanic manta ray spotting you from afar, and seeking you out. Swimming directly to your face to look you in the eye and then spending the next 20 minutes circling you as if she wants to begin a conversation. Picture pods of dolphins that actively seek out divers beckoning them to play. All the while white tip sharks gather in piles of 10s & 20s, schools of shy hammerheads create choreographed walls out in the blue, and huge tiger sharks patrol the depths. This is the Revillagigedo.

scuba diving with oceanic manta rays at Isla San Benedicto in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Mexico
Silver tip shark scuba diving at Socorro island and the Revillagigedo Archipelago
Diving with oceanic manta rays in Socorro & the Revillagigedo Archipelago

Why Should You Go

There are many reasons the Revillagigedo is considered one of the best big animal destinations on earth. First up, the oceanic manta rays here behave unlike any I have ever seen. They seem to seek out divers for attention. Imagine floating eye to eye with a 6m /20ft wide ocean giant, watching her eyes track yours as if she wants to start a conversation with you. Or looking above you to see one of the massive creatures playing in your bubbles just above your head. It’s surreal. But even better, normally it isn’t just 1 manta. I’ve had dives with upwards of 10 oceanic manta rays around us on one dive. I love watching how they interact with each other and seeing them gliding through the water following or spiraling around each other. 

But then it doesn’t end there, Socorro and the Revillagigedo are home to a lot of shark species. Tiger sharks, schools of scalloped hammerheads, dusky, Galapagos, silky, white tip reef, oceanic black tip, silver tip, and even the world’s largest fish – the whale shark! Oh, and don’t forget the bottlenose dolphins that like to mess with divers for entertainment. They seem to have developed games out of it. But I won’t ruin the surprise, just make sure to listen to your guides briefing. False orcas, humpback whales, and other cetacean species can be spotted around the islands. Beyond the big stuff, there is just a ton of life on the sites from big schools of different species of jacks to the beautiful bright orange Clarion Angel Fish that is endemic to these islands. Seeing the Clarions cleaning a manta is one of my personal favorites and a definitive iconic shot from the Revillagigedo. 

When Should I Go? 

The Socorro Island & Revillagigedo Archipelago season runs from November into June. During this time there is not really any ‘bad time to go’. I’ve been every month from November through May and always had mind blowing encounters out there. There isn’t a massive difference from month to month. The beginning of the season is sometimes touted as the whale shark peak, but ask any of the guides that have been working out there for a few years and they’ll tell you the chances to see whale sharks are the same pretty much all season. 

From my personal experiences, I feel that early and late season tends to be more sharky, and mid season I tend to have seen more mantas. But with that being said I have never had a trip where we didn’t see mantas on at least 75% of the dives. So I wouldn’t stress too much which month to go. The only month I personally tend to stay away from is June. This is due to the eastern tropical pacific hurricane season starting to kick off. As there is quite a long open ocean crossing to get to the islands storms in the summer can create less than ideal conditions or even force operators to cancel trips unexpectedly. 

In terms of water temperatures there is a little bit of difference through the season. The early months (Nov-mid Jan) and late months (May-June) tend to be warmer at roughly 24-27C / 75-80F. The middle of the season (late Jan through April) tends to be cooler with temperatures of 22-25C / 70-76F.

Scuba diver below 2 oceanic manta rays at Roca Partida in the Revillagigedo Archipelago, Mexico
Aerial drone view of the volcano at Isla San Benedicto in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Mexico
Group of white tip reef sharks cuddling on a ledge at Roca Partida, near Socorro in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Mexico

How Do I Get There?

These beautiful islands are located 240 miles due south of Cabo San Lucas, which means there is only one way to dive them and that is via liveaboard. The crossing to the northern most island, Isla San Benedicto, takes roughly 26 hours depending on which ship you are on. There are currently 6 operators running trips to the Revillagigedo Archipelago. My personal favorites are Nautilus Liveaboards and Mexico Liveaboards. Nautilus has 3 ships that operate there (Undersea, Explorer, & Belle Amie), and Mexico Livebaboards has 2 (Rocio del Mar & Quino el Guardian). Dive Ninja Expeditions runs at least 1 or 2 specialized trips every year to Socorro that I personally guest host. During the trip I give talks about the mantas and sharks that call the area home, as well as current research & conservation projects and how to get involved in Manta Photo Identification projects. So far every trip we have discovered new mantas that we were able to name! This past trip we found 3 new ones! 

