Friday, May 21, 2010

Sea Lions of Fisherman's Wharf Celebrate 20th Anniversary and Welcome Home Party!

The most popular question the public ask about the sea lions is, 'what do you feed them?' said Ann Bower at the Welcome Home and 20th Anniversary party at Pier 39 today.

Of course, the answer is that the sea lions feed themselves! she said. Ann is Director of Education at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, and has been working with Pier 39 ever since the sea lions arrived.
(pic left, with Kathy Paver, Marketing Senior Vice-President with Pier 39)

Another often-asked question is, what caused the sea lions to pick this particular spot, and what causes them to stay?

'No-one's asked them, they haven't told us!' said Ann, but she would offer three answers: the dock is comfortable with floats laid down, sheltered by a harbour wall, and they don't have to swim far for their food.

She was there this morning with other members of the center including Executive Director Jeff Boehm, members of Pier 39, Harbourmaster Sheila Chandor, and staff of Aquarium of the Bay. All were there to share the celebrations of the return of the sea lions and their 20th anniversary with several hundred members of the public.

Alongside, about 200 sea lions paticipated noisily as free hats, Coca Cola and Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water were handed out, along with pieces of a lavish party cake and chocolate cup cakes.

Why are the sea lions so endearingly popular? she was asked by Jan, a freelance radio journalist. 'Because people see something of themselves in them,' she said, adding that she thinks people 'just like big mammals,' evidenced also by the popularity of whales and elephants.

How would she describe sea lions? 'Gregarious, boisterous, enjoying being next to each other...fat and sassy!'

When it comes to being next to each other, anyone who has stood on the pier and watched is struck by not just by 'next to each other' but 'on top of each other!' Yesterday, there were empty rafts galore because of the mass exodus last fall, so the sea lions could each have commanded their own territory, but there they were, stashed and heaped as ever on a few rafts.

'Sack of potatoes,' said Ann. The secret lies in the word 'thigmotactic' - 'you've got to have a lot of letters to get it in scrabble!' The first part, 'thigmo' stems from Greek and means 'to touch'. The second part means 'movement' or 'arranging in order.'

Sea lions are not happy bunnies?!!! unless they touch each other as they flip flop and snoooze, bask and play.

Mostly!  It was noticeable that when the band struck up their equally boisterous tunes, trumpeting and oompahing and drumming out songs like 'Popeye the Sailor Man!' from the top of the pier, that the sea lions responded.

Was it imagination, or did the sea lions really sway, and they did seem particularly lively. Were they catching an air of excitement and responding?

They were not used to the music, said Ann, and were making some response to an unfamiliar sound, but generally more excited? This made her chuckle. There was another reason! Breeding season is approaching, the time when every full-blooded, testosterone-packed male readies himself. Soon, they will migrate south to the Channel Islands, off the south coast of California, and conquer - leaving only 'young juveniles or old boys too tired to care!' Kathy Paver added in her interview. (previous blog)

Which comes back to the touching. Stolid, and proud and alone sat a bruiser of a black sea lion who had elicited squeals of delight from a group of schoolchildren as another sea lion attempted to scramble onto his empty float, and was knocked back into the sea. Some 800 lbs of solid sea lion practising marking out his territory in readiness for a summer of love.

Also there in the colony were small sea lions, but they were not pups, said Ann, rather one-year-olds and maybe some two-year-olds.

And there is always a question about the difference between sea lions and seals:  sea lions have little brown ear-flaps and long, front flippers.

Sea lions are migratory creatures, but the extent of last year's ebb and flow took even the Marine Mammal Center and Pier 39 staff by surprise, said Jeff Boehm, Executive Director of the center. The animals are  'opportunistic feeders'  he said, and 'clearly something changed' but they could not be sure of the whole picture.

Jeff has been quoted in the media as saying that anchovies and sardines attracted a record-sized herd of 1,701 to haul out in K-Dock last October, and that low herring supplies caused an equally dramatic exodus after Thanksgiving. But yesterday, he said while these were factors, it was not necessarily the whole answer.

Many of the sea lions swum north to the Sea Lion Caves in Oregon. Could their return here be linked to overcrowding there? It was possible, he said. Sea lions are dynamic and will simply find food.

After cutting the anniversary cake, Jeff was thrilled with the party and seeing, he said, the excitement that people had being around wild animals. Pier 39 was a 'significant urban center' and also offered a 'significant opportunity' to encourage people to care about animals and the environment, he also said.

Visiting the city for a few days from Tampa, Florida, were friends Richard and Jan. 'We just came to look at the sea lions. We had no clue about party cake!' said Jan. This was her first trip to the city, and Richard's, the first for 20 years.

'I think they're great!' said Jan, of the sea lions.

Sitting on the pier was Shari with her five-year-old son, Miles.

'I've been keeping up with them. I grew up in San Francisco, and it's good to see them back,' she said.

Shari remembers their arrival, three months after the Loma Prieta earthquake in October, 1989. She also remembers the day of the quake. She was on her way upstairs when the house shook, and her aunt had crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland just minutes before a section of it collapsed.

Miles, too, was excited with the sea lions and their party.

Had he known there was a party? 'Yes!'

Did he like the sea lions? 'Yes!'

Did he like the cake? 'Yes!'

It was a positive day all round!

Entertainment continued on the pier with traditonal fun with Scott, one of their street performers, and Salty. New to the scene with a digital twist was Prasant Mohapatra, Co-Founder of Mapiz, a free 'app' with a 'Save the Sea Lions' game.

Players save the sea lions from dangers ranging from environmental to killer whales and sharks, and each day at 9 pm a winner is awarded two free tickets for rides on the Rocket Boat in the bay.


The start-up company provides location-based gaming, and Pier 39 are only their third customer. Mapiz.com also sends out 'near casts' - info to people in close range letting them know, for example, that a party is happening on Pier 39!

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