The leopard shark is a beautiful animal. It is long and slender, can grow up to seven feet, and live up to thirty years. Sometimes they can be found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego. This is the story of how I went face to face with one while snorkeling.
I used to enjoy thinking of myself as a semi-amphibious creature. I easily free dived down to ten, fifteen, even twenty feet on a good breath, when I wanted a quick, close look at something. Surprisingly, it takes some effort to get down into a body of water. I loved the vigorous animal feeling of invading the water as I pulled and pushed my way down. For purposes of human diving, the first thermocline (temperature change) in a column of water is usually at about 15 feet; that is the level above which the water is warmer and chaotic, and below which the water is colder and steady. Below the thermocline is the level at which a diver wearing buoyant gear becomes neutrally buoyant, where the diver no longer has to fight to stay underwater. Being below the thermocline was a lovely feeling, I was still high enough in the water column to surface with a few strong strokes, yet I was deep enough to hover and clearly take in the sights and sounds underwater for as long as I could hold my breath.
On this occasion I wanted to see what was in some unusual "shrubbery" on the floor of the ocean about twenty feet down, so I sipped a lungful of air through my snorkel and tipped foward to dive. But out of the corner of my eyes I saw that all of the little fishes had frozen in place in the water column, so I froze too. In the next second a large leopard shark eased out of the aquatic plants that I had been headed toward. This put me face to face with it, we had about ten feet of give between us, and it's head was bigger than my head. My mind began chanting, "Please don't let me leak fear hormones into the water, please..." While I was focused on that, my optical nerves had instantaneously bypass my cerebral cortex to send the command, "Look, Shark, Flee!" directly to my amygdala which charged my animal body with all that was necessary to swim me directly to shore. I swam rapidly, steadily to shore, climbed out, and that was the last time that I swam in the ocean. I now know that leopard sharks have a pristine record of never attacking humans, but that wide face full of sharp little teeth was not convincing. What if they change their minds?
SNORKEL GEAR CHECKLIST
snorkel & mask
pen & paper
Remember to take water for rehydration afterward!
Caption: Leopard Shark, photograph by Sharksider.com