Leopard Sharks: Cutie Alert!

To present an alternative to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week (and cult TV movies like Sharknado), Heal the Bay staff write about the marine animals they love so much. The general public has been fed terrifying misconceptions about these creatures, and our mission is to raise awareness about the unique and important role sharks play in our local ocean ecosystem.

They’re small, timid and super cute! But I forgot all about that when I first encountered a leopard shark during one of my early forays into surfing.

I was out at Sunset Beach with one of Heal the Bay’s awesome volunteers, Boun, who is the perfect surfing teacher, given his supportive and mellow nature, which allowed me to relax and thoroughly enjoy the experience.  While we were waiting for that killer wave, we were chatting on our boards when all of sudden Boun said: “Oh cool, a shark!”

Like most people I had heard that sharks can confuse people in wetsuits for seals, so of course I immediately freaked out.  Boun saw my frightened face and quickly said: “Oh, no worries…they’re just leopard sharks!”  After my momentary panic I remembered that leopard sharks are harmless to humans and — as I mentioned earlier — pretty darn cute. 

You can find Leopard sharks in the Pacific coast of North America starting in Oregon all the way down to Mazatlan in Mexico.  They measure about 4-5 feet and are easy to identify due to the dark spots and saddle type markings that give them their name. Leopard sharks love to hang out in sand and mud flats, rocky reefs and kelp beds. 

If you’ve ever want to see this beautiful creature for yourself, you’re in luck! They frequent local waters, such as Catalina Island. I was lucky enough to be invited to visit USC Wrigley’s Marine Science Center on the island, and we got to snorkel out in the kelp forest where we saw many leopard sharks swimming lazily along the bottom of the kelp bed.  And, no, I did not freak out this time!

La Jolla Shores beach in San Diego is another popular leopard shark hangout.  Snorkeling and kayaking are great ways to get close to these cuties.

If you are looking for something closer to home you can always try Mother’s Beach or Venice Beach where we have also heard of many leopard shark sightings. 

Finally if you are one of those people that prefers a tank between you and your sharks, check them out at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium (underneath the pier) where every week we host Shark Sunday at 3:30 p.m.


 — Melissa Aguayo
Heal the Bay’s Education Outreach Manager