Swimming With the Sea Lions of Los Islotes


At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Benjamin Lowy shares a collection of photos from an underwater shoot off the coast of Baja.

Nestled off the coast of Baja California Sur, near La Paz, lies a string of islands in the Sea of Cortez — including Isla Espíritu Santo and Isla Partida. Part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and one of Mexico’s leading eco-tourism destinations, these islands, along with their surrounding reefs and outcrops, are home to countless forms of marine life.

At the northern tip of the chain, just beyond Isla Partida, is a small craggy outcrop — roughly a quarter mile long — called Los Islotes, or Isla Lobos. Here, where few people have access, lives a large colony of sea lions.

I visited the area on one of my first underwater assignments, after years spent covering war, politics and sports. Diving there was a transformational experience. Alone, floating in the open water, I found peace among these playful animals, sometimes referred to as “dogs of the sea.”

Sea lions really do seem like dogs: They play fetch with rocks, starfish and the occasional bone, and they often seem enamored by the few humans who swim with them. They constantly nibbled at my fins, or stared at their reflection in the dome of my underwater camera housing.

Swimming around the circumference of Los Islotes is possible, though the water in some areas is quite shallow, and access is often restricted by tour guides. Young adolescent sea lions can be seen playing in the surf and sunbathing on rocks. The bark of dominant males echoes above and below the water as they patrol the sea for threats to the colony and to their rule. Above the water, the animals populate every rocky outcropping, lying prostrate in the sun.

Each side of Los Islotes offers a different look at the sea lions’ habits. Massive rocks jut from the seabed on the northern side, having eroded off the island long ago. The sea lions frolic back and forth in these underwater obstacles, chasing each other through the rocky crevices.

The southern side of the island is where the males sit and sunbathe. Territorial and ferocious, these gigantic males can be dangerous and should be given a wide berth.

Near the eastern tip of the island is a giant arch that rises from the sea. There, divers can drop down to 50 feet, stare up and watch the silhouettes of sea lions as they swim from one side of the island to the other.

Perhaps most charming of all: Hidden on the southern side of the islands, within a small yet easily accessible underwater cave, is a sea lion “nursery.” Small juveniles dart back and forth under the watchful eye of older females.

Unfortunately, even these protected sea lions can’t avoid the encroachment of humans; they can occasionally be seen with fishing line wrapped around their necks, which can lead to infection and death. And therein lies part of the challenge for local marine park rangers and scientists: how to strike the right balance between conservation, education and eco-tourism.

In a way, it’s similar to the balance I try to strike myself: My mission as a photographer is to communicate what I see and experience to an audience. My mission as a father is to educate my children about the world around them, and about the conservation of the environment.

Many of these photographs were made with my wife and boys by my side. (These waters, after all, are where my son learned how to scuba dive under the tutelage of a lifelong friend.) And I have yet to find a photographic subject that has brought me more peace and tranquillity than swimming with the sea lions of Los Islotes.

Benjamin Lowy is an American photojournalist based in New York City. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.


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