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The La Jolla fish named after Giuseppe Garibaldi

They totally ignore you and carry on nibbling like you’re just a piece of driftwood

Sea grass and Garibaldi fish near La Jolla Cove
Sea grass and Garibaldi fish near La Jolla Cove

We’re here for the leopard sharks. They are supposed to be the friendliest sharks in the ocean, and this is the time of year they come close to the shore around La Jolla and raise a family — from 4 to 33 pups each!

Only problem is, we end up in La Jolla Cove, not Shores. And with the traffic and the time creeping along, we can’t be bothered starting over. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” says Alison.

“And a leopard shark won’t change his spots,” I say.

“Say whu?” asks Alison.

Whatever, we end up, this late afternoon, heading down the stairs to the Cove. Plenty of people swimming, snorkeling. Idyllic in the gentle, end-of-day light. I mean yes, I’d like to see the leopard shark mamas swimming with 33 youngsters in line behind them, but actually, what I love to get in among most is those scarlet sea-grass denizens, the Garibaldi. First you get your mask and snorkel organized, and then swim or walk through a section of the boring gray fish who feed on the flotsam and jetsam shallows. And then, suddenly, you’re into the green sea grasses and brilliant orangey-red clusters of Garibaldi, aka damselfish. Alison’s a strong swimmer. She can do a mile no problem. She disappears in the direction of Catalina. But I stick with the Garibaldi. Why? Because they’re named after my hero: Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Uniter of Italy. This incredible guy took a thousand followers, who believed, like him, in creating a democratic Italian republic, dressed them in, yes, red shirts, and fought all the tiny battling states until they agreed to unite behind the red, white and green flag. And this was pretty darn recent: the mid-1800s. But what I love about the guy is once he had unified the whole of Italy, he didn’t become some generalissimo or president, which he could have; he just ditched his uniform and went back to becoming a farmer. Oh, and offered his services to Abraham Lincoln. What a guy. And these little “redshirt” fish bumping into my legs were named in his honor by Italian fishermen. I love how they totally ignore you and carry on nibbling like you’re just a piece of driftwood.

Life is certainly rich in this 6000-acre underwater park. They created it in 1970. It has the richest underwater life I have seen in California. Seals, cormorants, a ton of fish swimming through kelp forests, clear water (despite the swirling sea lion poop smells onshore). It’s a little Eden right in the middle of town. The Garibaldi feel like a scarlet flotilla, escorting me back to the shallows.

In the end though, I stay too long, and the swells make it kind of tough to get out at the slippery rocky end. You can scrape your chest on the rocks. Luckily a life guard passes by with one of those reach-out hand grips, and I flop onto the sand like a, well, seal.

Alison’s already out, sunning herself. She’s just swum a mile. “See any leopard sharks?” I ask.

“Thought I saw a whale,” she says. “Turned out to be you.”

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Sea grass and Garibaldi fish near La Jolla Cove
Sea grass and Garibaldi fish near La Jolla Cove

We’re here for the leopard sharks. They are supposed to be the friendliest sharks in the ocean, and this is the time of year they come close to the shore around La Jolla and raise a family — from 4 to 33 pups each!

Only problem is, we end up in La Jolla Cove, not Shores. And with the traffic and the time creeping along, we can’t be bothered starting over. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” says Alison.

“And a leopard shark won’t change his spots,” I say.

“Say whu?” asks Alison.

Whatever, we end up, this late afternoon, heading down the stairs to the Cove. Plenty of people swimming, snorkeling. Idyllic in the gentle, end-of-day light. I mean yes, I’d like to see the leopard shark mamas swimming with 33 youngsters in line behind them, but actually, what I love to get in among most is those scarlet sea-grass denizens, the Garibaldi. First you get your mask and snorkel organized, and then swim or walk through a section of the boring gray fish who feed on the flotsam and jetsam shallows. And then, suddenly, you’re into the green sea grasses and brilliant orangey-red clusters of Garibaldi, aka damselfish. Alison’s a strong swimmer. She can do a mile no problem. She disappears in the direction of Catalina. But I stick with the Garibaldi. Why? Because they’re named after my hero: Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Uniter of Italy. This incredible guy took a thousand followers, who believed, like him, in creating a democratic Italian republic, dressed them in, yes, red shirts, and fought all the tiny battling states until they agreed to unite behind the red, white and green flag. And this was pretty darn recent: the mid-1800s. But what I love about the guy is once he had unified the whole of Italy, he didn’t become some generalissimo or president, which he could have; he just ditched his uniform and went back to becoming a farmer. Oh, and offered his services to Abraham Lincoln. What a guy. And these little “redshirt” fish bumping into my legs were named in his honor by Italian fishermen. I love how they totally ignore you and carry on nibbling like you’re just a piece of driftwood.

Life is certainly rich in this 6000-acre underwater park. They created it in 1970. It has the richest underwater life I have seen in California. Seals, cormorants, a ton of fish swimming through kelp forests, clear water (despite the swirling sea lion poop smells onshore). It’s a little Eden right in the middle of town. The Garibaldi feel like a scarlet flotilla, escorting me back to the shallows.

In the end though, I stay too long, and the swells make it kind of tough to get out at the slippery rocky end. You can scrape your chest on the rocks. Luckily a life guard passes by with one of those reach-out hand grips, and I flop onto the sand like a, well, seal.

Alison’s already out, sunning herself. She’s just swum a mile. “See any leopard sharks?” I ask.

“Thought I saw a whale,” she says. “Turned out to be you.”

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