By Kelly Stewart
During summertime in La Jolla, and particularly at La Jolla Shores, leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) may be seen along the shore in shallow water swimming in large groups. These sharks pose little threat to humans and snorkelers may be able to approach and observe them more closely on occasion (although caution should always be taken with wild animals). One of the most common sharks in California, they range from Oregon down to Baja California.
A beautiful silvery color with an iridescent bronze glow, leopard sharks have dark oval patches and black spots extending down their back to their bellies. Older sharks will have lighter patches within the centers of their dark saddles.
These are long-lived sharks and may live to be 30 years old. They are also slow to mature and a mother shark may be 10 years old before she will give birth. Leopard sharks give birth to live young, with four to 29 pups being born at once.
They eat mostly worms (especially innkeeper worms), crabs, clams and fish and never really stray far from the bottom, where they pluck their prey from the sand. Occasionally leopard sharks may be found within the kelp forest, looking for small fish and invertebrates.
Because these small sharks are long-lived, late-maturing and have fewer offspring compared to other fishes, their population numbers need to be carefully monitored because animals with these characteristics cannot quickly recover from disturbances.