The Pier 39 Sea Lions Haven’t Always Been There
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If you grew up in California, but not in the Bay Area, it is likely that some of your earliest memories of San Francisco involve visiting Pier 39.
And whether you enjoyed or feared wildlife, it’s likely that you remember seeing the sea lions.
I assumed they’d always been there, like a lot of things that made a big impression on me as a child. I figured for as long as the pier had been there, there had also been the marine beasts, lounging and yelling “arf” repeatedly at passers-by.
But recently, I learned that the sea lions have not always been the fixtures they are today.
Sheila Chandor, Pier 39’s longtime harbor master, told me she took the job in 1985 believing it would largely entail running the pier’s roughly 300-slip marina. “Property management,” essentially, she said.
Then, one day just about 30 years ago, that changed.
It was December 1989, she recalled, when she first saw a sea lion, “a big guy,” resting on the pier’s K-Dock. Someone nicknamed him Flea Collar, because he had some fishing line wrapped around his neck, which isn’t uncommon.
“My media director at the time turned to me and said, ‘Do you think this is going to be a thing?’” Ms. Chandor recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”
That proved incorrect.
At the height of their first big descent, Ms. Chandor estimated there were roughly 1,400 animals at one point.
“It was this heaving mass of sea lions,” she said.
This was just after the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the region. Tourism was essentially nonexistent.
So Ms. Chandor said the sea lions’ sudden appearance made waves. It was a feel-good story in a moment, she said, when the region needed it.
In the decades since, tourism at the privately run development has rebounded. According to the company’s website, about 15 million people visit the pier every year, and well more than half of all visitors to the city.
And the sea lions have stayed. Their numbers vary by season; they’re almost all male animals and in the warmer months, they trek down the coast to the Channel Islands, where the females are, for mating. In some years there are more than 1,000 sea lions in the peak season, from late summer to early spring.
That has meant Ms. Chandor and her staff have become de facto stewards of a kind of sea lion colony. She said they’ve taken steps to ensure they’re unbothered by tourists, and she’s been rewarded with opportunities to observe them up close.
“They have personalities,” Ms. Chandor said. “They’re smarter than dogs.”
Adam Ratner, who leads conservation education for the Marine Mammal Center, said the sea lions eat the kinds of fish — herring, sardines, mackerel — that are plentiful in the Bay. Its structure provides natural shelter from predators.
“I joke that the reasons the sea lions are at Pier 39 are the same reasons the people are,” he said. “A lot of food.”
And while climate-change-driven shifts in the Pacific, like ocean acidification, are threats broadly to marine life, Mr. Ratner told me that efforts to clean the San Francisco Bay have made significant progress.
Still, their migration is somewhat mysterious. Warming oceans have pushed their food supply, which prefers colder water, farther from land, which means they may have to travel longer distances to eat.
In theory, the sea lions could disappear just as suddenly as they arrived.
What would happen if they did?
“That’s the No. 1 thing that keeps us awake at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Ms. Chandor said. “So far, so good.”
Here’s what else we’re following
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Representative Kevin McCarthy has found his voice in impeachment — speaking for the president. [The New York Times]
Representative Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor in the case to convict and remove President Trump, started oral arguments on Wednesday. Catch up here. [The New York Times]
Also: Here’s what 81 Americans across the nation, including in California, had to say about impeachment. [The New York Times]
Senator Bernie Sanders is set to open a campaign office in Bakersfield. [The Bakersfield Californian]
Also: Listen to this episode of The Daily, about Mr. Sanders’s big bet on Latino voters — starting in California. [The New York Times]
Pacific Gas & Electric announced that it had reached a deal to exit bankruptcy. But Gov. Gavin Newsom said it didn’t do enough to make sure that the company could deliver “safe, reliable and affordable power” to its customers. [The New York Times]
Also, PG&E released a plan to limit its pre-emptive power outages this year. But clean energy groups have concerns about how it would work. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
Lunar New Year travel is the world’s biggest migration. A virus outbreak in China has prompted the authorities to close off Wuhan, a massive city, upending travel plans and prompting companies to worry about losses during a critically lucrative time of year. [The New York Times]
A man who came to the U.S. as a refugee was deported to Cambodia, even after a judge said he could stay temporarily. [The Sacramento Bee]
A six-mile evacuation zone was established and schools in Taft were told to shelter in place after a chemical spill at a manufacturing plant. [Taft Midway Driller]
A loudspeaker that was part of a residential building’s security system appeared to be profiling people standing outside based on their race and income. A voice told people who appeared poor that the police had been called. But following reports of neighbors’ concerns, the loudspeaker is no more. [Mission Local]
Twitter told Clearview AI to stop using the site’s photos in its facial recognition [The New York Times]
If you missed it, read about Clearview AI, a secretive start-up, with backers including Peter Thiel, that could end privacy as we know it. [The New York Times]
The University of California, Los Angeles topped The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings for public schools in the West, while Caltech was the top private school. Both lists were dominated by California schools. [The Wall Street Journal]
The 900-acre Pismo Preserve and its 11 miles of hiking trails are set to open on Jan. 25. [The Tribune]
A Los Angeles woman talks about quitting her car. (Spoiler: It’s possible!) It’s one of 21 stories about walking away. [The New York Times]
And Finally …
This week, East Asian communities around the state will start ringing in the Year of the Rat with festivals, parades and mind-boggling quantities of food.
The San Francisco Chronicle made this guide to Northern California’s diverse — and expanding — array of regional Chinese cuisines. And The Mercury News has this list of two dozen events in the Bay Area.
The Orange County Register reported that celebrations in Southern California are evolving, including the Tet festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. (Speaking from experience, you’ll want to wear your eating pants.)
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.
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