Observe sharks safely and return to paddle another day
Local paddlers plying the waters of the southern section of the Santa Monica Bay, known locally as “The South Bay”, know the area is somewhat of an incubator for young white sharks. There have been times during the summer when numerous juvenile white sharks converge near shore and can be easily seen from the air.
Within the paddling community, standup paddlers have a unique vantage point over other paddle craft and can more easily spot marine life of all shapes and sizes. I was out for a mid-afternoon paddle late last month on my Infinity Downtown standup paddleboard (SUP). I routinely paddle out into the bay from King Harbor, Redondo Beach and head straight out into the prevailing westerly wind for an out-and-back downwind run. On this particular occasion though there was just a light breeze that showed no sign of increasing and clear blue skies overhead.
There is a network of navigation pins sprinkled throughout the Santa Monica Bay. After paddling straight out for approximately ¼ mile to the “first pin”, I made the decision to head north to the Hermosa Beach Pier in a series of intervals. My next marker was the “Chart House Buoy”, so named because it is directly offshore from the Chart House Restaurant in Redondo Beach. I grinded past the King Harbor Breakwall, took a short break at the “Chart House Buoy” and continued on my way towards the pier.
A moment after I left the buoy I heard a splash off to my right. It is common for California Sea Lions to splash around near the surface and as I turned to look that’s what I expected to see. “Oh, that’s not a sea lion,” I thought almost almost out loud as I saw an approximately six foot juvenile white shark making its way directly toward me.
I kept paddling towards the pier and my pace probably picked up a notch as the shark continued moving alongside, gradually inching closer. When there was just a few feet between us the shark suddenly darted directly at the nose of my board, made a sharp twisting turn that stirred up the water, and disappeared out of sight. I continued on my way and finished my workout.
This wasn’t my first shark encounter, but it was the most interactive, shall we say.
Eager to learn more, I sent an email to our good friends at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach to gain some additional insights about the shark population off California. David Bader, Aquarium of the Pacific’s Director of Education, graciously took the time to answer my questions.
As some of you may remember, I was involved in the rescue of an endangered green sea turtle in 2016 which the Aquarium of the Pacific successfully nursed back to full health and returned to the wild. The aquarium is a fantastic resource for Southern California and their staff has always been supportive and willing to lend their expertise to PaddleXaminer.
Sharks in California
What types of sharks are commonly found in California?
Lots of shark species can be found in Southern California’s waters. One of the most common is the leopard shark, a long spotted shark that feeds on crustaceans living in the kelp forest. Other common species include horn and swell sharks, as well as a variety of rays.
Where are they located? e.g. Geographically north to south (including Channel Islands) and in various environments (open water, kelp forests, in the surf zone, etc).
There are over 400 shark species around the world. They are incredibly diverse and can be found in almost all ocean habitats. Larger, pelagic species are often found in open water, but many species are found locally in kelp forests. Rays occupy sandy habitats, including the surf zone. Most species that can be seen close to shore are small fish eating types like leopards, smooth hounds and soupfins.
Of the types of sharks commonly found in California, which species pose a potential risk to paddlers (kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards)?
Interactions between sharks and people are very rare. When sharks are seen by people in kayaks or paddleboards they are often only seen for a moment before the shark gets scared and swims away. Juvenile white sharks, which feed on fish, can be seen off the coast of California in the summertime. Scientists believe that efforts to improve the health of our local ocean habitats have allowed the return of juvenile white sharks to this nursery area. These sharks represent a success story–a sign of the hard work that has been done to restore our local urban ocean.
What are some behavioral traits that can be used to assess a shark’s activity and/or intentions?
Sharks can become rigid in body with arched back and sharp stiff swimming patterns. A person would mainly see this behavior if they were harassing a shark, chasing it or poking at it, which should never be done. For the most part people will notice how sharks move their heads from side to side as they swim helping them use all of their senses to sample the water for food. People will notice that sharks are almost always moving forward, as if they are “flying” through the water.
What should a paddler do if they encounter a shark that could pose a risk to their safety?
Paddlers should give wildlife a respectful distance. Harassing a wild animal no matter what species is a bad thing. Watching wildlife, especially sharks is amazing. When I see sharks, I admire their beauty and feel lucky to have had the experience of seeing one of nature’s most beautiful marine predators.