“America’s Finest City,” they call San Diego, California.
And no question this richly historic (and richly beautiful) city has an awful lot going for it, not least the very-near-perfect climate it enjoys just about all year-round.
Set at the far southern end of the California coast, San Diego County boasts some 70 miles of oceanfront, much of it taking the form of postcard-perfect Pacific beaches.
Swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and (maybe most famously) surfing are all super-popular forms of ocean recreation, with loads of boating going down as well.
But visitors might have one big question before they dip a toe in these waters:
Does San Diego have sharks? How common are shark attacks in San Diego, California?
San Diego County’s nearshore and offshore waters definitely serve as habitat for a rich and plentiful lineup of sharks, among the most common of which include:
- Leopard Sharks
- Blue Sharks
- Great White Sharks
- Shortfin Makos
- Common Thresher Sharks
- Broadnose Sevengill Sharks
When it comes to shark attacks, San Diego is a relative hot-spot compared to other areas of California — but the entire area still only averages about one unprovoked attack every couple of years. Visitors shouldn’t be overly concerned!
In this guide, we’ll profile these and a number of other species of San Diego sharks, then touch on the subject of local shark attacks: few and far between, really, when you consider how many people are using these legitimately shark-rich waters.
Types of Common/Notable Species of San Diego Sharks
The following certainly doesn’t include all of the native sharks of Southern Californian waters, but accounts for most of the regularly seen and/or especially notable species that, year-round or otherwise, call San Diego’s stellar slice of the Pacific home.
Among the world’s flat-out prettiest sharks, leopard sharks are very abundant and pretty easily seen in San Diego waters.
Members of the houndshark family, these sharks are named for their blotchy pattern, which makes them basically unmistakable.
They’re not very big, maxing out around six feet or so.
Leopard sharks can be found off the San Diego coast throughout the year, but they’re especially visible in spring and summer, when they gather in shallow waters—most famously around La Jolla Shores—to give birth and mate.
Snorkelers and divers have a fine chance this time of year of seeing these harmless and eye-catching critters, which mainly feed on small fish such as herring, anchovies, and sculpins as well as crabs and other invertebrates.
Great White Shark
There’s no better-known—or more feared—shark in San Diego waters than the great white, a member of the mackerel-shark order and the biggest of all predatory sharks.
The largest white sharks—and females get the heftiest—may exceed 20 feet and a couple of tons.
Such white-shark whoppers, however, aren’t commonly seen off San Diego. Instead, the main great whites hanging out locally are juveniles, as the balmy, shallow nearshore waters serve as a significant nursery zone for this apex predator.
Typically five to nine feet long, these young great whites find security and warmth in Southern California’s coastal reaches—plus ample bottom-dwelling prey, primarily in the form of stingrays.
As white sharks grow, they switch over to bigger fare: especially favoring pinnipeds such as sea lions and harbor seals, but also hunting dolphins and small whales as well as tuna, smaller sharks, and other fish. They share top-of-the-food-chain billing along the West Coast with the orca.
Benefitting from state protection in 1994, California’s white-shark population has grown in recent decades, and San Diego County has emerged as one of a number of hotspots for young sharks.
Major pinniped rookeries elsewhere along the California coast, such as Ano Nuevo on the mainland and the Farallon Islands, are better-known for adult white sharks. But those big sharks do occasionally make flybys in San Diego waters, as in July 2012, when the appearance of a full-grown great white estimated at 12 to 15 feet prompted a swimming closure off La Jolla Shores.
Shortfin Mako Shark
The shortfin mako is a smaller—but still plenty-good-sized, reaching 13 feet and a half-ton or more—relative of the great white.
It’s basically a racecar version of the white shark, magnificently streamlined and considered not only the swiftest of all sharks but among the swiftest critters in the ocean, capable of hitting 40 miles per hour or more in short bursts.
Such speed gives makos a leg up (fin up?) when hunting such speedy prey as tuna, billfish, and dolphins.
San Diego’s waters and the rest of the Southern California Bight, that coastal incurve running from the Santa Barbara area down into Baja California, serve as a major nursery zone and feeding area for shortfin makos, which travel here each summer from wider-ranging forays up and down the West Coast and as far offshore as Hawaii.
Makos are prized for their fighting grit on the hook; one caught on a line off San Diego in July 2019 was filmed making some incredible leaps out of the water.
Another mackerel shark that calls local waters a nursery is the salmon shark, a bit stubbier-looking than the mako.
Named for perhaps its number-one favorite food, the salmon shark reaches roughly 10 feet in length and may weigh 1,000 pounds or more.
Most West Coast salmon sharks head up to Alaska in summer to forage, but they come through San Diego waters on yearly migrations trailing their prey and to pup locally in the spring.
Young salmon sharks strand with some frequency on regional beaches, so keep an eye out when beachcombing.
Common Thresher Shark
Another member of the mackerel-shark order, the common thresher sports huge eyes and an almost cartoonishly long and curved upper tailfin that may account for roughly half its total length (which may run as long as 20 feet or so).
