Between July and September, the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world gathers just off the coast of La Jolla, San Diego's "Jewel by the Sea" renowned for its turquoise coves, white sand beaches and vibrant La Jolla Underwater Park teeming with marine life. At this serene coastal setting, visitors might imagine the dramatic sight of sharks cruising through the sandy shallows sparking panic. However, it's quite the contrary. When the sharks arrive to La Jolla Shores - recently named the #8 Best Beach in the U.S. by the TripAdvisor 2016 Travelers' Choice Award - snorkelers, swimmers and kayakers by the dozens head out to the open water to encounter these magnificent creatures up close.
The following are some fun facts about leopard sharks as well as snorkel/kayak tour offerings and beachfront hotel and resort properties for convenient overnight stays for visitors wishing to experience this remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon.
There's nothing for visitors to fear of La Jolla's leopard sharks. These beautifully spotted creatures are quite timid, docile and completely harmless, posing no threat to humans as they forage for crabs and small fish along the ocean bottom. In fact, there's never been a report of anyone being bitten by a leopard shark.
- La Jolla's leopard sharks are almost all female, most of which are pregnant. Gestation period is 10-11 months. They bear live young, and a litter will typically consist of 15-20 babies.
- They congregate at La Jolla Shores because of its calm, warm, shallow waters - an ideal natural incubator - and abundant food in the sand, rocky reefs and kelp forest of the protected preserve, including clams, crabs, shrimp, squid, fish and fish eggs.
- The sharks' distinctive color pattern, resembling leopard spots, is so varied that they can be used to identify individuals, akin to fingerprints.
- Leopard sharks live along the Pacific coast of North America from Washington to Mazatlán, Mexico, including the Gulf of California.
- They arrive at La Jolla's Shores as early as June and as late as December, peaking in August and September.
- Leopard sharks have small mouths and teeth, perfect for feedings on crustaceans and bony fish.
- Adults can grow up to six feet in length, but the average size is four to five feet.
Whether kayaking, snorkeling or just swimming and wading, there are several ways for visitors to enjoy unforgettable leopard shark encounters.
- From July through September, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla's prominent aquatic research facility and museum showcasing the wonders of the ocean, hosts two-hour Leopard Shark Snorkeling Adventures which also cover the abundant variety of animals that make their home in La Jolla's waters. Participants must supply their own snorkeling gear.
Snorkel tip: Leopard sharks can be skittish. The best way to swim with them is to simply float on the surface of the water without kicking or making any kind of noise, which can scare them away.
- Hike Bike Kayak offers 90-minute La Jolla Shores Leopard Shark Snorkel tours with naturalist guides from late spring through early fall. Snorkeling gear is included. Guests not only swim with the sharks but also get to explore sandy flats and sand dollar beds while looking for rays and shovelnose guitarfish, as well as swim over kelp reefs to spot colorful fish, lobster and the occasional green sea turtle.
Click here to see a video of the leopard sharks in action.
- Offered year-round, La Jolla Kayak's three-hour Leopard Shark Snorkel Tour includes one hour with a guide who will point out the best spots to view the sharks and two additional hours for guests to continue exploring on their own. Snorkeling gear is provided.
- From March through October, Bike & Kayak Tours-La Jolla offers a 50-minute Leopard Shark Snorkel Adventure (snorkeling gear provided) and a 2.5-hour combined Kayak and Leopard Shark Snorkel Tour which includes kayaking to La Jolla's seven sea caves and kelp beds (the sharks are easily visible from the surface of the water), plus snorkeling with leopard sharks, bright orange garibaldi fish, shovelnose guitarfish and other marine life.
Kayak tip: Paddle gently, as leopard sharks are very sensitive to vibration due to the pores in their skin
- During the summer months, Everyday California offers its Original Snorkel Tour to interact with leopard sharks, as well as garibaldi, shovelnose guitarfish, sea lions and more. Snorkeling gear is provided.
Just steps from the leopard sharks' favorite gathering spot are a couple of great family-friendly properties for guests to rest after a fun-filled day in the ocean.
- Located directly on the sands of La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club features one of Southern California's few private beaches, 90 guestrooms - including one-, two- and three-bedroom beachfront suites - championship tennis courts, a nine-hole, par three golf course, massage services and world-class dining at the landmark Marine Room restaurant.
The Marine Room recently made national headlines when a malnourished sea lion pup was found sleeping in one of the restaurant's dining booths. SeaWorld San Diego's Rescue Team is successfully nursing the sea lion, named"Marina," back to health. Click here to see a video of the sea lion's exciting rescue.
- La Jolla Shores Hotel, also located on La Jolla Shores, features 128 guestrooms, complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas and towels, a heated swimming pool, children's wading pool, massage services and oceanfront cuisine at The Shores Restaurant.
- Visitors looking for a thrill beyond the cute and harmless leopard sharks of La Jolla can book a safe great white shark encounter with Shark Diver, a company that operates five-day excursions departing from San Diego for the waters off Mexico's Isla Guadalupe. Packages are available August through November and provide vessel, meals, guides and equipment for great white shark cage diving.