Laguna Beach, California in southern Orange County is famed for its canyon-to-surf scenery and irresistible beaches.
(Not to mention a certain hit reality show from a few years back. If you know, you know!)
One question visitors to Laguna Beach might have before or while planning a trip is:
Does Laguna Beach, CA have sharks?
Laguna Beach fronts Pacific waters well used by a wide variety of sharks. Some of the most common types of sharks beachgoers and surfers might find in Laguna Beach are:
- Great White sharks
- Shortfin mako sharks
- Salmon sharks
- Common thresher sharks
- Blue sharks
- Basking sharks
- Megamouth sharks
- Broadnose sevengill sharks
- Oceanic whitetip sharks
- And more!
Still the risk of shark attacks in Laguna Beach is extremely low. Over the past nearly 100 years, there have been only a handful of shark attacks in this area that included teeth-on-human contact. Cases of sharks bumping or munching on boats/surfboards are slightly more common, but still unlikely.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most abundant or notable shark species in the Laguna Beach area, discuss the reassuringly low risk of being attacked, and run through some basics of shark safety.
Consider this more of a celebration of how spectacular and critically important sharks are than fodder for fear!
Types of Laguna Beach Sharks
The Southern California Bight ecoregion here is a fertile marine zone characterized by the meeting zone of the cold, northerly California Current and warmer waters from the south, including those shuttled north—particularly in winter—by the Southern California Countercurrent.
Seasonal upwellings in spring and summer make these waters productive and quite species-rich. And the Channel Islands enhance the offshore diversity.
Southern California’s waters support more than 30 species of Pacific sharks, but the following are among either the most frequently seen or most distinctive in the Laguna Beach area.
Great White Shark
Reaching a maximum length past 20 feet and capable of weighing more than two tons, great white sharks are the heftiest of all predatory sharks and surely the best-known.
This massive predator sits at the very top of the marine food chain alongside the orca, and California hosts one of the world’s most significant populations.
White sharks feed on bony fish, rays, other sharks, and large squid, but at maturity are often something of a specialist predator of marine mammals, especially targeting seals, sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins, and occasionally preying on larger cetaceans.
California sea lions, northern elephant seals, and harbor seals are important prey items off Southern California. Pinniped haulouts in the Channel Islands—including Santa Catalina, not far from Laguna Beach and frequented by California sea lions and harbor seals—are prime hotspots for prowling great whites.
Dead baleen whales are important food sources for scavenging great whites as well.
Southern California’s nearshore waters—the Laguna Beach area included—are a well-known nursery for juvenile great white sharks.
As this Surfline article explains, these youngsters—generally between six and 10 feet long, so still plenty good-sized—migrate between Baja California in winter and Southern California in summer, given they’re more tied to warmer waters than mature white sharks.
Along the beaches of Southern California, they also find easy pickings in the form of stingrays, halibut, and other fish, mainstays of their diet until they grow large enough to start effectively taking pinnipeds and cetaceans.
While full-grown great whites certainly cruise these waters, especially offshore and around the Channel Islands, you’re thus more likely to be crossing paths with smaller juvenile white sharks close to shore around Laguna Beach.
Shortfin Mako Shark
A smaller, sleeker cousin of the white shark—both being members of the lamnid family within the larger order of mackerel sharks—the shortfin mako is a genuine speedster capable of preying on such fast-swimming prey as tuna, marlin, and swordfish.
The largest specimens, big female makos, may reach 13 or more feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Shortfin makos are a more devotedly pelagic species than white sharks and rarely seen close to shore.
It’s suspected that the Southern California Bight may be a significant pupping and nursery area for the species.
Resembling a little white shark—though, reaching 10 feet in length, it’s not a pintsized creature—the salmon shark is another lamnid named after one of its favorite foods.
Mainly an offshore species, salmon sharks have occasionally been spotted off the Orange County coast.
Common Thresher Shark
Another predominantly pelagic mackerel shark, the common thresher may exceed 20 feet in length thanks to its extravagantly long upper tail fin, which the shark employs to maneuver and stun the herring, anchovies, and other small baitfish it preys on.
An important commercial species in Southern California and also prized among recreational anglers for its fight, common threshers are an offshore species in general, but juveniles are sometimes seen closer to the coastline in spring and summer.
This lithe and beautiful species is among the most distinctive of the requiem sharks, and quite common in Southern Californian waters, mainly offshore.
Occasionally growing to 13 feet and perhaps longer, blue sharks hunt small fish and squid, likely opportunistically grab seabirds, and readily scavenge the carcasses of marine mammals.
Basking sharks are the second-largest of all sharks behind the whale shark (also periodically noted in Southern California waters):
It may approach, and perhaps exceed, 40 feet in length.
Like the whale shark, though, it’s a filter-feeder, sieving out plankton as it swims in zigzagging fashion with a wide-open mouth.
A mackerel shark, the basking shark exhibits a similar rough body form as the great white shark—both with pointed snouts, tall dorsal fins, large pectoral fins, and roughly equal-sized caudal lobes—and so is sometimes mistaken for that much toothier creature.
