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These leopards don't bite

They don’t eat us, but we do eat them.

Only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark
Only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark

Someone hollering “Shark!” at the beach is akin to a person yelling “Fire!” in a theater. Folks react whether or not they see a fin rising out of the water or smoke filling the room. In this, leopard sharks, in spite of their double-predatory moniker, get a bad rap.

One of my first fishing memories was in a tin boat in Mission Bay back toward where Campland now sits. My father was wrestling with a large leopard shark, not to take it, but to mend and release it, as it had eaten a bait meant for a halibut and dad wanted to ensure a successful release. He treated the six-foot shark as if it were a patient or pet in need, all the while telling me that fishing doesn’t always mean you kill what you catch and that all life has a valuable place in the ecosystem. It was my first notable experience with catch-and-release fishing and conservation.

Leopard sharks are mostly grayish-brown with black spots and a white underbelly. They have a broad, short snout and their tails are notched and elongated in the upper half. They can grow up to seven feet, although those found just off our beaches are usually four to five feet in length. Leopard sharks grow a few inches per year and reach maturity at about three feet. They have eggs that hatch in the womb and give birth to 12 to 30 pups in the spring after a ten-month gestation period.

During summer months, large aggregations of mature females assemble in shallow bays and estuaries from Oregon down to the Mexican Pacific coast. The most commonly known gathering spot locally is in the shallows just in front of the Marine Room in La Jolla. There, hundreds of these harmless creatures gather in the summer months and folks can go snorkeling with them. Researchers at Scripps have been tagging and tracking them for some time now. If you notice a seven-foot-wide white balloon taking off from Scripps Pier and floating above the cove, it’s probably carrying the tracking hardware that is following the leopard sharks.

Leopard shark research balloon

Their diet typically consists of seafloor-dwelling invertebrates: clams, octopuses, crabs, lobsters, and even small bat rays. They don’t eat us, but we do eat them. So much so that, though they are not yet threatened or endangered as are many species of sharks, there are special take limits for them. The daily bag and possession limit is three fish with a minimum size limit of 36 inches total length. The length is to ensure they reach breeding maturity.

While snorkeling among them they look sluggish as they slowly cruise about, but I found that trying to touch one (or even grab one by the tail as we used to attempt as kids) will cause the timid sharks to bolt in a snake-like motion while leaving only a cloud of sand and silt. Though there is only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark, it’s better to hover above them and watch.

Past Event

Snorkel with the Leopard Sharks

Among the many San Diego outfits offering snorkeling tours, the naturalists at Birch Aquarium are hosting outings to visit leopard sharks off the La Jolla coast through the summer. This adventure is for ages 10 and up, intermediate swimming ability is required, and previous snorkeling experience is recommended. Participants must supply their own gear. Ages 10–17 must also be accompanied by a paid adult. The next outing with the leopards will be Sunday, July 17, from 8 to 10 a.m.

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Only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark
Only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark

Someone hollering “Shark!” at the beach is akin to a person yelling “Fire!” in a theater. Folks react whether or not they see a fin rising out of the water or smoke filling the room. In this, leopard sharks, in spite of their double-predatory moniker, get a bad rap.

One of my first fishing memories was in a tin boat in Mission Bay back toward where Campland now sits. My father was wrestling with a large leopard shark, not to take it, but to mend and release it, as it had eaten a bait meant for a halibut and dad wanted to ensure a successful release. He treated the six-foot shark as if it were a patient or pet in need, all the while telling me that fishing doesn’t always mean you kill what you catch and that all life has a valuable place in the ecosystem. It was my first notable experience with catch-and-release fishing and conservation.

Leopard sharks are mostly grayish-brown with black spots and a white underbelly. They have a broad, short snout and their tails are notched and elongated in the upper half. They can grow up to seven feet, although those found just off our beaches are usually four to five feet in length. Leopard sharks grow a few inches per year and reach maturity at about three feet. They have eggs that hatch in the womb and give birth to 12 to 30 pups in the spring after a ten-month gestation period.

During summer months, large aggregations of mature females assemble in shallow bays and estuaries from Oregon down to the Mexican Pacific coast. The most commonly known gathering spot locally is in the shallows just in front of the Marine Room in La Jolla. There, hundreds of these harmless creatures gather in the summer months and folks can go snorkeling with them. Researchers at Scripps have been tagging and tracking them for some time now. If you notice a seven-foot-wide white balloon taking off from Scripps Pier and floating above the cove, it’s probably carrying the tracking hardware that is following the leopard sharks.

Leopard shark research balloon

Their diet typically consists of seafloor-dwelling invertebrates: clams, octopuses, crabs, lobsters, and even small bat rays. They don’t eat us, but we do eat them. So much so that, though they are not yet threatened or endangered as are many species of sharks, there are special take limits for them. The daily bag and possession limit is three fish with a minimum size limit of 36 inches total length. The length is to ensure they reach breeding maturity.

While snorkeling among them they look sluggish as they slowly cruise about, but I found that trying to touch one (or even grab one by the tail as we used to attempt as kids) will cause the timid sharks to bolt in a snake-like motion while leaving only a cloud of sand and silt. Though there is only one record of a human bitten by a leopard shark, it’s better to hover above them and watch.

Past Event

Snorkel with the Leopard Sharks

Among the many San Diego outfits offering snorkeling tours, the naturalists at Birch Aquarium are hosting outings to visit leopard sharks off the La Jolla coast through the summer. This adventure is for ages 10 and up, intermediate swimming ability is required, and previous snorkeling experience is recommended. Participants must supply their own gear. Ages 10–17 must also be accompanied by a paid adult. The next outing with the leopards will be Sunday, July 17, from 8 to 10 a.m.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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