12 Sharks That Patrol the Waters in California

Affiliate Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. There is no additional cost to you and it helps support our future adventures.

The warm waters off the coast of California welcome hundreds of thousands of sunbathers and swimmers every year. The vast majority are able to enjoy their time in the water and take in the incredible underwater sights.

Occasionally, though, beachgoers are able to spot a shark swimming close to shore in search of a bite to eat. While the sight of a shark can strike fear in the hearts of many, there is usually nothing to worry about, as most shark species are not aggressive.

If you do manage to be one of the lucky ones who spot these incredible creatures, here are 12 of the species that call the coastal waters of California home.

Common Thresher

Common thresher sharks are pelagic and live in the deep ocean
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The Common Thresher shark is the largest of the thresher shark species, growing up to 20 feet in length. These sharks are easily identifiable by the elongated upper lobe on their tail fin. These sharks are fast swimmers and can sometimes be seen leaping out of the water when hunting their favorite prey, schooling fish like anchovies and herring.

Humans have little to worry about when it comes to the common thresher as they have small teeth and a relatively timid disposition.

Where in California they have been spotted: Laguna Beach and Santa Monica Bay

Basking Shark

basking shark
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

This prehistoric-looking fish is the 2nd largest of all the shark species, growing up to 36 feet long. The basking shark is one of only three sharks that feed on plankton by filtering massive amounts of water through their gaping mouth.

Because of their slow-moving, timid lifestyle, they are a favorite to swim with by scuba divers and underwater photographers.

Where in California they have been spotted: Santa Cruz Island

Bull Shark

Bull Shark (Carcharhinus Leucas)
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

Bull sharks have a unique trait in that they can survive in both salt and fresh water. Because of this, they have been found far up rivers and have even been spotted in the Mississippi River in Illinois!

Despite the propensity to swim inland, few freshwater interactions with humans have ever been noted. That is not the case in salt water, though, as these sharks are known to be aggressive and like to stay near warm shallow water, also frequented by beachgoers.

Where in California they have been spotted: San Diego Coast

Dusky Shark

dusky shark
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The dusky shark is a stout shark, usually growing to around 13 feet in length, that migrates thousands of miles every year from the cool northern waters in the summer to warm equatorial waters in the winter.

These quick sharks are known to live and feed in shallow coastal waters and deep waters off the continental shelf. Despite their size and aggressive appearance, very few human interactions have been recorded.

Where in California they have been spotted: San Onofre Beach

Blue Shark

blue shark
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The blue shark is a smaller, sleek shark that tends to prefer to live offshore versus closer in to coastal waters. These sharks are known to migrate huge distances in search of their favorite foods: squid and small fish.

While these sharks may occasionally be seen by offshore fishermen, it is highly unlikely that they would ever be spotted from shore.

Where in California they have been spotted: Monterey Bay

Tiger Shark

tiger shark
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The tiger shark is well known for having a wide-ranging appetite that includes a wide variety of sea animals and inedible man-made objects that can be found undigested in its stomach. This shark prefers the warm shallow waters near the coast and is responsible for the second most human encounters, with only the great white shark responsible for more.

These sharks have sharp, serrated teeth that can bite through tough food like turtle shells. They are known to have only one predator in the ocean: the orca or killer whale.

Where in California they have been spotted: San Diego

Leopard Shark

Leopard shark, Triakis semifasciata, is a species of houndshark, family Triakidae. from the Pacific coast of North America
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The leopard shark is a favorite among scuba divers and snorkelers because of its small size, harmless nature, and tendency to live in schools near shallow bays and kelp beds. One sight of them and you’ll immediately recognize why they are called the leopard shark, with their unique pattern that covers their body from nose to tail.

These sharks are known to migrate, but many will live in the same area for most of their lives.

Where in California they have been spotted: La Jolla

Great White Shark

Great White shark while coming to you on deep blue ocean background
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The most well-known and feared shark in the ocean, the great white shark, has been striking fear into beachgoers for generations. These massive predators can grow up to 20 feet long and patrol waters up and down the entire west coast.

These sharks are responsible for the majority of encounters with swimmers and surfers in California with some ultimately being fatal. If you’ve frequented the waters off of California, there is a good chance that, at some point, you have seen one of these magnificent creatures from either above or below the surface.

Where in California they have been spotted: All regions of the California coast

Shortfin Mako Shark

mako shark
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

These large sharks are well known for their quick speed and incredible bite power. While a handful of human encounters have been documented over the years, they are exceptionally rare, especially when unprovoked.

The mako’s narrow, sharp teeth make it an exceptional hunter of larger ocean species like tuna, turtles, and even porpoises.

Where in California they have been spotted: Oceanside Beach

Salmon Shark

the rare and elusive salmon shark, one of the least photographed sharks in the wild.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Salmon sharks inhabit Pacific waters ranging from as far north as Alaska all the way down to Mexico. These sharks are unique in that they exhibit some warm-blooded traits, which allows them to survive in a wide variety of water temperatures.

As guessed by their name, these sharks are known to follow salmon runs, which helps explain their wide range.

These sharks pose no threat to humans, although they can be a nuisance to commercial fishermen also going after the same salmon runs.

Where in California they have been spotted: Catalina Island

Whale Shark

whale shark
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

Whale sharks are the largest and one of the most docile of all the shark species. These large filter feeders have been known to grow over 60 feet in length and can be found slowly swimming through deep waters off of the southern Pacific coast.

A favorite among scuba divers for their unique skin pattern and huge size, these massive fish pose no threat to humans.

Where in California they have been spotted: Catalina Island

Hammerhead Shark

Hammerhead (Sphryna lewinii) swimming in the blue
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com

The hammerhead shark takes the crown as the most unique-looking shark, if not the most unique-looking animal, in the world. With its hammer-shaped head, these easily distinguishable sharks can grow up to 15 feet in length and are often spotted in both shallow coastal waters and deep offshore.

The hammerhead has been known to rarely attack humans, but it will more often approach humans in a curious manner than with aggression.

Where in California they have been spotted: La Jolla and Huntington Beach

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest