The Pier 39 Sea Lions Haven’t Always Been There

The Pier 39 Sea Lions Haven’t Always Been There

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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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.”

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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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