Underwater Photography Guide to Baja California, Mexico
There are two types of underwater photographers: those that can happily spend an entire dive exploring every nook and cranny searching for the tiniest of creatures, and those that love nothing more than the feeling of coming face to face with some of the ocean’s most exciting megafauna. This underwater photography guide will explore the latter.
Personally, my photography is heavily focused on megafauna, and I have spent the past 8 years with the sole intent of finding the best underwater photography destinations in the world to experience such encounters.
One destination, in particular, has stood out and blessed me with some of the most thrilling interactions of my life: Baja California Sur, Mexico. It is the ideal place for underwater photographers looking for the big stuff.
Where is Baja California Sur?
Baja California Sur comprises the northwest region of Mexico and is well known for its spectacular landscapes, tourism, and rugged coastline.
Heading inland, you will find endless kilometres of open desert and cacti, while a short boat trip offshore will see you exploring the deep ocean canyons that large marine life call home.
Baja is all about the big stuff. Whales, dolphins, rays, sharks, sea lions, orca… the list of possible photographic opportunities goes on and on.
What makes these encounters all the more impressive is that they can take place just minutes offshore. This is largely a result of the dramatic underwater terrain that drops off very deep, and very quickly.
Read more: 8 Tips to Create Beautiful Underwater Animal Portraits
Where to stay in Baja California Sur?
Both Cabo San Lucas and La Paz are two of the main cities where divers can base themselves while exploring the region.
Cabo San Lucas, also known as a spring break capital, offers several accommodation options – many of which are within walking distance from the marina – as well as a variety of restaurants to choose from. This is the southernmost point of Baja and is the dividing point between the Pacific Ocean on the west side and the Sea of Cortez on the East.
La Paz, approximately 2 hours north, also offers a range of accommodations and restaurants with a slightly more relaxed vibe compared to Cabo San Lucas. Being situated firmly on the Sea of Cortez side, La Paz has easy access to some amazing encounters including playful sea lions and slow-moving whale sharks.
There are also several smaller coastal towns that are ideally situated during specific seasons. Both La Ventana and Magdalena Bay are seasonal hot spots offering ideal locations for the annual Mobula ray aggregations, as well as bait ball and grey whale season.
Scuba diving vs freediving
Diving Baja is best experienced with a snorkel. Almost all of the action takes place in 0 to 5 meters of water and involves a lot of getting in and out of boats.
Do yourself a favour and avoid the excess baggage charges at the airport – the heavy scuba gear is best left at home!
Read more: How to Photograph Sea Turtles
So, what species can you reasonably expect on a visit to Baja? The answer very much depends on the duration and location of your stay as well as the time of year that you visit.
The marine life is highly seasonal and researching optimal locations to base yourself from as well as the time of year is very important for a successful trip.
Baja is home to such an astounding number of large marine animals and photo opportunities that it would be extremely difficult to list them all. Close encounters with a variety of sharks, enormous fevers of Mobula rays, playful sea lions and, if you’re very lucky, orcas are all possible if you can put in the days.Read more: How to Photograph Ocean Giants
Shark encounters in Baja California
Baja California Sur is a popular destination for a variety of pelagic sharks, with Cabo San Lucas offering the most reliable encounters. To attract the sharks, operators leak chum slick (a combination of fish blood and oil) from the back of the boat and let it drift in the ocean currents and wind. Patience is key when looking to dive with pelagic sharks as it can often take many hours.
The four most likely species to encounter throughout the year are the blue shark, shortfin mako, and silky and smooth hammerhead. Baja offers arguably the best opportunity in the world to encounter these species from a close distance making the interactions well suited for photography.
While sharks are far from the mindless killing machines they have been portrayed to be over the years, it’s important to remember they are still wild animals and should be treated as such. Always be sure to go with reputable operators and listen carefully to their instructions at all times.
Read more: Underwater Photography Ethics and Code of Conduct
1. Blue sharks
Blue sharks are known to be a very curious species and divers can expect them to come close.
A wide-angle lens is a must to ensure you can capture the entire shark for exciting compositions.
These sharks are constantly on the move and a fast shutter of 1/500th or quicker is recommended to capture a clean, sharp image.
Blue sharks are most likely to be encountered during February and March.
2. Shortfin mako sharks
Known as the fastest shark in the ocean, capturing a clean image of the shortfin mako is on the wish list of most underwater photographers.
In addition to their speed, they also possess some extremely photogenic features including their teeth, large black eyes, and torpedo-shaped body.
Similar to blue sharks, makos are not shy. However, their speed and jolty behaviour can make capturing images a little more difficult. An even faster shutter speed of at least 1/800th is recommended for these sharks, as well as utilising your camera’s continuous shooting mode to increase the chance of capturing that one perfect frame.
January to April is a great time to visit if diving with shortfin makos is high on your list.
3. Silky sharks
While silky sharks can be a little shy when swimming alone, if you can catch them in a large group they seem to lose all sense of personal space! Luckily, this is exactly what you can expect between June and August.
Silky sharks come together off the coast of San Jose (a short drive from Cabo San Lucas) as a part of their mating season and can be seen in their hundreds during peak season.
