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Sea Lebrities: The Sea Lions of Pier 39

Sunday, 23 October 2016

We often read about people taking over the natural habitat of other species but it is rare to come across a case where the animals come back and reclaim their territory from us.  Yet this is exactly what has happened in San Francisco.  Local Californian Sea Lions have always been present in the city’s bay but had been pushed out to Seal Rocks, a small formation at the north end of the Ocean Beach.  Pier 39’s K-Dock was developed and opened in 1978.  Little did we know that the sea lions also had their eyes on this particular piece of seaside real estate.

They bided their time but their opportunity to move in (or back, if you argue that their presence along the Californian coastline predates human occupation by tens of thousands of years) came just over a decade later in 1989.  It was then that it was decided that the docks needed refurbishment.  In order to facilitate this all the boats had to be removed from Pier 39.  This left large open spaces inside the Bay.  A small number of sea lions saw their opportunity.  They metaphorically weighed anchor from the stony slopes of Seal Rocks and began to arrive at Pier 39.

The refurbishment was soon complete and the boat owners started to return their vessels to Pier 39.  No one tried to move the dozen or so sea lions that were now frequenting the docks – they were a popular new addition.  Their antics made regular visitors happy.  However, the numbers of sea lions soon increased – by the beginning of 1990 there were over 150 seals (as many San Franciscans call them) at Pier 39.

The owners of the dozen or so boats that were docked at Pier 39 started to become troubled at the burgeoning sea lion population.  Although the animals were not damaging the boats there was worry about collisions happening.  Sea lions can weigh up to half a ton and the boat owners were worried about both harming the animals and irreparable damage being done to their vessels. 

There was the additional issue of the unusual odor of the Californian Sea Lion not to mention their propensity to make a huge racket while conducting their daily routine. The rowdy and occasionally overexcited pinnipeds with their associated howling, yowling and growling do not make the best of neighbors – especially if all you want is a quiet life sipping a glass of white wine on your boat…

Yet even Californian Sea Lions have their quieter side. They love nothing more than a gentle snooze with their loved ones - or simply to take in a few rays of the Californian sunshine. They are quite the mañana mammal when the mood takes them.

Nevertheless, the owners of the pier took advice from the Marine Mammal Center.  Their best advice (probably with a shrug) was that it was probably better to relocate the boats and abandon the docks to the sea lions rather than displacing the sea lions (who would be unlikely to leave their new home willingly).  The boat owners were given new areas to moor in the other docks.

You might ask why the sea lions would choose to live in such proximity to us.  The Bay area is naturally protected from predators – the orcas and white sharks which find the Californian Sea Lion a tasty meal do not frequent the bay area. Plus there are plenty of fish (mostly herring) around in the summer months.  So, it is most likely that the sea lions moved to K Dock because they felt safer and fuller there. 

Moreover, it is against the law to handle, harass or feed them so although we can look, we cannot do anything else which might interfere from their natural lives. Just as well these rules are in place - although they love their own company they certainly do not like us to get up close and can bite if they feel threatened. Some say that it was the Quake of ’89 which precipitated their relocation to the pier but this claim has never been substantiated (the jury is still out on a definite reason in other words).

Nevertheless, a major docking area of a city of close to a million people became, effectively, a sea lion reserve.  The numbers have fluctuated over the years – back in 2009 they reached a peak of 1,701 animals at Pier 39.  It has become a popular tourist destination in its own right.  Yet although the sea lions delight the crowds of tourists which flock to see them at work, rest and play it has also proven an invaluable site for the study of the behavior of these fascinating marine mammals.

An aerial shot of K-Dock shows just how the sea lions have nudged their human neighbors to one side.

The sheer numbers of sea lions (and their often gargantuan weight) caused K-Dock to submerge before long.  Twelve floats were put in place first of all – then in the summer of 1995 even more were moved in to replace the dock altogether.  With a little help from their human friends the Californian Sea Lions now had a permanent home in San Francisco.

They are monitored by The Marine Mammal Store and Interpretive Center and some of their findings have led to a much greater understanding of the Californian Sea Lion – although there is still much to be learned.   It is still not known for sure why Pier 39 is a seasonal home for the sea lions but it is now thought that their departure signals the availability of an easier food source elsewhere – most likely anchovies and sardines.  An annual and substantial rise in the numbers of Californian Sea Lions up the coast at Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves is believed to be because of the arrival of thousands of Pier 39 sojourners.


Regular visitors to Pier 39 have got to know a large number of individuals – and there is always interesting behavior to see as California Sea Lions are renowned for both their cleverness and their mischievous friskiness.  The males can be easily distinguished as they can be up to four times heavier than their female counterparts and develop a crest (a bump, really, which can make them look like they have a crew-cut hair style) on their heads when they reach maturity.  Most of the Pier 39 visitors are male.

Although many locals refer to them as seals, the Californian Sea Lion can be distinguished from them by their external ear flaps – seals don’t have them.  They can live up to twenty five years so although the original sea lions have long since slipped off their mortal coil, Pier 39 has become a generational living space for these fascinating marine mammals. Most people agree that the sea lions are welcome to stay for many more generations to come.

First Image Credit Flickr User WallyG

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