A large salmon shark swam alongside a whale-watching vessel for several minutes last Friday off the coast of Southern California, much to the amazement of passengers and crew.
They were amazed not only because of the shark’s proximity, but because they initially couldn’t determine what type of shark they were seeing.
“All I knew was that it was only vaguely familiar,” Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher and research associate at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, told For The Win Outdoors. “I knew it wasn’t the typical kind of shark we see.”
Salmon sharks, much more common off Alaska, are not often spotted off Southern California. But their features – including a broad head and pointed snout, and white pigmentation on and near their gills – are distinctive.
ALSO ON FTW OUTDOORS: Watch: Blue whale ‘launches out of the sea like a submarine’
The sighting occurred at 11:02 a.m. in the middle of the channel between Oceanside and the east end of Santa Catalina Island, during a whale watching day aboard the Ocean Adventures from Dana Wharf Whale Watching.
Captain Steve Burkhalter initially thought it was a mako shark before taking a closer look and noticing the peculiar features, according to the Orange County Register.
Schulman-Janiger said there was no internet service for hours, so no one could search for the sighting.
She sent a video clip to longtime shark enthusiast Eric Mailander, but the video did not reach Mailander until 4:27 p.m., as the ship approached shore and internet service was restored.
Two minutes later, Mailander’s response reached Schulman-Janiger’s phone: “Salmon shark! You are so lucky!”
Although the sighting is unusual, salmon sharks frequent Southern California waters seasonally.
Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, told For The Win Outdoors he wasn’t surprised.
“The Southern California Bight is the spring nursery and calving grounds for white sharks, mako sharks, salmon sharks, common thresher sharks and blue sharks,” Lowe said.
“Due to its high spring productivity, this is where most of these sharks migrate thousands of miles to come here to give birth to their young, which take advantage of their early summers to take advantage of warmer waters and a greater availability of food to refuel and grow quickly.”
Lowe added, “Alaskan tagged salmon sharks have been known to migrate from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii and southern California to give birth and then migrate to Alaska to feed.”
Schulman-Janiger said other sharks were spotted during the whale-watching trip, but these were fleeting glimpses and the sharks could not be identified.
Passengers enjoyed a prolonged “assault” by a minke whale and saw a fin whale, a distant gray whale, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, a long-beaked and short-beaked common dolphin and 11 Mola molas ( sea bass).
“But most people were talking about the shark all day,” she said.
Salmon sharks, which can grow to over 10 feet, feed primarily on salmon, sea otters, squid, seabirds, and several species of fish.
–Images courtesy of Alisa Schulman-Janiger