George Wolfe searches for the sharks named for the oval markings on their… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Dorsal fins flashed Sunday as a large school of leopard sharks prowled the sandy shoals a few feet off Mother's Beach, on a prime stretch of Marina del Rey coastline.
The estimated 50 to 60 skittish and docile sharks, some up to 5 feet long, arrived about a month ago, Los Angeles County officials said. Since then, the chance to get a close look at the sleek creatures — usually swimming in single file or in large circles, their tapered tails swishing gracefully back and forth — has made the beach a magnet for photographers and nature lovers.
It has also added a new set of responsibilities to lifeguard duties at the beach, which has a swimming area for children. "Now, we also have to worry about people harassing these sharks, not the other way around," said Danny Douglas, a captain in the Los Angeles County Fire Department's lifeguard division.
"If we catch people trying to hurt these animals, we'll put a stop to it," he said. "The sharks are harmless and tend to stay clear of people."
On Sunday morning, Joel Shapiro, 57, was among a dozen spectators standing waist-deep in water, toting cameras and leaning over sharks as they swam past.
Striding leisurely alongside a mature Triakis semifasciata, Shapiro mused, "This is phenomenal. It's like being back in the Galapagos Islands."
"This is the coolest thing I have ever seen," said Maria Reyes, who was attending a paddle-board class at the beach. "You don't get to see this kind of wildlife every day in Los Angeles."
Then there was Omalina Wolfe, 6, of Venice, who exclaimed, "I just saw a shark as big as my dad!"
Leopard sharks, which eat crabs, clams, fish and even worms, are common in Southern California coastal waters. What prompted them to hunker down in such numbers at Mother's Beach this year was unclear. "Leopard sharks come around here every year at this time," Douglas said. "But this particular group is pretty big, and it has hung around a lot longer than any I can remember."
Sandy Trautwein, curator of fish and invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, suggested that they are probably female leopard sharks that have settled into a place where they and their offspring can enjoy safety and sustenance.
"In April and May, females typically give birth in shallow nurturing grounds," she said. "I've witnessed large groups in shallow bays off Santa Catalina Island and the Channel Islands."
Leopard sharks are among the estimated 100 million sharks killed each year for their fins, meat, liver oil and hide. Congregating in large numbers, the sharks with distinctive ovals marking their backs can be a fearsome sight.
"These sharks are more frightened of us being in the water," she said. "Of course, they are sharks, so I wouldn't go out there with bait between my toes.
"But if we give them distance and respect, everything will be fine."