La Jolla is one of the top beach destinations in the world, thanks to its stunning coastline, clear waters, gorgeous sands, and a wide variety of available watersports.
The area is also rightfully famous for the marine life living amongst the rich local ecosystem that includes kelp forests and rocky reefs. In fact, the waters are so important that much of the ocean is protected as a State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area.
Not only can you see seals and sea lions, but La Jolla is a fantastic location for spotting sharks.
Broadnose sevengill sharks, horn sharks, and several other species are native to the waters of La Jolla.
However, most famously, it’s the arrival of thousands of harmless leopard sharks to the shallow waters every summer that allows visitors to participate in a uniquely Californian outdoor experience and swim, snorkel, kayak, or dive with sharks.
In this article, we’ll discuss the different shark species found in La Jolla and consider the level of danger they present (spoiler – the common sharks in La Jolla are not regarded as dangerous.)
We’ll also let you know about the opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and even swimming safely with these magnificent creatures so you can see them for yourself in their natural habitat.
What You Will Learn From This Article:
La Jolla is a top beach destination famous for its marine life, which includes a variety of shark species.
Visitors can safely swim, snorkel, and dive with sharks in La Jolla, including the harmless leopard shark, which congregates in shallow waters during the summer.
Shark attacks in the La Jolla area are incredibly rare, and visitors can enjoy the beach safely by following some common-sense tips.
The Types of Sharks in La Jolla
Like almost all of the world’s oceans, sharks live naturally in the waters off La Jolla. So let’s answer, “What kind of sharks are in La Jolla?” with an overview of the different species.
We’ll start with the three most commonly seen species and then look at some other sharks that also live here.
Common – Leopard Sharks
Slender body with distinctive black spots on a silver to bronze gray background. Belly is white without markings.
The typical length for an adult is 1.2–1.5 meters (3.9–4.9 feet). Maximum size is 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) long.
Swims close to the bottom with strong undulating movements. Frequently seen resting on the sand as they generally hunt at night.
Eats clams, crabs, shrimp, smaller bony fish, and fish eggs.
Considered harmless to humans. Timid and may swim away when people come too near.
Leopard Sharks in La Jolla
Are there leopard sharks in La Jolla? Yes, there are! Indeed, the leopard shark is the most common species that visitors see.
The sharks live in La Jolla year-round, although, in the winter, they usually stick to deeper water. However, thousands congregate in the shallows of La Jolla Shores to breed between June and October, when the seas are at their warmest.
There are often so many that it’s practically guaranteed to spot them while snorkeling over the sand in the surf zone or diving around kelp beds and rocky reefs. You can even see them while wading or kayaking between July and September when the numbers close to the beach are at their greatest.
Common – Horn Sharks
Horn sharks have a wide head with a blunt nose, a small mouth, and a distinctive ridge over each eye.
Body is dark gray or brown and covered in small spots. There are two dorsal fins, both of which have sharp spines.
Maximum length is 1.2 meters (3.9 feet).
Horn sharks can swim but often move along the bottom by “walking” with their pectoral fins.
They’re almost always inactive during the day but are easily disturbed.
Horn sharks hunt at night and enjoy eating sea urchins, mollusks, and crustaceans which they crush using their strong jaws. They’ll also take advantage of any sleeping fish that they come across.
Not considered as dangerous to humans. However, they will often hold their ground when a scuba diver approaches, and it’s wise to remember that they have amongst the highest bite force of any shark for their size if provoked.
Horn Sharks in La Jolla
Seen year-round at La Jolla by scuba divers and even lucky snorkelers.
Smaller horn sharks may be found resting on the bottom during the day amongst rocky reefs and kelp forests or even on the sand.
However, given a chance, this shark will hide under ledges and in crevices, so scuba divers should use their torches to check any interesting-looking spaces.
Fairly Common – Broadnose Sevengill Sharks
Seven distinctive gill slits – the most of any shark.
Thick body, with a broad head and blunt nose. Single dorsal fin located towards the rear of the body. Upper tail (caudal) fin is noticeably longer than the lower one.
Upper body surfaces are dark colored, from silver-gray to brown, and often have small black and white spots. The belly is pale silver or white.
Maximum length is 3 meters (9.8 feet).
Usually swims close to the bottom. But will venture closer to the surface to hunt.
Primarily eats smaller sharks, rays, dolphins, seals, and bony fish but will also scavenge whatever it finds.
An apex predator, so should be treated with respect if seen. However, not considered dangerous unless provoked.
Sevengill Sharks in La Jolla
During the spring, between late March and May, sevengill sharks visit the kelp forests and rocky reefs of La Jolla Cove in significant numbers to mate and are a popular attraction for scuba divers.
This larger shark is not commonly seen in shallow waters close to beaches.
Rarer – Swell Sharks
Maximum length 110 centimeters (3.6 feet).
Yellow-brown bodies with white and brown spots.
These catsharks possess two incredible abilities. Firstly, when threatened, they can swallow large amounts of water and almost double their size. They also have bioluminescent skin pigments that allow them to glow in the dark.
Considered harmless to humans.
