Introduction: Common Species and Interactions

The ocean coast of Isla Vista is a popular location for surfing, and many people are often seen with their surfboards in the water both close to shore and further out, waiting to catch waves. The surfers in this area often interact with many environmental features of the ocean. One of these environmental features is the creatures residing within the water, specifically, various species of sharks. These sharks can be found both in the water near the shore and further out beyond the wave breaks. Although the mention of sharks often provokes a fearful atmosphere, the surfers in this area primarily encounter less harmful species of sharks, such as Leopard sharks, and interact with them while surfing in a coexistence and peaceful manner.[1]

Among the number of shark species which populate the southern California waters off the coast of Isla Vista, near Santa Barbara, the most common include Leopard sharks, Blue sharks, Thresher sharks, and Great White sharks. The Leopard shark, or Trakis semifasciata, is generally harmless and appears grey colored with black spots and lines across its top and sides and a white stomach.  [2] This species can be up to seven feet in length and is common in shallow Southern California waters.[3] The Leopard shark is the species which surfers in the Isla Vista area are most familiar with, as they tend to populate areas near popular surfing spots. The Blue shark, or Prionace glauca, is shark species found in Southern California and Santa Barbara that is blue-grey with a white stomach and can be up to 8.3 feet long.[4] The Thresher Shark, or Alopias vulpinus, is also found in the waters near Isla Vista andcan be up to 18 feet in length.[5]

Of all the species in this area, Great Whites, or Carcharodon carcharias, are the largest and most dangerous, although they don’t enjoy eating humans.[6] Great whites can grow up to 21 feet and don’t have large populations, although encountering a great white shark within their territory is dangerous.[7] Great White sharks have a black back and white stomach and their migrations are thought the include the female sharks reproduce during the Spring in southern California.[8] Great White attacks on humans are more likely when there is less light and generally thought to be due to the sharks thinking humans, particularly surfers, are seals or other ocean prey due to the similar appearance of either surfboards or wetsuits.[9] In the years following 1950 here have been only 101, of which 13 were fatal, great white shark attacks of humans in California.[10]

Leopard Sharks, George Grall, National Aquarium (Link)     


Current Migration Trends and Locations of Interaction

The two most popular surf spots in Isla Vista are Campus Point and Devereux, officially named Coal Oil Point. These locations provide the largest waves and longest runs for surfers because of the sand bank. At Devereux Point, the west swell and rock shelf can create steep waves that race for 50-75 feet. In contrast, the conditions of Campus Point have the potential to have a wave that races for 25 yards, but these conditions are usually only met in the rainy season. In fact, Surf Magazine named UCSB the Best College for Surfing because of their close proximity to these destinations. [11] Both surf spots are usually occupied by young college students with mostly beginner experience, which can be uncomfortable for experienced surfers.  

Ricky Hayes - Campus Point Dec 4th by Tom Modugno (Link)Photo of Campus Point from (Link)



Just off the coastline of Isla Vista, there are fairly large kelp forests growing in which leopard sharks, among various other species, breed and inhabit. These kelp forests are the intertwined growing communities of brown algae Phaeophyceae.[12] According to the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a local conservation organization, the area surround Campus Point is a State marine conservation area so some restrictions apply to commercial fishing and recreation in this area. For this reason, surfers and beach-goers commonly report seeing Leopard sharks within reaching distance of where they are. The weather and conditions of Central California, particularly kelp forests, rocky reefs, and sandy beaches, provide a home for Leopard sharks, except in the winter months. [13] Santa Barbara recently conducted research in which satellite images were used to map the size and biomass of the kelp forests along the coast.



Surfer Interaction Stories & General Public Opinion


  • UCSB student Sophia Cancelmo has been surfing daily in Isla Vista for three years, and is familiar with the Leopard Sharks that swim at places such as Devereaux, a popular surf spot in Isla Vista. Sophia states that, “The Leopard sharks I’m very much ok with and I think most people who surf around here feel the same way… but you don’t want to see other sharks while you’re surfing”. Sophia explains that the Leopard Sharks are different sizes and, “(…) are in the shallow water… so, if you see a shark when you’re in deep water you know it’s not a Leopard Shark”, although she has only seen a shark that wasn’t a Leopard Shark in Isla Vista once. Among the other shark species that live in the Isla Vista Ocean are Thresher Sharks and Great White Sharks, which she has heard have been sighted in the area. Sophia says that encountering Leopard Sharks specifically in Isla Vista surfing waters, “(…) depends on the tide a lot, when the tide is lower you see more of them because they stay in shallow water (...) there will be a lot of them in a concentrated are”. Sophia describes the Leopard Sharks as, “kind of skittish when you pass them”, although she doesn’t think they are afraid of humans. She mentioned that people on the beach are often surprised by the sharks. At Campus point Sophia has never seen a Leopard Shark because it’s less shallow there and mentions that, “They’re not always out when the waves are big or when it’s breaking farther out you don’t really see them”. Sophia says she always gets out of the water if she feels uncomfortable because of the unpredictability of the ocean, stating that, “that’s all you have to rely on in the water is your intuition”.

                             -Sophia Cancelmo, Isla Vista Surfer, UCSB Student 


  • “My experience with surfers [in Isla Vista] is that they usually tolerate or even ignore sharks.  Some see sharks’ place in the food web.  Some surfers are certainly afraid of some sharks, particularly the white shark.  My overall reaction is that surfers generally have a fairly positive attitude toward sharks.  After all, surfers and sharks share the same ocean.”

-Peter Howorth, former Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center director and current Santa Barbara Independent Columnist


  • “I think most surfers don't mind them. I step on them all the time in the early spring and they can be freaky.”

- Ryan Duffy, Isla Vista Surfer


  • “I personally had my first experience with the sharks at the beginning of Spring quarter this year. A group of my friends and I were going surfing, and as we began to walk out into the ocean I noticed a small shark (probably about 2 feet) in the shallow waters. I pointed it out to my friends and everyone thought it was really cool, until we noticed [over 10] more sharks swimming around a few yards away. Although we knew the small sharks were relatively harmless, we made sure to paddle out in a hurry.”

    -Collin Holtz, Isla Vista Surfer, UCSB Student


  • Ralph was kind enough to lend us his knowledge on the types of interactions he’s commonly seen between surfers and sharks in Isla Vista. He comments that while Leopard Sharks are pretty much accepted by all, Great Whites can be a bit more contentious. Most often, the Great White sightings he’s heard of in Isla Vista have been juvenile sharks. These sharks show up around early spring and migrate south for warmer waters later in the year. Generally, the sharks just come up and check out the surfers and then swim away. When people have these encounters they rarely panic and most have a positive outlook on the experience later. Now, if the shark is not a juvenile but an adult who has not migrated south yet the encounter can be a little different. However, even with these, the encounter is generally positive. They’re incredible creatures and to see such a large one near you is impressive. He, himself, said that in his many years working in the water, “To this day, it still impresses me [to see a large adult shark swimming towards me].” All these things aside, he notes that attacks on surfers are quite rare and among those who have been attacked he has only encountered one, in all his years speaking with them (Not only in Isla Vista but elsewhere as well), who had developed a negative attitude towards them.

-Ralph S. Collier, Shark Research Committee Chair and longtime Santa Barbara resident.





[1]   Sophia Cancelmo, Surfer Interview June 1, 2017