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Spotted: sea leopards

Special to The Times

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!”

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‘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.

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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.

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“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.

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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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I have a good mind to wade ashore and come back another day. But I’ve driven from Newport Beach. So I insert my snorkel mouthpiece, lie across the water, and drift. I try to adopt the shark-encounter techniques that expert free diver/underwater filmmaker Rob Stewart (“Sharkwater”) imparted to me once during an interview: no splashing, hard kicking or sudden moves; stay ultra-chilled and slow your heart rate. The techniques especially apply when near leopard sharks, skittish and shy creatures that come around only on stealthy terms, or not at all. Even in summer there are days when Shark City appears evacuated.

Suddenly, a stingray

My heart is beating like a school kid’s on prom night because I keep glimpsing slithering wisps out the corners of my mask, but it always turns out to be a kelp plant, its elongated leaves waving in the tidal flux. Disoriented by the poor visibility, I stick my head up to check my bearings, standing on the bottom.

Blau is back, stabilizing his kayak between me and the beach. I shake my head, indicating I haven’t seen anything.

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He is directing me to where he spotted the last shark shadow when I sense something squishy under my right flipper. Looking down, I realize I’ve pinned a baby stingray underfoot. Stifling a man-scream, I snatch up my flipper, and the animal bolts. Had it been an adult, I would have certainly been stung.

Stingrays are common to these waters, and their numbers also increase as the ocean warms. There is a high incidence of people getting stung throughout summer when swimmers abound; local lifeguards have reported up to 50 stings in a single day. Lee advises tourists to do the “stingray shuffle.” If you disturb a stingray while dragging your feet across the bottom, it just swims away. If stepped on, its tail lashes up in reflexive defense.

The tail spine is coated with a venomous protein that enters the sting wound. It’s not life threatening but leaves a painful after-burn that lasts about 45 minutes. Lifeguards keep buckets of hot-verging-on-scalding water ready to splash on a wound. It’s the only thing (short of going to the hospital) that breaks down the protein and alleviates the pain.

I’ve been drifting for a while with no change in my deserted surroundings. Or is there? Avid divers talk about something called “shark sense,” a strange foreshadowing that one is lurking nearby. This notion gains credence when I feel a kind of body prickling, a feeling of being watched, right before a spectral form slithers into my vision.

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A mystical encounter

As it nears, the mirage assembles into a 5-foot leopard shark, the long, majestic tail swaggering, propelling it inches above the seafloor. It’s an eerie jolt at first. But more than that, it’s a mystic thrill.

The shark’s coloring is nature’s highest art, its dorsal-finned surface covered in mulberry-colored saddles and leopard-like spots of its namesake. The rest of the shark’s body radiates bronze and violet as light pulses over it.

I’m infatuated by the animal’s beauty as it passes beneath me, so close I reach down and try to stroke the rounded dorsal fin. It’s a hair out of reach as the animal glides away. Just as it starts to evaporate beyond the fringe of visibility, the shark flexes around in a tight arc and executes another swim by. Then it’s gone.

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I’m not alone for long.

I feel that prickling again but see nothing -- until the broad snout of a leopard shark blocks out the seafloor directly beneath me and a 6-footer muscles past, its pectoral fins not quite skimming the sand. When it’s nearly out of sight, the shark is joined by another adult of similar size and then a 3-foot juvenile.

Three sharks orbit me, making passes and figure-eights like fighter jets, bisecting and looping around one another, then converging back in formation, wing on wing. Two more sharks enter as one moves out. Their streamlined bodies writhe, each animal displaying a color and leopard pattern as unique as a fingerprint.

The sharks are obviously curious about my presence. I’m the sole swimmer in their city.

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I don’t know how long my interaction with the sharks lasts. Time stops while I’m among them. Once their curiosity is appeased, the sharks dissolve into liquid mist, leaving the ocean desolate again. When I lift up my head, Blau is there, ever the loyal guardian and shark sentinel.

My grin is irrepressible as I start to wade in. “Want a ride?” he offers, maybe to protect me from stepping on more stingrays. I grab the strap loop on the stern of his kayak as he digs in his paddle, making deep power pulls, lifting me onto his wake.

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travel@ltimes.com

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To book a tour

Leopard shark tours are available daily from spring through fall; $35 for snorkel gear and wetsuit, introductory training and a 50-minute tour with a guide (kayaks cost $30 extra, with a 2 1/2 -hour rental time). It’s $20 a day for snorkel gear and wetsuit rental, but no guide. Bike & Kayak Tours, 2222 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla; (858) 454-1010, www.sandiegobikeandkayaktours.com

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Two-hour kayak tours are also available, which include the leopard sharks, sea caves and ecological reserve; $50 single, $80 double.

The Birch Aquarium offers “Snorkel With Sharks” tours on weekends from June 29 through Aug. 31; $30 for a two-hour guided tour with a Scripps naturalist (bring your own gear), focusing on leopard sharks, smoothhound sharks and guitarfish of La Jolla Shores. The tour includes swimming the adjacent rocky reef; intermediate swimming ability is required, and previous snorkeling experience is recommended. Call (858) 534-7336 to register; www.aquarium.ucsd.edu

On travel.latimes.com

For a photo gallery of the sharks off La Jolla, go to latimes.com/leopardsharks.

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Snorkeling tips for shark fans

* Remember the “stingray shuffle” when you stand on the bottom: Instead of stepping, drag your feet.

* Use a wetsuit (at least a shorty) to avoid getting chilled after an hour in the water.

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* Be a patient and relaxed floater rather than a splashy, frenetic swimmer. The less movement, the better.

* For an eye-to-eye shark encounter, wear a weight belt and lie still on the bottom holding your breath as long as possible.

* Shark viewing from a kayak is a worthy alternative on calm, clear days, allowing you to avoid stingrays. Dip your head in the water, using a snorkel and scuba mask.


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