If you’ve never done a long crossing liveaboard before, don’t stress! While the crossing from Cabo San Lucas to San Benedicto is on the longer side it tends to be quite calm with the wind at your back and the waves moving in the same direction as the ship. So no rocky, crazy seas. If you’re not sure if you get seasick I always recommend taking meds before boarding the ship just to be safe. It’s much easier to prevent seasickness than it is to get rid of it once you feel it. Once you are in the islands you’ll be anchored in protected bays most of the trip and only do short crossings in the evening when you move from one island to the next.

What Dive Gear Should I Pack?

In regards to scuba gear you’ll want to pack all your normal stuff: mask, fins, wetsuit, regulator, booties, and BCD. However one thing I highly recommend is having a tall surface marker buoy (SMB), and a reel so you can send it up from underwater if need be. Most of the dive sites have some current and you are essentially in the middle of nowhere. So if you lose your group or need to surface without them you want to make sure you can get a buoy up quick so the zodiac drivers can easily see and track you. They’re great at spotting divers, but it always helps to be a little extra safe when diving remote areas like this. I’d also highly recommend having a Nautilus Lifeline. If you are onboard a Nautilus ship they’ll actually give you one to use for free during the trip. These awesome little devices are like a personal emergency GPS that when triggered send out an alert to all ships in the area with your exact GPS location.

Outside of that, your wetsuit will depend on when in the season you are going as temperatures range throughout the season. For most of the season the norm is a 5mm, unless you get cold easily. Personally, in the early season I’m using board shorts and a hooded vest, then I switch to a 3mm open cell wetsuit. Very rarely do I break out my 5mm, but I am also accustomed to diving colder waters. I’d recommend checking with the ship to find out the current temps before you fly out so you can be comfortable for your trip. Gloves and reef hooks are not allowed anywhere in the  park so you can leave them at home. 

A jack fish guiding a giant oceanic manta ray through the ocean at the Boiler dive site in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Mexico
Aerial drone shot of Cabo Pearce on Socorro Island in Mexico
A booby sea bird looking under the water at divers and trying to eat their bubbles in Socorro Mexico

What Camera Gear Should I Bring?

For camera gear you are going to want to go wide angle. A fisheye or WACP is great for the unclose manta interactions. Then I like to switch some days to my Sony 16-35mm G Master lens for shark shots. While there is a bit of macro around the sites, you won’t need to bring your macro lens. Trust me, you’ll be way too busy with the mantas and sharks to be looking for nudis! If you are shooting photos, I’d recommend strobes, such as the Sea & Sea YS-D3 Mk II Lightning strobes. Most of the dives take place around 25 meters / 80 feet so you’re going to want a bit of light to help out. If you’re shooting video, then you might want video lights depending on the subject or just some good old fashioned custom white balance. If you need an awesome suitcase to carry it all in that’s super sturdy, keeps your gear safe, and doesn’t attract unwanted attention like hard shell cases do; then check out Think Tank! I personally love their roller bags!

For topside, I’d recommend a 100-400mm telephoto to get shots of dolphins, seabirds, and the surrounding landscapes. The islands themselves are incredibly beautiful. I’d also highly recommend bringing your drone if you are comfortable flying from boats. At San Bendicto you can actually see the top of the volcano, Cabo Pearce looks beautiful looking back towards the island and Roca Partida also makes for some great drone shots. Plus, many times I’ve spotted mantas sun tanning at the surface from the drone. There are 2 things to consider when flying a drone here though. First, some sites can have a lot of sea birds cruising around so keep an eye out- especially for frigates. Second, the rock here messes with GPS and RC connection if you get too close to it so you always want to keep direct line of site and do NOT fly behind the rocks or walls. In other words, you want to make sure there is a direct line of site between you and the drone with no part of the islands between you and the drone.

