Bobbing around with my head just above the surface of a calm sea, there was only the sound of the water rippling about my neck - and the occasional flip, flap of the giant mantas wing tips when they broke the surface. The animal, 7m across, circled round while I waited with my camera.
I thought of Hemingways Old Man and the Sea. He battled to land a giant fish in a cockle-shell of a craft. I, on the other hand, was equipped with little more than a pair of fins, a mask and a skimpy pair of shorts that left me wincing from the stings of a billion plankton - the same plankton my manta was enjoying.
The boat had dropped us off about two miles from shore, but my wife had found the plankton just too painful. She had retreated to the boat, but I had asked the crew to leave me here.
The boat was now so far off I couldnt pick it out against the back-drop in the faltering evening light. So it was just me and my manta.

Flip, flap. Its small dorsal fin gave away its position, along with the two enormous white remoras that rode in parallel position on its back, heads out of the water, looking for all the world like a pair of matching gargoyles. How did they manage to breathe, let alone survive the scorching Mexican sun

The whole scene was more gothic than any creation of the most cocaine-loaded sci-fi film directors mind. No wonder these mantas are often called devil-fish.
Each time the manta and its entourage appeared to turn my way, I slipped vertically beneath the surface, exhaling so that I would drop without a tell-tale splash. The water was like warm vichyssoise; thick with rich nutrients - and stinging nematocysts.
Unless I found myself on a collision course with the manta, I had no chance of seeing it under water. The few times I got lucky I squeezed off a frame of film and received a swipe from a wing-tip in reprimand for my success. Close encounters of this kind were infrequent, and I was rewarded with only a dozen frames shot over the course of more than an hour.
The water was comfortable at 30C and I was buoyant enough to keep my head well clear of the water while floating upright. But I began to rue my enthusiasm to be left alone in this vast expanse of water. I wondered just how many stings I could take, as I anxiously scanned the surface for the float sac of a Portuguese man-of-war. Meanwhile, the manta was circling further from me.
Then, just as it appeared to be all over, the surface began to boil with a glittering mass of thousands of small fish, beating the surface in synchronised panic. It was as if the cloudless heavens had opened with a tropical deluge, but there was no rain. My heart paused for a moment, full with dread of the unknown. I was relieved to see the sweeping tail-fin of a whaleshark as it casually rounded up its dinner.

Return to Cortez
Only an hour or so earlier, Id just finishing packing to go home. I lay on the big hotel bed - it had been an eventful and exhausting week. The phone rang. Six giant pacific mantas and a whaleshark in the bay!
When you want encounters with pelagics, you have to be prepared to drop everything. Thats the name of the game in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Fed by the Colorado river in the north, the Sea of Cortez is around a thousand miles long, flanked on one side by the Mexican mainland and separated from the Pacific by a long peninsula - Baja (Lower) California.
At its southern end is the thriving but inauspicious Mexican town of La Paz, sitting on the edge of a huge bay and protected from storms by a chain of islands - notably Espiritu Sanctu, Partida, San Francisco and Los Animas - stretching north.
I had been to the Sea of Cortez before - two years ago, I had found the sea to be chillier than expected, despite the pizza-oven temperature of the air, and a plankton bloom had made photography difficult. This time I was more fortunate.
We took a liveaboard arranged by the Cortez Club. The Mariana is 20m of sheer luxury, and Mrs Bantin and I shared the biggest stateroom I have ever luxuriated in. Our comfort was further enhanced by our being the only passengers on board!
The liveaboard was captained by ex-American footballer Baer (a bear by nature as well as name) and his wife Mary, a charming woman whose mission was to feed everyone up until they matched her husbands giant proportions. Together with Englishman Jamie Curtis, from the Cortez Club, and his assistants Ricardo and Nelson, the world of the Sea of Cortez was our oyster.
The coastline is a stark and harsh reminder that there is just desert beyond. It differs from the Red Sea coast only in that the red cliffs are covered in cacti. Like the Red Sea, the Sea of Cortez burgeons with life. In fact, the Japanese government tried to buy the Sea of Cortez from Mexico, as this is one of the most productive seas still to be exploited.
But there are no extensive coral reefs. Only boulders define the somewhat colourless underwater landscape. You dive here in the hope of meeting the bigger things of life.

