Leopard Shark City

Christina Aushana/Guardian

Upon first glance, an unwitting passerby might mistake the dark shapes cutting through the waters of La Jolla Shores for lumps of seaweed, but after wading a few yards into the chilly ocean, even the legally blind quickly come to realize why the area has been dubbed Shark City.

Every year, hundreds of leopard sharks make their way down the West Coast in search of a warmer climate and breeding grounds. Their numbers are the greatest in August when the average water temperature reaches its annual high, 68 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the peak month for sightings.
Shark City is located at the southernmost end of La Jolla Shores. It is by no means a secret; masses of kayakers and snorkelers congregate in the area, serving as a blatant marker to the location of these glorified fish. The best launching spots for paddled and finned marine enthusiasts alike are directly in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club and especially in front of the Marine Room Restaurant.

The sandy flats are more popular with the leopard sharks than the nearby caves because they prefer to scavenge the shallow sea bottom for mollusks, crabs, worms, shrimp and fish. With mouths about the size of a quarter, the sharks pose no threat to humans and actually prefer to swallow their small foodstuffs whole.

While beachgoers need not subscribe to Steven Spielberg-induced Hollywood exaggerations and gore, it’s not to say that swimming with these animals is without suspense. One second you’re watching the reflection of the sun dance on the sand, and the next you’re caught completely off guard as a four-foot shark slithers right under you. Given that the sharks travel in loose schools, it’s common to see upward of a dozen coming and going in all directions, many in less than an arm’s reach. Depending on age, they range in size from three to seven feet, and their elaborate patterns vary between shades of light brown and black.

Kayakers with equipment rented from from La Jolla Kayak gather along the shore near Leopard Shark City before heading into the waves iwith the hope of spotting some of the three- to seven-foot sharks swimming beneath them. (Eric Wang/Guardian)

There are numerous ways to view the sharks. Snorkeling is probably the best, though just standing in the shallows as they wind around your legs offers a rival perspective; waders beware that sting rays are also drawn the warm water, so shuffle-walking is a must. Kayaks allow onlookers to cover more area and thus appreciate the number of sharks from a slightly removed position. Some people even scope the scene from stand-up paddleboards. The best sighting conditions from any angle are low tide, low surf, bright overhead sun, no wind and warm water.

Many shops along Avenida de la Playa offer equipment rentals and guided tours. La Jolla Kayak supplies wetsuits, masks and fins for $24 per day, and kayaks (which the company brings to and from the beach) for $28 every two hours. They also offer combo tours of the caves and Shark City that involve equal parts kayaking and snorkeling, which run $65 for all the gear, a knowledgeable guide and two hours of exploring — though guided snorkel tours of Shark City are completely unnecessary.

Students looking for an up-close and personal marine experience should definitely check out this nearby attraction.

La Jolla Kayak
2199 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037
(858) 459-1114