Basking sharks, however, are less prominently countershaded—that is, they don’t have such a pronounced contrast between a dark dorsal surface and light underside as the white shark does—and also has longer gill slits that, from the perspective of a topside observer, can be seen edging onto the top of the shark’s neck, unlike in the great white.
Ranging down the Baja Peninsula and into the Gulf of California, basking sharks, worryingly, appear to have declined significantly in the California Current. Sightings are rare but not unknown off the Orange County seaboard.
Among the least-known of all sharks—it was only discovered in 1976 and scientifically described in the early 1980s—the megamouth is another filter-feeder, straining out plankton and other small prey from the water column with its enormous, gaping, namesake maw.
Reaching at least 24 feet in length, the sluggish megamouth is nonetheless the smallest of the trio of filter-feeding sharks.
A number of the relatively small share of megamouths documented have been sighted along the Southern California coast, including off Catalina Island in 1984 and a couple off Dana Point near Laguna Beach.
One of those Dana Point individuals, found alive tangled in a gillnet in 1990, was fitted with satellite transmitters before it was freed and thereafter tracked for a few days, so it’s one of the most significant specimens on record in terms of contributing to scientific knowledge.
It appeared to undergo a diurnal vertical migration, swimming at significant depth during the day and then moving into the upper water column at night.
Broadnose Sevengill Shark
This formidable coastal shark is an important predator of California’s bays, estuaries, and nearshore kelp forests.
Its heavy jaws and impressive teeth—tapered points in the upper row, heavily serrated comblike teeth in the bottom—betray a diet of good-sized prey, including giant Pacific octopus, rays, smaller sharks, and even marine mammals such as harbor seals.
It typically grows seven to nine feet in length and weighs several hundred pounds.
Hammerhead sharks aren’t terribly common in the waters of Southern California, but two species—the smooth and the scalloped—are occasionally seen (including off Dana Point near Laguna Beach).
Of the two, the smooth hammerhead is the larger—it may reach 16 feet, making it the second-biggest hammerhead after the great hammerhead—and more tolerant of cooler water.
It feeds on a variety of bony fishes as well as other sharks and stingrays. Scalloped hammerheads are typically smaller, usually five to eight feet but occasionally exceeding 10.
These hammerheads aren’t normally considered particularly dangerous, but Southern California has seen a couple of non-fatal attacks.
A hammerhead—possibly a scalloped—bit a scuba diver’s hand on the Cortes Bank, about 100 miles off the San Diego, in 2015. And a kayaker off Malibu’s Deer Creek Beach received a hammerhead bite on his leg in the same year.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark
This striking requiem shark, unmistakable with its rounded dorsal and huge, paddle-like pectoral fins, is uncommon in Southern California, but has occasionally been reported around the Channel Islands and likely frequents the region when warm water intrudes northward.
It’s a truly pelagic species, typically found well offshore, and until recently was considered among the most abundant of all large sharks, though its global population has declined dramatically—a major cause for concern, given how important this opportunistic top predator is to the bluewater ecosystem.
Reaching lengths of 10 to 13 feet, the oceanic whitetip is a sturdy, powerful shark that typically dominates other similarly sized requiem sharks during feeding congregations, as around whale carcasses.
Besides carrion, it feeds heavily on bony fishes up to the size of tuna and marlin and is also known to snack on sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Other Medium-sized to Large Sharks
Southern California marks the northern frontier of the bronze whaler’s range.
Also known as the copper shark, this requiem shark is found in widely scattered locations around the world, primarily in temperate and subtropical waters. It’s easily confused with other similar-looking requiem species, though on the off-chance you spot one boating or diving off Southern California, there aren’t many of those lookalikes.
Considered potentially dangerous—though no attacks have been recorded in the U.S.—bronze whalers feed mainly on fish and squid.
Divers off the Laguna Beach area might conceivably see the smalltooth sand tiger shark, also called the ragged-tooth shark. It’s similar in appearance to the more familiar sand tiger shark abundant off the U.S. East Coast, but has a dorsal fin set farther forward. Exceptional specimens may reach 14 feet long.
The infamous (and extraordinary) tiger shark—the largest of the requiem sharks, known to reach 18 to 20 feet—is rare off Southern California, which is often considered the northern end of their typical Eastern Pacific range.
A few juvenile tiger sharks have been caught in the region, however, and it’s possible that—like the similarly warm-water oceanic whitetip and scalloped hammerhead—the species might drift northward in warmer-water periods, as during El Niño cycles.
A whole slew of smaller sharks inhabits the Laguna Beach vicinity.
These include the regularly seen leopard shark, an eye-catching species named for its large dark splotches and which maxes out at about seven feet long.
It hunts crabs, cephalopods, and small fish in estuaries, inlets, and kelp forests, and gives birth in pupping zones along the Southern California coast.
Other smaller sharks you might see in these waters include horn sharks, Pacific angel sharks, spiny dogfish, smoothhounds, soupfin sharks, and swell sharks and other catsharks.
(Wondering about jellyfish in Laguna Beach? Read more here.)
