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Friday, July 3, 2020

Swim with Los Islotes sea lions

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At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place around the world, we launched a new series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists help you transport yourself, virtually, to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week, Benjamin Lowy is sharing a collection of photos from an underwater shoot off the coast of Baja.


Tucked off the coast of Baja California Sur, near La Paz, is a chain of islands in the Sea of ​​Cortez – including Isla Espíritu Santo and Isla Partida. Part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserveand one of Mexico’s main eco-tourism destinations, these islands, along with their surrounding reefs and outcrops, are home to countless forms of marine life.

At the north end of the chain, just beyond Isla Partida, is a small, steep outcrop – about a quarter of a mile long – called The isletsor Isla Lobos. Here, where few people have access, lives a large colony of sea lions.

I visited the region during one of my first underwater missions, after years of 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 called “sea dogs”.

Sea lions really make resemble dogs: they play fetch with rocks, starfish and occasional bones, and they often seem in love with the few humans who swim with them. They constantly nibbled on my fins or watched their reflection in the dome of my underwater camera housing.

Swimming around Los Islotes is possible, although 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 waves and sunbathing on the rocks. The bark of dominant males resonates above and below the water when they patrol the sea in search of threats to the colony and their domination. Above the water, the animals populate all the rocky outcrops, lying prostrate in the sun.

Each side of Los Islotes offers a different look at the habits of sea lions. Massive rocks spring from the seabed on the north side, having eroded the island for a long time. Sea lions frolic back and forth in these underwater obstacles, continuing through the rock crevices.

The south side of the island is where the males sit and sunbathe. Territorial and fierce, these gigantic males can be dangerous and deserve a large place.

Near the eastern tip of the island is a giant arch that rises from the sea. There, divers can descend to 50 feet, watch and watch the silhouettes of sea lions as they swim. across the island.

Perhaps the most charming of all: hidden on the south side of the islands, in a small easily accessible underwater cave, is a sea lion “nursery”. Small juveniles come and go under the watchful eye of older females.

Unfortunately, even these protected sea lions cannot avoid human encroachment; they can sometimes be seen with a fishing line wrapped around the neck, which can lead to infection and death. And therein lies part of the challenge for rangers and local marine park scientists: how to find the right balance between conservation, education and eco-tourism.

In a way, it is similar to the balance that I am trying to find: my mission as a photographer is to communicate what I see and what I live to an audience. My mission as a father is to educate my children about the world around them and about environmental conservation.

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


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

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