"The elephant seal is in the water," the dive master shouted in excitement. It didn't take long to see why he created such a stir. Sea lions almost completely covered the small, barren island. There was only one elephant seal.
We were on a dive trip out of La Paz, Mexico, with a couple good friends and fellow divers. We had the good fortune to have aboard our dive boat a student in marine biology. We would be diving off Los Motes, his former home in Baja California Sur.
Los Motes, a tiny islet group, lingers two hours offshore at the north end of the larger Isla Partida in the Sea of Cortez, which remains one of the cleanest bodies of water in the world, with rich sea life. An estimated 800 varieties of fish and 3,000 species (including invertebrates) inhabit the crystal-clear water.
The future scientist studied the wildlife that call the Sea of Cortez home. He collected data then turned it over to the Mexican government to help protect future species.
Sea lions were one of the subjects of his studies. He recorded the sounds they made intentionally — and those they did not.
"They belch; they fart, just like people," he explained. "The elephant seal is friendly. He especially likes bright colors."
We were amazed to see how friendly the elephant seal was. After our dive, we were given the chance to jump in and swim with him and the sea lions.
The California sea lions whizzed by closely, their streamlined bodies speeding like bullets past us. If we had our regulators in our mouths, the sea lions might try to tug them out. Generally, however, they kept their distance. The elephant seal constituted a different story.
One of the female snorkelers, our friend Trudy, attracted his attention with her hot-pink wet suit. He barreled toward her, full-speed ahead. When he reached her, he wrapped his fins around her and gave her a big hug. She scratched under his chin. He tipped his head back a little farther. They twirled around and performed a graceful water ballet.
Trudy tired and decided she'd like to sit the next one out. The elephant seal, however, was still in the mood. He grabbed her leg between his fins and didn't appear to have any interest in letting go.
He finally succumbed and looked a little dejected as he swam back to shore. With a huge heave-ho, he boosted his mammoth body back on shore. He looked up, almost seemed to sigh and then dropped his head to the ground.
Trudy, meanwhile, had climbed back aboard. We asked her whether she was frightened.
"Not really," she said. "He was gentle, just like a big teddy bear."
We nicknamed the elephant seal Romeo and found ourselves hoping that one day his Juliet would come along.