The vociferous, sometimes cantankerous sea lion colony that calls Pier 39 home has now been around for 30 years — and it shows no signs of ever leaving.
In 1989, shortly after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, gaggles of sea lions mysteriously began showing up next to the famous San Francisco pier in growing numbers. Seemingly overnight — which, really, was over the course of a few months — the colony grew from a few hundred individuals to well over a thousand, basking in the sun on what's known as K-Dock.
"I think we went from a couple hundred to about 1,400 in the space of about six months," said Sheila Chandor, vice president of marine operations at Pier 39, who’s also known as “the harbormaster,” in a recent SFGate profile.
A rather healthy herring run in San Francisco Bay that year, which peaked in late-1989 to early-1990, was one of the reasons for blubbery invasion. The first-comer, a sea lion later named "Old Flea Collar," hopped onto K-Dock at Pier 39, and, given the safe confines and tranquil waters off Fisherman's Wharf, there was little reason for him, and the hundreds of residing sea lions that followed suit, to leave.
Thankfully, though, numbers have since steadied. Aside from the temporary population spike in November of 2009, featuring just a hair over 1,700 web-footed individuals, the ocean-going lion population at Pier 39 rarely tops 1,000.
In fact, during the winter months, the population can increase up to 900 sea lions, with more males than females. Fast-forward to the summer months, and the sea lions — aside from a recent small group that now inhabits the K-Dock, year-round — migrate to the Channel Islands for breeding season.
But that’s not to say everyone’s been as happy as Chandor about their ebbing-and-flowing three-decade residence. Over the years, various measures and means have been proposed and half-heartedly executed to dissuade them from crowding the pier.
(Someone even suggested calling in Jacques Cousteau's mechanical great white shark to scare them off, some years ago.)
Per state law, California sea lions are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means they can not be killed but only humanely moved. However, thanks to the Marine Mammal Center, a decision was made as to how to approach the city’s unique faunal problem; it was a lucrative blessing in disguise.
We saw very quickly that it was a good thing," said Chandor in the same SFGate profile. "After talking to the Marine Mammal Center, we saw how we could keep it as a natural attraction, but still try to contain it."
Look no further than the viewing vantage points along the pier, the various pieces of merchandise, the numbers of tourists who flock daily to see them in action, and all the media (good and bad) surrounding these sardine-smelling beings as evidence of that.
SF's relationship with its doting, but headache-inducing, sea lions is layered — and, likely, will continue to evolve in the decades to come.
For the days where tackling the tourist trap that is Fisherman's Wharf is just too much, you can always view the endearing sea creatures via Pier 39’s Sea Lion Webcam.
Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons