What happened to the sea lions in San Francisco?

by Heather Dugan on March 15, 2010

The sea lions of Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

Not seeing themselves for the tourist attraction they’ve come to be, the sea lions of Pier 39 simply rolled over, splashed into the Pacific and swam away.

At first no one even knew where they went. One of San Francisco’s landmarks had simply vanished. The protective signs posted around Pier 39 seemed ironic at best. Staring down at the vacated wooden floats from the surrounding docks would have been akin to peering into a football stadium the morning after a big game. Some sea lion debris remained, but the sounds and smells, and the star players themselves, were notably absent.

The mystery was finally solved in February from five hundred miles up the coast. Apparently, some lion had a hankering for anchovies and almost the whole assemblage had paddled their way up to Oregon for pizza toppings, minus the pizza.  Not so different from driving across town for the better burger or doing a wine country tour — some delicacies are simply worth a little travel time.

But what about the quiet at deserted Pier 39? Of 1,700 animals, less than two dozen remained — only the non-believers and youngsters who, apparently, couldn’t fathom such a land of plenty just up the coastline and were content to loll about in their expanded personal space.

A few sea lions have now returned; 63 were counted just two weeks ago. A virtual crowd compared to the fifteen to twenty stalwarts that lingered alone through December and January. What might bring more of the popular San Franciscans back?  Herring would help. Diminished numbers of the fish are believed to be the cause of the great sea lion exodus. The hope is that, just as the need for food took them north, it will bring them back to San Francisco Bay again in time for spring.

Fortunately, there is still plenty to see and do at Pier 39 in the meantime. Check out the San Francisco Carousel, handcrafted in Italy and appointed with local landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Coit Tower.  Or visit the Aquarium of the Bay where kids can pop up into a bubble within a tank with giant pacific octopus.  And by all means, hang out by the docks to welcome the Pier 39 seal lions upon their return!

The Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf is just one of several Fisherman’s Wharf hotels within walking distance of Pier 39. It features a palm-lined pool and an outdoor bar and makes a great home base for waterfront fun.

- Heather Dugan of Footsteps

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