The morning of Thursday, July 14 was gray and foggy when I met with Chris FitzSimmons, educational instructor at Birch Aquarium, for a taste of snorkeling in La Jolla Shores. The 29-year-old has been working at the local facility for three years, and among other responsibilities he guides “Snorkel with Sharks” tours in the summer.
We started at Kellogg Park, by the lifeguard tower, for a chat and safety instructions. FitzSimmons explained, on a typical excursion, “(I start by) telling people how the gear works and how it’s supposed to fit. Once you’re out in the water, you don’t want to be fidgeting with your mask because it’s too loose or too tight.” It turns out that the proper way to test that your mask fits properly is (with the straps out of the way), gently put it on your face and breathe in through your nose to suction it in place. If you are able to move your face around and the mask stays in place, it’s the right size. A wetsuit and fins are also advised for the adventure.
The major safety hazard at The Shores are the sting rays, he said, “Every time you enter or exit the water, is very important that you actually shuffle your feet.” Sting rays can’t attack, only defend themselves, FitzSimmons pointed out, and by shuffling our feet we let them know we are coming and they can swim away. Being stung by a sting ray, as this reporter has experienced more than once, is extremely painful but can be remedied by submerging the affected area (usually an ankle) in hot water to let the barb out.
To better the chances of seeing underwater wildlife, snorkelers don’t want to make loud noises during their encounters. “Sound travels much better through the water than it does through the air, so if you’re splashing everywhere and kicking with your feet, that’s going to alert a lot of the animals of your presence and give them a chance to swim away before you’re anywhere near them,” FitzSimmons said, encouraging slow movement while snorkeling, almost just floating.
To keep silent, hand signs are an important part of the training: a gentle tap on your partner, the obvious finger-pointing, and also certain hand gestures. A zig zag for fish, swinging your fingers downwards for octopus and the most important one of all: a hand straight up on the head for shark. “You don’t want to yell out ‘shark, shark, shark!’ because that can cause a little bit of panic,” FitzSimmons said.
Leopard sharks, large groups of which are a frequent sight in the waters of La Jolla Shores every summer, are an exciting thing to see, and harmless to humans. FitzSimmons explained, “They’ve never attacked a person, they have very small mouths, they only get to about 5 and a half feet in length, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
Look but don’t touch
In 1970, the San Diego City Council dedicated 6,000 acres of submerged lands from Torrey Pines to La Jolla Cove as an underwater park, states “San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Reserve: La Jolla Shores & Canyon, Vol. 2,” (Judith Lea Garfield, 2000.) It continues, “The following year, the Council created the ecological reserve within the park as a ‘look but don’t touch’ area.”
“You’re not allowed to take anything from the beach. People are not allowed to fish in the area, you can’t even take shells and sand,” FitzSimmons said.
“You don’t want to do anything that’s going to harm potentially or impede the progress of any of the animals that are here. If they approach you, that’s completely fine,” FitzSimmons said, “These sharks are preyed upon by the big male sea lions, so us, especially when we are in the water, we’re 5-6 feet long, we have goggles that make our eyes look bigger, we have flippers on our feet a lot of times, we just kind of look like big weird sea lions, so they’ll try to swim away from you if you approach them most of the time,” he laughed.
From the Shores lifeguard tower we started south to the designated point to get in the water, at the southern-most point of the beach, in from of Marine Room. When we finally got in the water, the cold Pacific Ocean waters felt good against my wetsuit. FitzSimmons advised to get past the break of the waves and then start swimming south towards The Cove. “The waters are calmer there,” he said.
One lone boat stood still some 50 feet away from us, and FitzSimmons recognized in it Andy Nosal, Scripps Institute of Oceanography researcher, and specialist in leopard sharks. “(Nosal) did his doctoral work trying to figure out why these sharks are here,” he indicated.
Leopard sharks, which can be observed year-round in La Jolla, congregate around Marine Room in late August. Nosal discovered that most of them are pregnant females, and theorized that they come here for the warmer shallow waters to help the gestation period. That day Nosal didn’t see any sharks, and neither did we. FitzSimmons said that their aggregation is unpredictable.
The sandy parts of the La Jolla ecological reserve are inhabited by sting rays, bat rays, butterfly rays, and shovelnose guitarfish. As you swim southbound, looking down to the ocean’s floor from above, floating, you might get lucky and see one of them cruising, or the expert eye might discover their sandy disguise – many species camouflage by partly burying themselves in the sand.
“Here’s a spiny lobster,” said FitzSimmons in a calm but audible voice. The California spiny lobster is a common sight in these waters. Its color varies from red to orange, and it features spiny protections on the carapace (upper shell.) it can reach 2 feet in length. The “San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Reserve” states, “To chase off other animals attracted to its prey or frighten enemies away, the lobster deploys a sweeping motion with its extraordinary large antennae or broadcasts an alarming grating noise … that can be heard even by divers.”
A less-common invertebrate that can be observed off La Jolla Shores is the sheep crab. “Because of its large size … peculiar shape and deliberate movements, the sheep crab presents a ludicrous appearance,” states the “San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Reserve.”
As we continued swimming, we observed some of the regular fish in the area: the green spotted and often large kelp bass, the fearless garibaldi and their blue-spotted juveniles and a school of tiny, silvery-blue smelt. We floated around the rocky reefs and the kelp forests. I thought I spotted an abalone, but FitzSimmons corrected me: it was just a round-shaped rock that had acquired a pinkish color. “It’s a very common mistake,” he said.
By the time we started back, a few sun rays were filtering though the cloud layer. I left behind a submarine, a different world, to head back to everyday reality, traffic, work and people, with a promise: I will be back.