Seeking sealions
Los Islotes, a guano-stained pair of isolated rocky islands, are famous for their colony of California brown sealions. Ellie, a single over-friendly elephant seal that I had met before, seems to be no longer in residence. We found the sealions of the ill-named Seal Rocks even more friendly and co-operative for my camera - even though it took an extra day to get to this special location. Like the mantas and whalesharks, the acrobatic sealions are literally swimming in their dinner!
Andrea Tomba - a Swedish/ Italian Antonio Banderas lookalike and cousin of Tomba La Bomba, the skiing ace - brought supplies out to us in one of the Cortez Clubs extremely fast day-boats. It can cruise with a full contingent of divers at more than 60mph. Andrea thrilled us with his free-diving skills, only to be easily outdone by his bewhiskered dancing partners.

Mexican marine life
At Seal Rocks and at more popular dive sites like Swanne Reef, the fish shoal in such large numbers that there are shoals within shoals. A thousand porgies are engulfed by a larger glittering and heaving mass of anchovies, constantly grouping and regrouping in a nervous silvery curtain - in the hope of staying alive. Pelicans pick off those that find themselves unwittingly running out of water at the top of the pile.
Small clusters of snappers and Mexican hogfish momentarily lose their companions in the melee, while trumpetfish are swept along with enthusiasm for a meal, hoping not to become one! Individual sergeant majors break away from what was once an orderly cluster, and its scorpion and porcupine city too.
Near to Swanne Reef lie the remains of the Salvatierra, a ferry that struck the reef and foundered in less than 20m of water. It makes an interesting dive, although, having been pounded by the sea for more than 30 years, only the twin propellers, a little bit of superstructure and the wheels of the trucks it was carrying are still recognisable. But its a haven for animals taking shelter from those further up the food chain.

Then there are the hammerheads. El Bajo is famous for encounters with these sharks, one of the most spectacular predators. However, you need to go deep and swim in the eternal blueness of open water to encounter their rarely seen schools.
I can understand the reluctance of some people to do this. The sensory deprivation provided by the loss of any visual data can be unnerving. The constant scanning of the deep blue nothingness in search of these animals, so elusive that no one knows for certain what their diet is, can be thought-provoking. When you do see one, it is invariably coming at you head-on, making it unrecognisable and consequently startling as it turns a massive broadside on to escape into the gloom.
Our forays in mid-water resulted in many heart-thumping encounters, but not a single photograph - and long decompression stops.
Is that all No. In January, the warm bays of the southern part of Baja California are used by grey and humpback whales for birthing their young!

Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet


GETTING THERE: La Paz has twice-daily flights from Los Angeles, which is well served with flights from the UK. At certain times there is a weekly charter flight from Gatwick direct to Cabo Sant Lucas, about three hours drive from La Paz. Flights in and out of the USA use the piece-system - two pieces of baggage only (up to 32kg each) per passenger.
DIVING DETAILS: There are several dive centres, including the Cortez Club (01273 731144) which has fast boats, masses of modern (Mares) equipment and an English ambience. No vaccinations other than those recommended for all world-travellers are necessary.
ACCOMMODATION: At the four-star La Concha Beach Resort, just outside La Paz.
LANGUAGES: Mexican Spanish, but American English is widely spoken.
MONEY: Money: The Mexican Peso. US dollar and major credit cards are accepted everywhere.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Watersports, shopping, fantastic beaches, whale-watching at certain times of the year, and sealion-watching.
HAZARDS: Stinging plankton and amorous elephant seals.
BEST TIME TO GO: Mid-September to mid-November.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 20-30°C - check before you go!
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: A range of abilities, depending on the chosen dive-site.
COST: A 10-day package, including one night in LA, nine nights at La Concha Beach Resort, all transfers and local taxes, and seven days diving with the Cortez Club, costs from £650 per person (double occupancy). A 14-night package costs from £850. Flights are not included - return tickets to La Paz via LA start from £350.
PROS: First-world facilities, English-run dive centre and big wildlife.
CONS: No pretty reefs, occasional poor visibility, and intense heat contrasted with sometimes cold water.