Travel to La Paz in Baja California, Mexico -- Sea lions in Sea of Cortez

A juvenile sea lion frolics on his back off Los Islotes, a popular dive site in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz, Mexico. (Brian J. Cantwell, Seattle Times, MCT / November 14, 2011)

In the turquoise water of Mexico's Sea of Cortez, the sleek and tawny sea lion zoomed past us as if he were a Jacques Cousteau diver clinging to one of those handheld aqua scooters.

When he saw our group of snorkelers he stopped like he'd broadsided a blue whale.

"Oh — you aren't sea lions, are you?" he seemed to be thinking, as he flipped and floated upside down just inches away, curiously studying us with soulful, basset-hound eyes. We could see every twitch of his whiskers.

In wetsuits and snorkel masks, we were surrounded by juvenile California sea lions, about a year old. Juvenile in age and behavior — zipping up, down and around us, and at times hanging on our dive boat's mooring line. These guys just wanted to play.

"They're cute, in a disconcerting way!" a fellow snorkeler exclaimed as we clambered back aboard the boat.

We were moored at Los Islotes, a group of rocky islets about a 75-minute boat ride from La Paz, the capital of southern Baja California. Weirdly sculpted by wind and tide, with whorls of rock and minaretlike spires, these are sea stacks like Antonio Gaudi might design.

A snow-white coating of yeasty guano is evidence that frigate birds, boobies and other winged wonders take refuge here along with a colony of up to 400 sea lions — whose barking, incidentally, sounds a lot like basset hounds.

It's a popular day-trip tourist outing to "swim with the sea lions."

Once our masks dipped beneath the surface, we saw why fish-eaters like this place. We were in the middle of thousands of shimmering, light-blue anchovies, fish 3 to 4 inches long, schooling in water-ballet unison.

For safety, we were told to stay well off the rocks and let the young sea lions come to us, keeping our distance from the big bulls jealously guarding their harems on shore. When one of the adult, 800-pound females swam by 15 feet from me underwater, barreling like a dark torpedo, it was, yes, disconcerting — without so much cuteness.

However, only the youngsters seemed interested in us.

"They may come at you, they may even try to hug you, but they're just playing," said our dive guide. "They might even try to nibble — don't pull your hand away, their teeth are sharp."

In other words, swimming with sea lions is safe — until it's not. So, caveat emptor. (How do you say, "Let the swimmer beware"?) But thousands have done it with nothing to remember but grins.

Getting slimed by a dolphin was the day's other hazard.

But for that you get an unbridled show like you'll never see at SeaWorld.

On the way to Los Islotes, our boat circled out beyond Isla Espiritu Santo (it means "Island of the Holy Spirit"), a sprawling, uninhabited outpost of striated pink and ocher promontories that in 2008 was named a marine national park. It's also part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve and World Heritage Site, in part because it and another nearby reserve harbor 38 unique plant and animal species — desert hares, ring-tailed cats, snakes and the like. Its pocket bays of warm water and caramel-colored sand make it a fabled kayaking and sailing destination.

Along the way, our boatload of nine American and Mexican vacationers thrilled to the sight of flying mobulas, a type of ray that breaches out of the water like a placekicked football.

"Researchers say it's males trying to impress females," said our guide, Chabelo Castillo.

"It's always about sex!" quipped passenger Lauren Seto, from San Francisco.