By Andrew Iida I Head Writer and Resident EMT
Every summer, hundreds of leopard sharks gather in the warm waters of La Jolla Shores for their breeding season. The sharks are totally harmless to humans, so people of all ages can safely swim with them in the shallow water right next to the beach.
What are leopard sharks?
Leopard sharks are a species of houndshark that get their name from the dark gray dark spots covering their light graybacks. Leopard sharks typically reach around 5 feet long, but some individuals can reach up to 7 feet.
How to swim with leopard sharks
In the summer, it’s harder not to swim with leopard sharks than it is to swim with them. Hundreds of these animals crowd the shallow waters of La Jolla shores every year, and swimming with sharks in San Diego is usually as easy as walking into waist-deep water.
If you’re in the area, stop by our store in La Jolla before you hit the beach. We can pull up a map of the area and show you where we’ve been having the most leopard shark sightings that day, and we have snorkel gear available to rent 7 days a week.
Are leopard sharks dangerous?
Marine biologists consider these animals to be totally harmless to humans. Even though they can get pretty long, it’s very rare for them to get up to even 40 lbs. As long as you’re bigger than a crab, they’re not a threat.
In fact, they’re terrified of humans! If you swim slowly, you might be able to go within a few feet of them, but if you go any closer or make sudden movements, they’ll swim away. They're even scared of the bubbles from scuba divers.
Do I need to be a strong swimmer to swim with the sharks?
Not at all. During the summer, they can usually be found in water that’s shallow enough to stand up in.
Leopard sharks are in La Jolla year round, but usually they stay in the deeper waters. From June to October, they come into the shallow waters next to the beach for their mating season. August and September are the peak months, and there are usually hundreds of sharks next to the beach.
Where do leopard sharks live?
Leopard sharks can live as far north as Oregon and as far south as Mexico, but La Jolla is the only place in the world where they have been observed breeding. Here at the Shores, they’re usually very easy to find.
What do they eat?
Leopard sharks suck—literally! They skim along the bottom of the ocean and expand their mouths to create a suction force that draws in their prey. They mostly eat crabs, shrimp, worms, clams, and some species of small fish like anchovies.
Can you eat them?
They’re edible, and you can fish for them with a license, but they have very high levels of mercury (the stuff that made the Mad Hatter mad). It’s much more fun to swim with them and then pick up some Baja fried fish tacos from Galaxy Taco next door.
Are leopard sharks a threatened species?
At this time, their conservation status is “Least Concern”, which means they’re doing very well and there are no major threats to the species, but that could change. Leopard sharks don’t migrate, so the ones you see here are true San Diego locals.
If something happens to the ocean that makes the water uninhabitable, such as ocean acidification, entire populations of leopard sharks will die because they don’t have the instinct to move and find a new home.
Help the sharks; keep our oceans clean! (If you’ve been on a tour with us, you’re already helping)
Leopard shark quick facts
- Leopard sharks live around 30 years
- They can be found as far north as Oregon and as far south as Mexico
- There was one report of an “attack” on a diver in 1955. The leopard shark bumped into the side of his face and swam away without biting him. Even such a minor event was extraordinary enough that we’re still talking about it half a century later.
- Leopard sharks sometimes school with smooth-hound sharks and spiny dogfish
- They are hunted by larger sharks and occasionally marine mammals