Thursday, October 8, 2009

Record Number of Sea Lions at Pier 39

They are a mass of honking, brown, wriggly bodies that are one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco. And there's never been more of them.

At the latest count, San Francisco's famous sea lion colony at Pier 39 has grown to a record 1,585. Six new sea lion floats, originally

intended as replacements, have just been put in the dock to join the approximate 34 floats that were already there.

Even then, almost every square inch of pontoon was covered yesterday afternoon. The seals jostled, tussled and flopped over each other amusing visitors, their hoarse barks competing with the roar of the Blue Angels on a practice for one of the city's flagship events, Fleet Week.

Harbor Master, Sheila Chandor, describes the increased herd size as an 'anomaly.'

'Usually during this time of the year, we typically have only a few smaller sea lions on the docks, as the larger males head south to mate,' she says.

The Marine Mammal Center who help care for the animals are also scratching their heads in puzzlement and knuckling down to some research. One answer could be the food supply, especially anchovies.

'Earlier this year, we saw a record number of yearling sea lions strand as a result of an abrupt change in the classic upwelling pattern - the replacement of warm surface water by cold water from ocean depths - which caused their food sources to shift further off shore,' says Jeff Boehm, Executive Director.

'Now, the older sea lions that are out there are seeking food wherever they can find it, and the current run of anchovies has a lot of them hanging out in some areas in greater numbers than we’ve grown used to.'

The sea lions began to gather in K-dock in January 1990, just months after the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for which 20th Anniversary celebrations are due to start in the city on Tuesday.

'These boisterous barking pinnipeds numbered from 10 to 50, but due to a plentiful herring supply, available dock space and a protective environment, the population grew to more than 300 within a couple of months. The Pier 39 sea lions have since become an international sensation,' says the Harbor Master.

Sue Muzzin, Director of Public Relations & Advertising for Pier 39 and a former San Franciscan journalist with Newstalk Radio, remembers their arrival.

'They just took to San Francisco,' she said. The Pier weren't certain how to deal with them but local people kept calling to say 'don't get rid of them!' So the Harbor Master moved boats to the other side of the dock and Pier 39 created an environment for them.

Today, Sue says, they are a 'wonderfully special entity.'

With her office door open, she can hear them barking, and every day sees people looking at them, laughing and taking photos.

The sea lions are not only lovable, they are an economic boom. 'The merchants love them,' said Sue, not only for themselves but because they bring in many tourists. When business in the city suffered terribly as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the sea lions turned Pier 39 into a spot of prosperity.

'They were such a positive part of a depressing story,' she said.

This year, as a result of the credit crunch, Pier 39 is having a 'softer' year financially, but the attraction of the sea lions is undiminished. There is a good number of tourists, they are simply not spending so much.

Even many locals join the free Local Advantage Club with savings on attractions and shops, and make three to five trips a year there.

Linda, on holiday with her husband and twin children from Central Scotland, is a perfect example of a sea lions fan. She has been coming to the city since 1991 and is now bringing her children.

'I just find it wonderful to come down here and see so many. It makes you wonder how it all started. What is the thing that makes them stay here?' she said.

'Every time I come to San Francisco, I come here. I think they're an iconic feature. It's been fascinating here today,' she added, referring to the sea lions and the airshow practice earlier when the Blue Angels had roared over their heads at Ghiradelli Square.

Five-year-old twins Alastair and Fiona were equally fascinated by the sea lions.

'They're funny!' said Fiona.

'They're very poo-ey!' said Alastair!

For more info on the sea lions and to watch a live webcam:

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