Threshers also give birth in the Southern California Bight, and young individuals are occasionally seen breaching along the coast; generally, though (like the shortfin mako), this is mainly an offshore species.
Not often seen by beachgoers or surfers, common threshers are an important target of both commercial and recreational fisheries in Southern California.
Broadnose Sevengill Shark
This burly coastal shark, which may reach nine or 10 feet, does indeed have a broad snout, part of a formidable business end that includes heavy jaws and big serrated teeth.
Somewhat sluggish-looking when just cruising around, sevengills are capable of decent spurts of speed, which allows them to catch such agile prey as harbor seals and the odd dolphin.
Broadnose sevengills are another year-round resident of San Diego-area kelp forests and rock reefs, and are especially abundant in nearshore waters during the spring and summer when they pup in places such as the La Jolla area.
Giving the leopard shark a real run for its money in the “looker” department, the blue shark is a lovely and elegant-looking requiem shark defined by its slender build, long snout, large eyes, and ethereal dark-blue upperside.
Primarily a pelagic species, blues are quite common off the Southern California coast, and—like the various mackerel sharks—breeds in these waters.
A large blue shark may reach 12 or 13 feet. Schooling bony fish and squid constitute the main menu.
Other San Diego Sharks
A variety of smaller sharks also can be found in San Diego waters, including the Pacific spiny dogfish, various smoothhounds, and the soupfin shark, a relative of the leopard shark.
The Pacific angel shark and horn shark are bottom-dwelling sharks of San Diego waters: the former a flattened-out ambush predator, the latter a small, blunt-headed fish that’s only found off the coasts of California and Baja California and in the Gulf of California.
Besides the blue shark, another pelagic requiem shark that’s periodically sighted off San Diego County is the oceanic whitetip, an impressive-looking, top-level bluewater predator whose global population has plummeted in recent decades.
Hammerheads are uncommon sights off San Diego, but at least two species—the smooth and the scalloped—reside in regional waters.
The smallest and least-understood of the large filter-feeding sharks, the megamouth—which was only scientifically described in the early 1980s—makes occasional appearances off Southern California.
An especially rare sighting took place in September 2022, when not one but two megamouths were filmed about 30 miles off the San Diego coast: thought to be the first known footage of a pair of megamouths swimming together.
The bigger filter-feeders, basking and whale sharks, are also sometimes seen in the region; a whale-watching vessel, for example, had an up-close look at a whale shark off San Diego in the same month that the two megamouths were encountered.
Shark Attacks in San Diego (History & Statistics)
San Diego County has the ignominious distinction of having recorded the largest number of unprovoked shark attacks in California, according to the International Shark Attack File, which lists 20 documented instances in the county since 1926.
(See shark attacks in other states here.)
But, when you stop and think about it, 20 unprovoked attacks in the better part of 100 years is not very many. Fatal attacks have been even rarer: just a handful.
The primary culprit in San Diego-area shark attacks is the great white.
That said, the risk in local waters of a serious attack by this legitimately formidable beast is likely lower than farther north on the California coast, given most white sharks in the area are smallish juveniles.
Certainly a juvenile white shark is still a big animal, but, as we’ve discussed, great whites at this age are mainly targeting stingrays and other bottom-dwelling fish.
Many attacks by large white sharks on people—including major, even fatal ones—are attributed to mistaken identity, when swimmers, surfers, or divers are confused for sea lions or seals by a prowling shark scanning the surface above.
This would seem to be a less-common setup off the San Diego coast, given the young, ray-munching great whites aren’t so surface-oriented as their older relatives.
The scarce record of fatal attacks in the area includes the well-known death of an abalone diver, Robert Pamperin, in La Jolla Cove in 1959, attributed to a very large white shark (estimates put it north of 20 feet).
Great whites were also deemed responsible for the death of a 25-year-old woman off Point Loma in 1994 and a triathlete off Solama Beach in 2008.
A juvenile great white was probably the shark that chomped a 50-year-old swimmer’s leg off Del Mar: a non-fatal attack.
Other notable semi-recent shark attacks in the San Diego area include a woman injured by a mako shark on a guided dive in June 2015 (though the circumstances and nature of that injury are contested); a scuba diver bitten on the hand by a hammerhead (perhaps a scalloped) on the Cortes Bank, far offshore; and a spearfisherman bitten without injury by a six- to eight-foot-long sevengill shark off La Jolla in June 2011.
Your odds of being attacked by a shark on a San Diego visit are reassuringly low, given these marine predators mostly don’t want anything to do with people.
You can safeguard yourself further by avoiding swimming alone, at night, where pinnipeds are present, and in areas where active fishing operations are underway.
Sharks are magnificent and essential members of the Southern California Bight ecosystem, and the opportunity to see leopard sharks cruising around La Jolla Shores—maybe even a whippersnapper of a white shark off Torrey Pines—ought to be considered a big-time thrill!
For more guides, see:
Hope this helps!