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Snorkel fever: A firsthand look at a venture under the sea at La Jolla Shores

La Jolla Light reporter Ashley Mackin-Solomon snorkels in La Jolla Shores — with one fin — in search of a leopard shark.
La Jolla Light reporter Ashley Mackin-Solomon snorkels in La Jolla Shores — with one fin — in search of a leopard shark.
(Dovi Kacev)

Reporter’s Notebook, with video: Ashley Mackin-Solomon went in search of leopard sharks and found new respect for the world they live in.

When I first started working for the La Jolla Light 10 years ago, people more familiar with the area told me I would be writing a ton about sea life and the coast. And while that proved to be true, I never really dove in to get a firsthand look at life below sea level, save for a few attempts at swimming to the quarter-mile buoy at La Jolla Cove.

But this month I went on a guided snorkeling excursion in La Jolla Shores with Dovi Kacev, an assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, and Maya Rich, a friend of Kacev’s and an avid snorkeler, to celebrate my decade with the Light and get a new perspective on what I’ve been covering.

While the mission was to find leopard sharks that frequent the area during the summer, I ended up with so much more.

A note about me: I have been told time and again that sharks are more afraid of me than I am of them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still scared of them. I am, in fact, very scared of sharks, and the possibility of seeing one in the ocean sent my heart racing so much that I was worried it would act like a homing beacon.

Nevertheless, we went out on a two-day snorkeling quest in mid-September. I would consider the first day a comical failure in which we saw kelp bass, smelt, a rare thornback ray and even a harbor seal playing in the waves, but no leopard sharks.

Snorkelers swim with leopard sharks in clear water at La Jolla Shores in 2019.
Snorkelers swim with leopard sharks in clear water at La Jolla Shores in 2019. Conditions weren’t as favorable this month for La Jolla Light reporter Ashley Mackin-Solomon’s sojourn to the sea.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

We started with the area where leopard sharks tend to gather on the ocean side of The Marine Room restaurant. We entered the beach by way of what has become known as the Spindrift Drive walkway, for which there are plans to rebuild the access. With limited mobility because of my wetsuit and Tin Man-like walking style, I almost slipped and had to brace myself with two hands against the wall. Thankfully, the sand was high, so I didn’t need to jump from the stairs to the beach.

I then got a tutorial on the “stingray shuffle,” which I had heard described but never demonstrated. I always thought it was a literal shuffle, which Kacev said was fine, but it could be as simple as dragging a toe or the ball of the foot to alert stingrays that might be hiding under the sand that we’re coming. And if we do make contact, it is a drag instead of a stomp that could be confused for a predator.

Maya Rich, Ashley Mackin-Solomon and Dovi Kacev prepare to venture into the ocean at La Jolla Shores.
Snorkeler Maya Rich, La Jolla Light reporter Ashley Mackin-Solomon and marine biologist Dovi Kacev prepare to venture into the ocean at La Jolla Shores.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In entering the uncharacteristically cloudy water, I learned to stand sideways and lean into oncoming waves, and dive under waves taller than me to pass them most efficiently.

Once past the waves in our quiet search for the leopards, I found myself in reverence of being completely on someone else’s turf. How human rules didn’t apply. That there would be no repercussions if the sharks didn’t show up, if I got hurt or if conditions were unfavorable.

The latter proved to be the case, and as conditions were getting cloudier, we opted to try another entry point further up the beach. Though I felt more confident entering the water, the sea still had to show it was in charge. While diving under one of the waves, the strength of the surf pulled the fins off my feet, making the swim that much harder. Kacev was able to find one, but the other was lost. The distraction of feeling ridiculous with the one fin helped take up some mental space while we passed the waves.

Though the conditions were clearer and we could see for yards, there was little to see. Facing fatigue from more ocean swimming than I had done in years, we decided to wave the white flag and try another day (I guess they really were more afraid of me than I was of them).

That day came Sept. 23, when we again took to the waves in search of sharks, or even a shark.

While I was a little more confident in my ability to put on my gear and enter the waves, Kacev was much more confident that we would see a shark, noting the other snorkelers and kayakers in our area.

Imagine my surprise when he motioned to an area just ahead of us.

“Can’t be,” I thought. “Not right away.”

Instead of a shark, a fever (the name for the group) of bat rays was floating around us and scattered along the sea floor. Rich said the volume was more than she had ever seen in La Jolla Shores. That was echoed by kayakers out on the water, all of whom pointed them out (one said there were “100 rays down there”). Diamond rays also were visible, but the bat rays just kept coming. See a video below:

Seeing the number of rays, the length of their tails and their closeness to shore, I will, going forward, always do the stingray shuffle.

Energized by seeing something so rare and exciting, we swam further south toward the reefs of La Jolla Shores, with Kacev determined to find a shark. En route, as I asked about every shadow or bit of seaweed that passed by, we saw opal eyes, more kelp bass, garibaldi and a school of fish that migrate to and from Mexico.

A few yards away, Rich said she saw two leopard sharks, so we tried to catch up — fast enough to not miss them, but slow enough to not scare them away.

Alas, we were unsuccessful, and I was ready to again accept defeat and head back. But as if written for fiction, at that moment a 4-foot shark swam right under me. It was wider than I thought, yet somehow smaller than I envisioned.

Knowing that leopard sharks can reach 5 feet long, all 5-foot-2 of me was a little panicked going in, so to see a small one made the experience less scary.

That’s not to say I’m not still afraid of sharks, but to have been in their home and see the incredible world they’ve helped create by playing a part in the ecosystem, I respect them — and all the wildlife we saw — that much more. ◆

Updates

2:34 p.m. Sept. 27, 2022: This article was updated with a video.