Conservation & Research

With so many jaw dropping pelagic encounters to be found in Socorro and the Revillagigedo Islands there are a lot of brilliant researchers and passionate conservationists working hard to better understand and protect this area. Pacific Manta Research Group has been studying the mantas found in the Revillagigedo Archipelago as well as the eastern pacific and the Gulf of California for over 30 years.  They also created and run one of the largest manta identification programs in the world. The research from this photo identification program has been crucial in gaining further protections for the area as well as pushing forward our understanding of these enigmatic gentle giants. On the Dive Ninja Socorro trips I teach the guests early on how they can get involved and contribute to the project with any camera. Plus we get the name any mantas that are discovered to be new to the database. For me, I love this part as it lets us take all those incredible memories from the trip and let them live on through naming one of the beautiful creatures we seen.

The renown pelagic research center, Pelagios Kakunja based in La Paz, also has a wealth of projects and researchers working in the island on some remarkable projects. I highly recommend giving both research centers a follow on Instagram and checking out their websites for more info on the awesome work they are doing. You might also spot ships flying the Sea Shepherd flag while in the islands. This is because through Operation Treasured Islands, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society helps the Mexican Navy and national park service patrol this gigantic protected area from illegal fishing ships.

Silhouette of a scuba diver and Oceanic Manta Ray at el Canon dive site on San Benedicto Island, Mexico
Aerial shot of the volcano crater on San Benedicto Island in Mexico's Revillagigedo Archipelago.
Playful bottlenose dolphins check out a group of scuba divers at Socorro Island in the Revillagigedo Archipelago Mexico

Local Insider Tips 

Experience wise I’d suggest being a PADI Advanced Open Water diver or equivalent with around 30 dives under your belt. This is because most of the dives are on the deeper side and there can be some current on some of the dive site. Also, I’d highly recommend having your Nitrox certification. You’ll be doing 3-4 dives per day with most of them being to roughly 25m/80ft. Using Enriched Air Nitrox will help you extend your bottom times on the receptive dives, as well as lower your overall nitrogen load. The course is quick and easy to do so it won’t take up much of your time. You could even book the course with a local dive shop in Cabo, such as the highly rated Dive Ninja, and they will send you the eLearning to do online before you arrive. Then you show up and only have a couple hours of learning & practice and you’re all set! For my readers, Ninja is offering a $50 discount on the PADI Nitrox Course – all you have to do is mention this article and tell them you’re going to Socorro.

Since all the ships to Socorro & the Revillagigedo depart from Los Cabos, Mexico I’d definitely recommend sneaking in some dives in Cabo San Lucas before you head out to the islands! Plus it gives you a chance to dust off the gear and make sure everything is working correctly so you can hit the water ready for action when you get out to the islands. This way you’re not wasting any dives out there trying to get comfortable or sorting gear issues. I wrote an article with a bunch of info about diving in Los Cabos, Mexico here. If you have the extra time, I’d also recommend jumping on a day trip from Cabo to visit the sea lion pups & whale sharks in La Paz, or experiencing the world famous Cabo Pulmo National Park. A couple of the local shops in Cabo, like Dive Ninja offer day trips to visit these beautiful spots with transportation and everything included making it super easy to sneak in!

My last tip for Socorro is to make sure you book in advance! Trips out there sell out fast and sometimes a year or longer in advance depending on the dates you are looking for. February and March tend to be the quickest to sell out. Personally I find that January always has the best action, so I always host trips then.

Quick Recap For Diving Socorro & the Revillagigedo Archipelago – TL:DR

Dive Season: November – June 

Marine Life: Mantas, Sharks, Dolphins, & more!

Experience Level: Advanced Open Water or equivalent and at least 30 dives are recommended due to the deeper dives & currents.

Water Temperatures: Ranges from 22-27C / 70-80F through the season. The warmer temps (24-27C/75-80F) are usually seen in November, December, early January, May, and June)

Visibility: 30m/100ft is the norm. If the wind or swell is strong it can drop down to 15m/50ft.

Wetsuit: Depends on the month, but a 5mm is a safe bet for most divers. Recommend contacting the ship the week before you fly to check current temps.

Lens Choice: Fisheye & Wide Angle for underwater. Telephoto for topside.

Drone: Drones are allowed in the park, just keep an eye out for sea birds and stay away from the rocks.

Who To Dive With: Dive Ninja runs special trips every year that I actually guest host – so let’s go see some mantas! Otherwise Nautilus Liveaboards and Mexico Liveaboards are the 2 companies I’d recommend.

two divers hold hands in awe as a gigantic oceanic manta ray glides by them