In most cases when sharks arrive near a crowded beach, screaming swimmers head for the hills as panic permeates. But it’s just the opposite right now in Marina del Rey, where dozens of leopard sharks are out in droves at Mothers Beach occupying a small protected area.
Sleek, agile sharks adorned with ornate spots similar to that of their namesake, some as long as 5 or 6 feet, have been gathering in fairly large groups in the shallow waters of D basin feeding on small fish and crustaceans during what is assumed is their annual breeding period.
Visitors to the beach have been wading into thigh-high waters enjoying the opportunity of watching actual sharks swimming inches away with no real threat of being harmed in any way. Stand-up paddlers and kayakers are also out in big numbers to view the animals from the comfort of their respective perches.
“It’s amazing,” said a man named Klaus, who was visiting from Germany, as he stared below the surface musing at the sharks that were darting all around. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Although seeing large numbers of leopard sharks in Marina del Rey is nothing new, they usually arrive in a given area every summer and it is always a crowd-pleaser. And even though it’s established that this species of shark is not a threat, there is something about the movements and image of these creatures that triggers an instinctual hesitation when first entering the water.
The unmistakable gait of a 5-foot-long swimming shark heading into one’s personal space is unnerving and compelling all in the flash of a moment. Like any shark, a larger leopard accelerates at an extraordinary speed, and like their more threatening cousins, leopards carry the same methodically searching and unyielding disposition. But fortunately these animals are relatively harmless, skittish by most descriptions, and are most likely visiting in such a location for birthing purposes.
In past years the leopards have shown up in these kinds of numbers and shallow depths near the Marina del Rey breakwall on the ocean side. But with water temperatures being unseasonably low, the leopards could very well be seeking an area that is warmer and one that offers suitable protection from predators while they give birth.
“This year, as opposed to many recent years, has been very very strange,” said Steve Blair, assistant curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. “The water temperatures have been exceptionally cold — the currents have been totally out of whack. It’s not a normal year, so I would expect things to be, not normal.”
Blair explains that leopard sharks, while “pupping,” or birthing, experience a variety of behavioral changes including a move to a shallow protected coastal bay and a change in appetite that prevents them from eating their own young.
“When she pops, there’s some blood and smells that would be very interesting to other predators, like other sharks,” says Blair of the mother shark. “Even herself — their appetite turns off for a few days to a week while they’re pupping because otherwise they could turn right around and eat their own pup if they’re hungry.”
Assuming that the sharks are indeed birthing, some of these fish will produce 15 to 25 offspring and once the process is complete, the assemblage will presumably head back out to the ocean where they live in abundance along the local coastline.
The leopard shark is not under conservation laws or limits beyond a certain length limitation that the state Department of Fish and Game has designated like many other game fish.