Learn About the Diverse Marine Life That Inhabits the La Jolla Ecological Reserve

San Diego’s local marine life and unique geographic features have always been one of the greatest draws to snorkeling and kayakers of all ages! Learn more about the marine life that makes San Diego so special.

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California Garibaldi

California Garibaldi

The California Garibaldi is part of the damselfish family, native to the northern, subtropical parts of the Pacific Ocean.

The Garibaldi is the official “marine fish” of the state of California and has a protected status in California coastal waters. Garibaldi are renowned for their brilliant orange color and grow up to 35 cm in length. Garibaldi can be found in Pacific Ocean, from Monterey Bay to Baja California. In San Diego, the Garibaldi can be found most commonly in and around La Jolla Cove. The Garibaldi can also be seen along the rocky reefs, just a few feet from the La Jolla Caves.

Where Garibaldi Live

They live at depths of up to 30 meters, usually in association with reefs and typically over rocky sea bottoms. The Garibaldi and other local La Jolla marine life are visible in between the surf grass, which grows along the nearby rock reefs.

The surf grass provides protection from predators like the California sea lion, brown pelican, and other birds. Our guided kayak tour paddles amidst the rocky reefs and surf grass to look for the Garibaldi, and other fish that reside in La Jolla.

The juvenile Garibaldi have little blue spots along their sides and are quite a bit smaller than the adult Garibaldi. Once the juvenile Garibaldi lose their blue spots, it’s the indication that they’re ready for reproduction.

What Garibaldi Eat

Garibaldi feed mainly on invertebrates that they remove from rocks. Adult garibaldi maintain a home territory. The male garibaldi clears a sheltered site within his territory, and the female then deposits eggs within the nest. The male subsequently guards the nest until the eggs hatch. For this reason, Garibaldi can be seen in the same areas over and over because of their extreme territorial nature.

Yellow Garibaldi Fish
Come & See Garabaldi

The Garibaldi, our California State fish, is one of many beautiful species within the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. Check out all the local fish and marine life of La Jolla, one of our La Jolla Kayak Tours. Kayak San Diego to check out the Garibaldi easily! The Garibaldi are visible from right atop your kayak on a clear day!

Check out the Garibaldi from your La Jolla kayak rental(opens in a new tab)!



The occasional common dolphin can be spotted within the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. Where birds hover over the water in their masses, there are usually dolphins nearby! Dolphins also swim through the area sporadically, but most sightings are early in the mornings and later in the afternoon.

Dolphins usually travel in pods, which makes it easier to spot them on our La Jolla kayak tours. When dolphins surface, they are usually traveling pretty quickly; dolphins can actually swim up to 40 km per hour. They have especially sleek skin that reduces interference while traveling at rapid speeds.

Dolphin Facts
  • Dolphins usually eat anywhere from 8-15 kilograms of fish per day!
  • The average lifespan of a dolphin is about 25 years, but the maximum lifespan of a dolphin is 40 years.
  • Dolphins have evolved over the years with adapted sensory specializations that enable them to monitor their environment and take advantage of their fast sleek swimming technique.
  • Dolphins have the basic senses of vision, hearing, taste and touch; however, they don’t have the sense of smell.
dolphins swimming in La Jolla
Dolphin Reproduction

Dolphins give birth to live young and nurse them with mammary glands like most mammals. The gestation period for dolphins is usually between 11 and 12 months.

Look for dolphins during your Kayak Tour at the local La Jolla Shores!

Sea Lions

Sea lions can be found in the La Jolla Ecological Reserve, but are most commonly see sitting atop the cliffs nearby the La Jolla Caves.

Sea lions are generally found in our coastal waters of the temperate to subpolar regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres. California sea lions sunning on the cliffs near the La Jolla Caves.

The sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, so approaching the sea lions on the cliffs is not permitted. The sea lions are behaviorally pretty social and may swim around kayakers and snorkelers along the reefs.

Sea Lion or Seal?

California sea lions are just one of several marine mammals of the family, Otariidae. Sea lions are characterized by the presence of external ear (pinnae or flaps) and long front flippers. This is one easy way to distinguish between sea lions and seals, since seals do not have ear flaps.

Sea lions also have flippers that enable them to walk on four flippers while on land. Sea lions are very mobile on land and in the water, and have the ability to scale cliff sides because of their strong pectoral muscles and four flippers. Harbor seals, by contrast, do not have this ability. Seals slither around like a snake on land.

The sea lions also communicate on land, not in the water! Sea lions can be heard barking on the cliffs; harbor seals do not have this same ability.

sea lions kissing eachother
Check Out Sea Lions from a Kayak!

California sea lions can frequently be seen sunning on the cliffs, swimming around in the water nearby the Caves, or barking at each other on the rocks. Get an up close view of these magnificent animals.

