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Spotted: sea leopards

The sharks are shy, but you can find them off La Jolla if you're discreet. They're not interested in humans, but people flock to them.

August 10, 2008|Christopher J. Bahnsen | Special to The Times

LA JOLLA — Kevin Blau is chasing submerged shadows that I'm having trouble believing in. My young guide from Bike & Kayak Tours has, allegedly, spotted upward of five target animals cruising past. But I haven't seen jack for the queasy 30 minutes we've been out here in open kayaks, 75 yards offshore.

Blau has instructed me to paddle very lightly to keep our presence discreet. It's a mid-June overcast morn, and we're getting rolled by 3-footers that break onto La Jolla Shores in San Diego. I figure he's bluffing these sightings just to keep up my spirits.

When he shouts over the surf-wash drone, pointing into the roiling ocean yet again, I don't bother hoping anymore. I go straight to my "yeah, right" nod. But Blau's hawkish gaze keeps following something moving toward my boat.

Then I see it too, a dusky vapor coasting under the surface, a dark raindrop across rough glass. It cuts water in a way that only one sea creature can. Blau isn't the sort of man who cries wolf after all, so out of this doubting writer's mouth erupts, "Shark!"

'Leopard Shark City'

La Jolla is the Riviera of San Diego, opulent yet quaint.

Sea-carved bluffs protect a cove and a raceway of yolky sand. The beachfront city annually hosts the PGA's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course, underway on the very weekend we're here -- hence the MetLife blimp that keeps spiriting in and out of the coastline gloom like a ghost ship, logging aerial footage of Tiger Woods notching his third U.S. Open victory.

When I report to the Bike & Kayak shop at 9:30 a.m., general manager Curtis Lee tells me that there have been no shark sightings all morning. In recent weeks, tour guides have counted up to 15 sharks in a single outing, but today conditions are marginal.

You want flat water, little wind and direct sunlight to enhance visibility. I get none of that. A tenacious marine layer smothers the sun, and there's a southwesterly huffing in restless breakers. Lee advises that I use a kayak so I can cover more range in my initial search for sharks, then choose the best place to snorkel.

La Jolla Shores Beach expands for about a mile, acting as the eastern border of San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, a 6,000-acre marine sanctuary for dolphins, sea lions, barracuda, giant sea bass and migrating gray whales. Leopard sharks are drawn to an inshore corner at the reserve's southern end, off the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. This shallow nook is known as "Leopard Shark City."

As many as 30 sharks skulk around these waters most of the year. Those numbers grow to more than 200 animals during the hottest months of July through mid-September, when water temps max at 70 degrees. Locals explain away the summer shark phenomenon as a breeding ritual, but, among scientists, this behavior is not fully understood.

"The aggregations seem to be mostly females, so the males are somewhere else," says Andy Nosal, a doctoral student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who just launched the first behavioral study of La Jolla's leopard sharks.

"The only time leopard sharks have ever been observed mating here was at the end of summer. The females may be giving birth, but we're not sure where, since no one has ever seen a newborn pup."

My guide, Blau, and I are the only souls in Shark City, me distinguished by a wetsuit and snorkel gear.

Kayakers in cave helmets and life jackets paddle by, following their tour guide like anxious ducklings, making straight for the popular La Jolla Sea Caves to the far south. "Now might be a good time to get in the water," Blau suggests, after the shark silhouette has cruised underneath my boat.

An unforeseen case of the heebie-jeebies hits me when I'm faced with dropping my legs into the water. Even though leopard sharks are harmless bottom feeders, preferring crabs, octopus and innkeeper worms, there lurks the memory of a great white that attacked and killed a triathlete in these waters in April. The shark, estimated at 12 to 17 feet, was never caught.

I'm about to say something like, "I will in a second," when a rogue swell broadsides my kayak, capsizing me.

I surface sputtering and embarrassed, having told Blau I was an experienced kayaker. He is closely monitoring my well-being, controlling his boat with nonchalant authority, impervious to the churn. I spoon my flipped kayak trying to right it, but it keeps spinning. My dignity extinguished, I lower my flippered feet until they hit something solid.

"You're standing on the bottom now, right?" Blau asks, more for my information. I nod. Assured I won't drown, he bids me adieu and tows my boat back to the beach, leaving me in chest-high water.

I dip my scuba mask and take a gander. Visibility is 7 feet at best, the surge uplifting silt off the rippled sand bottom. If a shark does come near, it probably won't reveal itself. A scuba diving bud told me that while diving off these shallows. He has watched leopard sharks weaving through the legs of swimmers who never even knew they were there.

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