The 7 Biggest Sharks Off California’s Coast

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: August 10, 2022
© Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com
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Sharks are any group of species of cartilaginous fishes of predatory habit within the clade Selachimorpha. The State of California ranks second in America, after Florida, for the most unprovoked shark attacks. This North American state is home to many shark species, with quite a number sighted off its shorelines.

The warm coastal waters of California make them habitable for sharks who swim in search of prey and sites for nurseries. If you were to visit California’s gorgeous beaches, here are 7 of the biggest sharks you could spot.

Great White Shark

Great White Shark stalks diver
The great white shark is responsible for the largest percentage of human attacks in history.

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Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are famous predators of the ocean and sea floors. These migratory sharks tread along the entire coast of America and other parts of the world. They are also responsible for the largest percentage of human attacks in history.

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The great white shark’s largest recorded size is 20 feet (6.1 meters), but there have been other undocumented reports that they can grow up to 23 feet (7 meters). Juvenile great white sharks are believed to have bad eyesight, believing humans to be seals or other aquatic prey.

According to Fox5 San Diego, the latest shark attack in California was on June 22, 2022. Steven Bruemmer (62) was attacked by a great white shark while swimming at Lover Point in Pacific Grove. He suffered injuries to his legs, stomach, and arm, but he survived.

Thresher Shark

A pelagic thresher shark, Alopias pelagicus, swims by a coral reef in the Phillipines.
Thresher sharks have long tails that are as long as their body length.

©Shane Gross/Shutterstock.com

The thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) is most popular for its long upper tail fin with which it whips fish to disorient them or cause unconsciousness. These long tails are often as long as the shark. Despite their sword-like tails, the purple-hued thresher sharks are harmless to humans.

Thresher sharks grow to an average of 18 feet (5.5 meters). According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, they can grow as long as 24.9 feet (7.6 meters), weighing 750 pounds (340 kilograms). Thresher sharks prefer shallow waters and the open ocean, with depths of 1500 m, thus making them a common sight for divers and others who venture into the ocean depths.

Thresher sharks are found all over the coast of North America, migrating seasonally from Oregon to South California.

Smooth Hammerhead Shark

smooth hammerhead shark
Smooth hammerhead sharks have their eyes wide apart at each end of their head, giving them a 360-degree vision of the ocean.

©Alessandro De Maddalena/Shutterstock.com

Smooth hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna zygaena) have quite distinctive hammer-shaped heads. Their eyes are wide apart at each end of their head, which gives them a 360-degree point of view. Most of their sensory organs are in their heads, making it hard to sneak up on a smooth hammerhead shark.

These sharks vary in length, from 8 feet (2.5 meters) to 11.5 feet (3.5 meters), with the largest ever recorded measuring 16.4 feet (5 m) and 880 pounds (400 kg). They are carnivores that feed on stingrays, small fish, moray eels, and squids. 

Smooth hammerhead sharks can be found in Central California and along San Diego.

Megamouth Shark

The head of a Megamouth shark. This specimen is preserved in a tank at the Western Australian Maritime Musem.
A megamouth shark’s mouth can often measure up to 4 feet and 3 inches (1.3 meters) in width.

The megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) is the smallest of the world’s three plankton-feeding sharks. This distinctive-looking shark measures an average of 13 feet for males and 16 feet for females. However, megamouth sharks have been known to grow up to 18 feet in length.

Megamouth sharks are harmless despite their large sizes. The dark brown colored sharks swim with their mouths wide open to collect and filter the ocean water that slips through for jellyfish and plankton. Their large mouths can often measure up to 4 feet and 3 inches (1.3 meters) in width.

Over the past hundred years, the rare megamouth sharks have been spotted off the Californian coast at Dana Point, San Diego, and Catalina Island. About 269 megamouth sharks have been discovered and analyzed since the discovery of the species, making them quite a rare sight as they mostly spend their day thousands of feet deep in the ocean.

Basking Shark

Biggest Fish in the World: Basking Shark
The second-largest shark species is the basking shark.

©Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

Basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus), commonly called the bone shark or the elephant shark, are the second largest shark species in the world and one of the three plankton-eating sharks. Despite their giant size, they are passive and harmless to humans.

These slow-moving sharks can grow up to 40 feet (12.2 meters) and weigh over 10,000 pounds. Like the megamouth and the whale shark, basking sharks have very large mouths that stay open as they filter the ocean’s water through filter pads inside their mouths. They filter for plankton and other tiny life forms within the ocean. 

Basking sharks are a rare sight along most coastlines of the world. Due to their colors which range from grayish brown to black, they can be mistaken for great white sharks. The best way to distinguish between the two sharks at first glance is to look at their respective tails, with the basking shark having a crescent-shaped tail fin. 

Tiger Shark

What do tiger sharks eat - feeding a tiger shark
The tiger shark is second only to the great white shark in the number of human attacks.

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Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) are one of the three most aggressive sharks in the world, alongside the great white and the bull shark. They come second to the great white in the number of human attacks. Their name references their body stripes and their predatory behavior. Tiger sharks have strong teeth that can easily break a turtle’s shell. 

These nocturnal hunters grow to lengths of 10 to 14 feet (3.05 to 4.3 meters) on average. The largest recorded tiger shark measured 24.6 feet (7.5 meters). The tiger shark feeds on a wide range of prey, dead or alive, and has only been known to be preyed on by humans and killer whales.

Tiger sharks are highly migratory and can be found in many oceans worldwide. They prefer warmer waters and can be found closer to the equator in cold months. They can be found close to all the state’s beaches in California.

Whale Shark

Biggest Fish in the World: Whale Shark
The largest shark in the world is the whale shark.

©Onusa Putapitak/Shutterstock.com

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the world’s largest shark. Compared to the more popular great white shark, whale sharks are not analyzed often as they are rarely seen, mostly found in the Sea of Cortez, Hawaii, and Mexico. However, there have been sightings of these gentle ocean beasts in Southern California.

Whale sharks are most notable for their large sizes and white spotted backs. The largest whale shark ever recorded measured 61.7 feet (18.8 meters) long, but some reports state that a whale shark can grow up to 75 feet (22.9 meters). The average whale shark male averages 30 feet (9.1 meters), while females usually grow as big as 48 feet (14.6 meters).

Whale sharks are harmless to humans and are not aggressive shark species, and there has been no record of a whale shark attack on a human.

What Time of the Year are Sharks Most Active on the Californian Coast?

The waters off the Californian coastline are often infested by sharks between May and October. The increased population of sharks is due to warm water temperature in those months, which draws sharks toward the shoreline.

What Beach in California has had the Most Shark Attacks?

Solana Beach in San Diego County has had the most shark attacks in the State of California. The coastal city has had about 20 unprovoked shark attacks between 1926 and 2021. Second and third to San Diego County are Humboldt and Santa Barbara, with 16 and 13 shark attacks, respectively.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the most recent fatal attack on Solana beach was in 2008. A great white shark attacked a 66-year-old swimmer, and the attack occurred just 150 yards offshore from Tide Park.

While there are extremely small odds that one will encounter a shark, much less get attacked by one, it is still imperative to take caution when venturing into the ocean off the Californian coast. As it is often said: more people mean more sharks.


The Featured Image

Biggest Shark: Basking Shark
A basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, swimming near Coll Island, Scotland. The most impressive feature of the basking shark is its mouth, which opens up to 1 meter wide.
© Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

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