Join a San Diego Bike and Kayak Tour or rent a kayak to paddle past these amazing creatures! In addition to kayaking near sea lions, you’ll also explore the La Jolla Caves, the Kelp Forest and the rest of the famous La Jolla Ecological Reserve.

Tour the seven sea caves of La Jolla, including Sunny Jim’s Cave, Arch Cave, Clam’s Cave, and more. Kayak along the rocky reefs to see other local marine life including garibaldi and leopard sharks with our certified kayak tour guides.

Shovelnose Guitarfish

Shovelnose Guitarfish cruise the sandy flats of La Jolla’s Ecological Reserve!

A long, pointed snout and a guitar-shaped body give the shovelnose guitarfish its unique name. Compressed from belly to back, guitar fish bodies are attuned to life on the sand.

The shovelnose guitarfish is actually a kind of ray. This species typically dwells from central California down to the Sea of Cortez. Guitarfish are generally considered harmless.

What Shovelnose Guitarfish Look Like

Guitarfish body colors range from olive to sandy brown on their upper body and white on their underside. This helps shovelnose guitarfish blend into their sandy seafloor habitat.

Where Shovelnose Guitarfish Live

They live on sandy seafloors in bays, seagrass beds and estuaries, and usually in less than 40 feet of water. In La Jolla, shovelnose guitarfish can often be seen meandering along the sandy flats of the La Jolla Ecological Reseve.

The shovelnose guitarfish are sometimes referred to as “skates” because they skate around the shallow sandy flats.

What Shovelnose Guitarfish Eat

The shovelnose guitarfish has a mouth located on the bottom of its body, which is well-placed for eating bottom-dwelling prey. Shovelnose guitarfish “breath” by pumping water in through holes (spiracles) on top of their heads, over the gills and out through gill openings on the bottom of their disc.

Shovelnose guitarfish lie in the sand, ready to ambush their small prey, with only their eyes sticking out, since their bodies are the same color as the sandy ocean floor. Guitarfish will erupt out of the sand to gulp down a crab, worm or clam that crosses its path. At night, they leave the sand to actively cruise the seafloor to feed on crabs, worms, clams and even small fish.

How To See the Shovelnose Guitarfish

Shovelnose guitar fish are harmless to humans. The best way to spot them is to snorkel over them, because they blend in with sand due to their light colored bodies. To get a little closer to these Shovelnose guitarfish and other La Jolla marine life, try our Kayak and Snorkel Tour!

Don’t want to get into the water? Witness these amazing Shovelnose guitarfish by kayaking above them, on our Kayak Tour of the 7 Caves, and observe all the marine life in La Jolla from above the water. Kayakers of all ages and skill levels are welcome at San Diego Bike and Kayak!

Leopard Sharks

Leopard Sharks are harmless bottom feeders that spawn in La Jolla Shores!

Leopard sharks belong to the family triakidae, which are also known as hound sharks. Despite the name “shark,” these leopard sharks are harmless. Found on the Pacific Coast, leopard sharks are born annually in the shallow water at La Jolla Shores.

Every year, leopard sharks migrate from the coast of California to the northern bays and La Jolla. They are distinctively marked with dark brown spots on a silvery, gray background that resemble a leopard print.

What Leopard Sharks Eat

The leopard shark is slim and has a small mouth, used to suck up invertebrates on the ocean floor. Although leopard sharks have small teeth, they swallow their food whole without chewing. Leopard sharks feed on crustaceans and other invertebrates that live in mud and sand, like worms and crabs.

Leopard Shark Reproduction

The gestation period for leopard sharks is 10-12 months and usually ends in May, when the Leopard sharks come into shallow water to give birth to live young. They can reproduce up to 30 pups per litter. During the summer months, hundreds of leopard sharks can be seen swimming around in shallow water.

Snorkel with Leopard Sharks

Join our Leopard Shark Snorkel Adventure to witness these amazing leopard sharks and snorkel amidst the Ecological Reserve along La Jolla’s picturesque coast. Snorkel above these amazing creatures on our La Jolla kayak tour combined with snorkeling. This tour involves kayaking to the seven caves and kelp beds, and snorkeling with leopard sharks, garibaldi, shovelnose guitarfish and other local fish – all made easy by bringing the snorkel gear aboard the kayaks.

These leopard sharks are easily visible from atop your kayak, usually between June and October. Remember to paddle gently when viewing the leopard sharks, as they are very sensitive to vibration due to the pores in their skin!

leapard shark swimming
Leopard Shark Facts
  • Leopard sharks may grow up to 5 or 6 feet long.
  • Leopard sharks are harmless to humans due to their small teeth and timid nature.
  • They are visible in large numbers cruising the shallow waters during summer and generally stay around through the fall.
  • Leopard sharks can feel sound waves through pores in their skin. They also have a keen sense of smell and excellent hearing, so they swim away quickly at the sound of a kayak paddle moving in the water!

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