Swell Sharks in La Jolla
The swell shark likes to hide during the day and isn’t seen often, even by scuba divers. However, they live in and around the La Jolla kelp forests year-round.
Rarer – Tope Sharks
Maximum length 2 meters (6.5 feet).
Long, slender body with extended snout and a relatively large mouth.
Dark bluish-gray color on their upper surfaces with white bellies.
Usually a deep water shark, so not often seen by humans. Considered harness unless severely provoked.
Tope Sharks in La Jolla
Tope sharks migrate to give birth, and in the summer, pregnant females are occasionally seen in the La Jolla kelp beds by free or scuba divers.
Rarer – Gray Smooth-Hound Sharks
Maximum length 1.24 meters (4 feet).
Slender body with gray-brown color to upper surfaces.
Bottom-feeding shark that enjoys crustaceans, bony fish, and mollusks.
Gray Smooth-Hound Sharks in La Jolla
Occasionally seen resting on the sea floor by scuba divers year-round, particularly around the Scripps Pier.
Can occasionally be spotted during the late summer in shallow waters mixing with the large numbers of leopard sharks.
Very Rare – Deepwater Sharks
In addition to the sharks above, the Pacific ocean off La Jolla is home to some larger deepwater sharks. However, you don’t need to be overly concerned, as they prefer to stay far from the beaches.
Great White Sharks
Many people ask, “Are there great white sharks in La Jolla?” As far as the typical beachgoer is concerned, the answer is a guarded yes.
While this famous predator lives naturally in the ocean, it prefers to stay in deep water and is only normally seen far out at sea.
The small number of sharks that scientists monitor visit the La Jolla area during the summer months and are juveniles, far smaller than the largest adults.
Seals and sealions may attract these sharks, so it’s worth avoiding swimming in areas where you see these marine mammals.
Blue sharks are another deepwater shark usually only seen miles away from the shore.
This shark is generally considered harmless to humans and may even have a puppy-dog-like inquisitiveness if it comes across a kayak or paddle boarder.
Are The Sharks in La Jolla Dangerous?
You can be reassured that the commonly seen shark species in La Jolla are not considered dangerous to humans. Indeed, many thousands of people annually visit La Jolla to swim amongst the summer leopard sharks.
Has there ever been a shark attack in La Jolla? Yes, there has, but it’s vital to understand just how infrequent they are.
The International Shark Attack File records just 20 unprovoked shark attacks in all of San Diego County since records began in 1926.
Further investigation reveals only four unprovoked incidents ever in La Jolla, only one of which was reported as fatal.
The only recent incident occurred in June 2011, when a spearfisher suffered damage to their wetsuit but no injury when a sevengill shark took exception to their activities.
In July 1959, a spearfisher was bitten by a hammerhead shark on their right thigh while fishing at Alligator Head.
In the same year, a free diver hunting for abalone disappeared, reportedly having been taken by a great white shark. This is the only reported fatality ever in the area.
Finally, in 1953 a swimmer was said to have suffered minor abrasions to their leg after an attack by a shark.
So, we can see that shark attacks in the La Jolla area are incredibly uncommon.
Is La Jolla Beach safe to swim in? Yes, it is. Particularly if you follow some common sense tips:
- Avoid swimming at dawn or dusk
- Don’t swim alone
- Don’t swim where anyone is fishing
- Avoid swimming where there are seals or sea lions
- Follow the information provided by beach lifeguards
- Don’t wear jewelry when you swim
- Never feed or harass any marine life.
Accidents at the beach are far more likely to be caused by someone getting caught beyond their limits than by a shark. Remember to be cautious, stay close to shore, and never swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Snorkeling and Diving with Sharks in La Jolla
Summer visitors to La Jolla Shores can readily swim, snorkel, and dive with the congregating leopard sharks.
The harmless spotted sharks can be seen in relatively shallow waters such as those at Marine Room Beach, Leopard Shark Lane, and Devil’s Slide Reef (between La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores).
The most significant leopard shark numbers are seen between July and September, but they’re around yearly from June to October.
Organized shore snorkeling sessions and snorkeling boat trips are available from reputable establishments if you’d like the comfort of having a guide or want the best chance to see the sharks.
Scuba divers can spot horn sharks year-round and could find sevengill sharks amongst the kelp between late March and May. They might even be lucky enough to spot a rarer tope or swell shark.
Before You Go
The summer visit of harmless leopard sharks to La Jolla is a natural wonder that makes the bucket list for thousands of people every year.
After all, where else can you swim in shallow water with large numbers of sharks in complete safety?
In addition, the surrounding State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area offer scuba divers the chance to see hound and sevengill shark, amongst other rarer species.
Sharks live naturally in the Pacific and play an essential role in maintaining the balance of the ocean’s ecosystem. However, more potentially dangerous species prefer to stay well away from the shore.
Thankfully, the number of incidents involving people and sharks has been extremely, with just a tiny number of incidents ever in La Jolla and only one (non-fatal) happening in recent history.
So, if you’re planning a trip, you can feel confident that a snorkeling or diving trip to see the leopard sharks in La Jolla will be something that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and you don’t need to have any concerns before jumping in.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.