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Nature Nut: Not all sharks are scary man-eaters

October 8, 2018

Last week, I had an opportunity to get a “blood salinity check” with a short trip to San Diego for my nephew’s wedding. The four days were full of wedding activities, some body surfing, good food and pickleball on a court overlooking the ocean.

However, the highlight for me was swimming with sharks below a La Jolla hillside mansion.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to venture too far out into the waters after seeing videos last week of a rare visit to the La Jolla Cove by a small pod of orcas, also called “killer whales.”

With voracious appetites, they feed on many large prey including seals, great whites, polar bears, whale young and even swimming moose. Not sure how much I look like any of those, and unfortunately their stay in the cove was a matter of hours, not days.

However, occasional visits by great white sharks to the cove area, coupled with maybe being too tired from pickleball, caused me to pass up my usual mile swim from the cove to the shores. Instead, I snorkeled out to see some other sharks present in big numbers right offshore. I did this seven times in the four days I was there, seeing a couple leopard sharks twice, none twice and dozens the three other times.

Unfortunately, for most people, their view of sharks is as a dangerous predator that kills people. Even after trying to assure Marcus, a man sharing the hotel hot tub with us after we swam with dozens of these sharks, his comment was “a shark is a shark,” and he would not consider getting into the water to see them.

Although not a definitive study, it seemed the times we saw large numbers of these sharks swimming about was later afternoon during low tide. Probably only about 50 yards offshore, they would appear below us almost always near the bottom.

We had to be careful when walking through the surf to get to the four- to six-foot deep water, as the sandy bottom also is home to numerous stingrays, as well as an occasional bat ray. Having experienced the extremely painful result of a stingray in Florida decades ago, I made sure to shuffle my feet while walking, and began swimming as soon as the water was deep enough.

Leopard sharks are considered essentially a nondangerous shark species, with minor bites being extremely rare. In addition, they could be considered the best looking of all sharks because of the very colorful mottled patterns that cover at least their top and sides, as I never have seen the underside of any. Although I got a few pictures of these beauties, I relied on my son’s partner, Jeff, to get even better ones with his Go Pro.

The area we observed the three- to five-foot long sharks is considered one of the best, if not best, gathering spots along the Pacific coast. Predominantly females are drawn to the area by the relatively warm waters they favor to feed near and incubate the young they will give birth to after 10 months. Their young, often two to four dozen, are born in the uterus, where they are nourished and grow. Once hatched, they are on their own to try to evade young great white sharks and other predators. If they do, they will mature in about 10 years to mate.

Similar to human fingerprints, each leopard shark skin has unique mottled patterns recognizable by researchers or observers of captive specimens. They tend to be found in groups and don’t typically migrate long distances.

Caught by fishermen for food and recreation, leopard shark numbers along the California coast declined in the 1980s before tighter regulations allowed them to increase in numbers.

With their close proximity to shoreline beach visitors, they have become an attraction for swimmers, snorkelers and even kayakers. When waters are clear enough, I’ve also enjoyed them by just walking and having them cruising around my legs.

Although not as colorful looking as leopard sharks, all other species of sharks still are valuable parts of ocean ecosystems. The killing of them for food or recreation unbalances those systems, or leads to such reduced numbers that extinction of certain species is possible. So, if you are ever in San Diego, take in the leopard sharks, and remember, doing so is a lot safer than driving to work.

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