In part two we’ll look at how to properly interact with nearshore sharks— sharks divers are more likely to encounter during a casual kelp forest dive.
Leopard sharks are the most exciting of the nearshore sharks. While a bottom feeder, they have classic shark shape with a wonderful pattern of spots across their back. Furthermore, they can get to be quite large, up to six feet in length. Unknowing swimmers that encounter these beautiful large fish in shallow water can be frightened by their size and shape. But not to worry, leopard sharks are harmless.
There is nothing you can do to attract leopard sharks. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. But they are fairly easy to find. Just don’t scare them off. They frighten easily. You’re lucky if you get within three feet. Don’t even think about touching as this will frighten them off permanently.
Leopards move into very shallow waters in late spring and summer to breed and bear their young. Nobody knows for sure exactly why, but the thinking is the warmer waters are better for the young. They will often remain through early fall.
Leopards are shy and can only be approached quietly while snorkeling. They school in constant motion in 5 to 15 feet of water just beyond the surf zone, off sandy beaches and gravel coves and bays. It is rare to find a solitary animal and sometimes the schools run in the dozens. Some of the better places to see leopards include Malaga Cove (in Los Angeles County), Corona Del Mar State Beach (Orange County), and off the Marine Room (San Diego County). At the islands try Cathedral Cove at Anacapa Island, and at Catalina Big Fisherman’s Cove, inshore from the reef at Torqua Springs, and Doctor’s Cove near Emerald Bay.
Soupfins have a similar coloring to the blue shark and are often mistaken as such. Soupfins, however, have a different shape, especially their tail, and are seen by divers in a totally different habitat. In the summer, soupfins move into the kelp forest, cruising in and out of the tall kelp stalks.
Soupfins are uncommon. Seeing them is hit or miss. You never know where they will show up. Sightings are almost exclusively at Catalina island on the frontside in and around kelp forests. The soupfin is a schooling shark— when you find one, you’ve found several, sometimes dozens. Ranging in size from four to six feet, venturing into a kelp forest when these creatures are swirling about can be a bit unnerving. They are in constant motion and sometimes just miss divers. At the same time, for the most part, theycan ignore divers entirely. As with leopards, they are also harmless.
Of the nearshore sharks seen in California, the horn shark is perhaps the most frequently seen. These are a bottom dwelling sharks that feed at night and tuck themselves back into crevices during the day. In spite of their shy nature, they are easy to spot by looking under ledges and in small caves. Horn sharks gain their names from the spine on their dorsal fin. When they are young, this is quite sharp and acts as a defensive device. Predatory fish wishing to swallow a horn shark gets a spine in the roof of their mouth and they are quickly released. As they age the “horn” becomes worn and is used more to wedge them into crevices making them difficult for predators to remove.
Horn sharks vary in size from babies at six inches to monsters of four feet long. The little guys are cute as buttons with poka-dots and a curly-cue mouth. Although it is possible to handle horn sharks, don’t. They have a soft underbelly that you will harm with your grasp. Also, they are powerful and nimble when they want to be. I had horn shark bite me on the nose and take off my mask years ago. Their teeth are very small but they have a powerful bite.
Sometimes you will find a horn shark out in the open. They are easy to approach.
If you gently slip your hand under its chin and lift, you can get a closer look.
Swell sharks lead a similar lifestyle to horn sharks—hiding, sedentary at day, feeding at night. It is, however, rare to see one out in the open. The swell shark gains its name from its defensive action to puff itself up with water when threatened. To do this, you’d have to yank it out of its hole and shake it. Don’t do it. Don’t harm this animal for your entertainment.
Shark encounters can be special, even more special using the right approach. In your diving, interact with these wonderful creatures, but don’t do anything to harm them, or put you in danger.