Silky sharks are extremely photogenic and can make for very exciting compositions particularly by combining multiple sharks in a single frame. The sharks are often all around you, and time with them is usually plentiful allowing for excellent shooting conditions.
4. Smooth hammerhead sharks
These are perhaps one of the shyest species of shark in the ocean. While smooth hammerheads are not exactly easy to get a close encounter with, it is incredibly rewarding when it happens.
This species is one of the largest hammerheads in the ocean and their anatomy is unmistakable, making for spectacular imagery.
To increase the chance of having a close encounter, divers should enter the water very slowly and remain as still as possible. These sharks will often keep their distance, however, every once in a while will come close. Always be ready!
May to July typically offer the best chances of seeing the smooth hammerhead shark.
5. Whale sharks
Between October and April, encounters with the largest fish in the sea are not just possible but almost guaranteed.
Juvenile whale sharks are known to congregate in relatively shallow water along the coastline of La Paz, offering exciting wide-angle photo opportunities.
The local operators work well together to ensure interactions with the sharks are both safe and respectful.
Despite the whale sharks being mostly juveniles, a super wide-angle lens is a must as even the small ones are still enormous.
Mobula ray encounters
One of the most jaw-dropping encounters to witness is the annual aggregation of Mobula rays that takes place between May and August. The rays visit the Baja region to mate and feed and can be seen in fevers (groups) numbering in their thousands.
Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and also a small coastal town known as La Ventana are ideal locations to stay if swimming with the Mobulas is your goal.
When entering the water, it’s important to swim alongside the rays rather than through them. This will keep the mobula much more relaxed and have them more likely to swim in shallow water where there is plenty of available light. With that being said, the biggest of fevers will happily surround you regardless.
In addition to incredible wide-angle opportunities underwater, the topside action is equally impressive as Mobula rays are known to collectively jump meters out of the water. A long lens within the range of 100-400mm is well suited to capture these exciting moments.
Sea lion encounters
There’s not a photographer alive that doesn’t get excited at the idea of shooting sea lions. They make for the perfect subjects. Sea lions are very playful and frequently enjoy showing off their speed and agility.
Encounters with sea lions are quite common at many sites around Baja, but one stands out above all others: Los Islotes.
This site is open to diving between September and June and is a relatively short boat ride from the city of La Paz.
Sea lions are known to swim extremely quick making a fast shutter speed very important. Utilising strobes is another great way to help freeze the action for crisp, detailed images.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to go crazy underwater – the sea lions love it! The more you spin, flip, twirl, and blow bubbles, the more excited the sea lions will become, increasing the chances of excellent images.
Read more: How to Photograph Sea Lions
Over the past few years, Baja California has become very fortunate to see more and more encounters with pods of orca along the coastline. For many photographers, having the chance to shoot these apex predators is the ultimate experience.
It’s important to note that although it is possible to experience such an event in Baja, it is far from guaranteed. As it stands, the orcas are not known to follow any particular season or pattern.
The best advice is to spend as many days as you can in the water. With a bit of luck, you’ll notice a tall, black dorsal fin break the surface and your entire trip will be made!
Bait balls and grey whales
The small coastal town of Magdalena Bay has become increasingly popular over the years for offering some very exciting marine encounters with bait balls and grey whales. Bait ball season occurs from October to December and is known for the exciting marine life that it attracts including the impressive striped marlin. Many other pelagic species are sighted during this season making it high on the bucket list for many photographers.
From January to April, the curious grey whales enter the bay and can provide incredible interactions as they voluntarily approach boats. While swimming with the whales is not permitted, many photographers capture mind-blowing images by simply lowering their camera housings into the water.
With a staggering number of potential species, you will want to be as prepared as possible and ensure you travel with the most suitable equipment to capture all of the exciting moments.
Read on below for four must-have pieces of equipment when shooting the marine life of Baja.
Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?
1. Topside camera
In addition to your main camera for underwater use, a topside camera equipped with a long lens within the 100-400m range is a valuable resource.
There are times when underwater encounters are simply not possible, but the topside photo opportunities are still incredible.
2. Action camera
A small action camera such as a GoPro is another useful tool to have at your disposal. Ideally, it’s best to have one mounted on your camera housing.
Unfortunately, equipment does fail and the last thing you want is to be faced with an amazing marine interaction only to see your battery has died.
Read more: How to Use GoPros for Underwater Photography
3. Wide-angle lens
This is perhaps the single most important piece of equipment to bring with you!
As mentioned, Baja is all about the big stuff. A fisheye lens is ideal to ensure you are well prepared for even the biggest of marine species.
Read more: 4 Best Canon Fisheye Lenses for Photography
4. A set of freediving fins
When you’re spending long days in the water, comfort is everything.
A good set of freediving fins can make all the difference. It ensures that you can move swiftly through the water, keeping pace with both your subjects and dive buddies.
If the idea of photographing ocean giants is appealing to you, Baja California should be high on your travel list. Make sure you bring the right tools for the job as well as an adventurous spirit!
While the days on the water can be long, they are often filled with wonderful experiences as well as the opportunity to capture some seriously wild encounters.