Shark Attack History at Laguna Beach
Sharks are commonly seen around Laguna Beach, but shark attacks are very rare.
The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) out of the Florida Museum lists four unprovoked shark attacks in Orange County since 1926.
Los Angeles County to the north has logged six over that period; the ISAF lists 20 for San Diego County bordering Laguna on the southeast, which is the highest total of any California county.
Great white sharks are responsible for the vast majority of shark attacks throughout California, and certainly nearly all of the serious (and occasionally fatal) incidents.
(As mentioned, hammerheads have been involved in a couple of Southern California attacks, and a bodyboarder who was rammed hard by a shark off Malibu’s Broad Beach in 2006 believed it was a mako.)
Statistics suggest surfers are the most vulnerable in the state, while divers, swimmers, and kayakers and other boaters are also occasionally involved in shark attacks.
But read on to put the risk in context!
All of the recent recorded attacks in the vicinity of Laguna Beach have been non-fatal.
Indeed, quite a few regional shark incidents have involved no contact between shark teeth and human flesh.
White sharks have bumped or bitten surfboards without injuring the surfer—for example, off Huntington Beach in 2015, 2009, and 2008.
A shark chomped a paddleboard off Catalina Island in March 2012 several times, but the paddler wasn’t hurt.
Also off Catalina Island, in 2019, an estimated 19-foot white shark—very much a full-grown individual—struck a kayak, but here again the kayaker was unharmed (though probably pretty darn shaken-up).
In June 2021, a teenager paddling a canoe with his father near Catalina Island’s Parson’s Landing was bitten on the hand after a shark bumped the boat.
A very few more serious shark attacks have occurred in the region.
In 2017, a woman was seriously injured when a shark—estimated at 10 to 12 feet and almost assuredly a white shark—dragged her underwater off San Onofre State Beach.
The year before, a triathlete training with a swim at Corona del Mar received broken ribs and a punctured liver after a great white bit her.
Sharkbites in the area may be young white sharks demonstrating inexperience—or curiosity—in nipping people or their surfboards or paddleboards.
As we just alluded to, they may also occasionally represent larger juvenile sharks or full-grown great whites mistaking us for seals or sea lions.
A fatal attack on kayakers off Malibu back in 1989 may have been a case of a large white shark mistaking the boats for an elephant seal.
As Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Institute noted in a 2016 Orange County Register article, however, instances of great whites bumping or biting kayaks may more often reflect the sharks exhibiting a little territoriality and “encouraging” the boat to get out of the area.
Encounters with large sharks off the Laguna Beach-area coast can be frightening, no question, but the risk of being bitten is extremely minimal.
More attacks have been recorded in California since the mid-20th century, but that’s almost assuredly more a function of increased numbers of people in the water—and when the magnitude of folks swimming, surfing, paddling, and diving off the beaches of Southern California these days is considered, the number of shark attacks here is almost shockingly low.
A 2015 study out of Stanford University suggested that, in California, “the individual attack risk has dropped by more than 91% during the past six decades.”
The research reported that surfers in the state have a one-in-17 million chance of being attacked by a shark, and scuba divers a one-in-136 million chance. Oceangoers of all stripes are 1,817 times more likely to die from drowning than from a shark attack.
Avoiding Shark Attacks at Laguna Beach
So you can get in the water at Laguna Beach comforted by those statistics.
And you can even further lessen the chance you’ll have a nasty encounter with the toothy end of a shark by taking some general precautions.
Never enter the ocean without a buddy (or five). Having assistance readily on hand means you’re likely to have quick medical assistance in the unusual event of a sharkbite.
Avoid the water at night or the dawn/dusk hours, when sharks may be more actively hunting. Murky conditions are also riskier, as sharks may more easily confuse your appendages with their preferred prey.
Don’t swim around sea lions or seals, and if these pinnipeds (or, for that matter, dolphins) pop up around you, you should head for shore, as great white sharks may be hunting the marine mammals.
There are many instances of shark-attack victims reporting sea lions or seals in the vicinity just before they were attacked.
That was true, for example, of the woman seriously injured off San Onofre Beach in 2017. Pinnipeds were seen exhibiting panicked behavior in the vicinity of the fatal shark attack on two kayakers near Malibu in 1989.
As top predators in a huge variety of marine settings, sharks are enormously important to the maintenance of oceanic ecosystems.
By helping control the numbers of mid-level predators—from jellyfish, mackerel, jacks, and rays to sea lions and harbor seals—they directly benefit human fisheries.
Humanity’s overreaction to the relatively small danger sharks pose to us has resulted in untold numbers of these spectacular creatures being slaughtered, while general overfishing, pollution, and other impacts have decimated shark populations around the world.
Countering unreasonable fear with knowledge—and mustering sound science and conservation measures to ensure sustainable shark fisheries and protected habitat—is the only way we can ensure healthy stocks of these essential predators.
So don’t consider Laguna Beach sharks with terror. Thrill at the idea of sharing space with them, and use common sense to stay safe in these coveted waters.
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Hope this helps!