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SF celebrates 26 years of sea lions making a splash at Pier 39

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Sea lions gather in numbers on floating piers below the walkway of San Francisco tourist attraction Pier 39 Tuesday, January 5, 2016. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

They arrived like a “slippery army,” hoisting their 500-pound bodies onto newly renovated 70-foot docks meant for fishing boats at Pier 39, and feasted off a seasonal plethora of San Francisco Bay herring, their favorite “delicacy.”

No one knew how long they’d stay. But 26 years later, they’re still here.

The influx of sea lions at Pier 39 was first detailed by the San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 25, 1990, in a caption beneath a photo of the barking aquatic mammals printed on the paper’s “Neighborhood Report” page. According to the caption, “hundreds of spectators” lined up daily to catch a glimpse Pier 39’s latest tourist attraction.

Today, hundreds of visitors still make the trip each day to Pier 39’s K dock, where harbor officials long ago replaced the renovated boat piers with floating docks designed specifically to accommodate thousands of pounds of sea lions at a given time.

“They’re here by choice,” Sheila Chandor, Pier 39’s harbor master, emphasized of the sea lions. “Sometimes we get tourists saying, ‘When do you let them out?’ We have to say, ‘This is a natural event that occurred. They hauled out here.’”

The term “hauled out” refers to when sea lions or other pinnipeds temporarily leave the water. But at Pier 39, their visit is anything but temporary.

“We got one, and then a few more came,” said Chandor. “Within two months we were up to 600. It was an incredible acceleration.”

Pier 39 began coordinating with the Marine Mammal Center to protect the animals in early 1990, when it was clear they weren’t going anywhere. That means mid-January is the official anniversary of the arrival of the sea lions — a significant milestone for those who work near the pier and see and hear the barking mammals each day.

“It changed most of our lives here in the marina,” Chandor said. “Our crew have had to incorporate washing down sea lion docks and rescuing injured sea lions — a lot of things that weren’t in their original job description, which has certainly made it more interesting and fun.”

Around a decade ago, Pier 39 even hired a full-time sea lion herder whose sole job is to walk the docks and keep the curious creatures off the boats. The mammals are fairly intelligent — they have bigger brains than dogs — and have even gotten to know the herder.

“The sea lion herder has to play a game of hide and seek with them,” Chandor said with a laugh, referring to how sea lions hide until they think the herder has left, then return to a surface from which they’ve just been shooed away. “It just gets to be a cat and mouse game.”

Chandor recalled that when the sea lions first made their uninvited appearance at Pier 39, in late 1989 shortly after the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, some initially thought the sea lions arrived because of the earthquake — though it turned out the timing of the temblor and sea lions was merely a coincidence.

Jonathan Stern, a biology lecturer at San Francisco State University who has studied marine mammals for decades, said there are likely several reasons why the pinnipeds showed up at Pier 39.

Perhaps most noteworthy, the animals were afforded federal protection from harassment and killing in 1972, per the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That allowed sea lion populations to not only recover but flourish along the California coast.

Additionally, environmental advocacy groups like Save the Bay began urging a cleanup of the Bay and laws to prevent contamination in the 1960s, making for a more pleasant home for sea lions, Stern noted.

And then, of course, easy-to-access docks at Pier 39 appeared for the sea lions, creating a perfect storm of opportunity for the creatures to find a new place to haul out.

“I don’t think there’s one real answer,” said Stern. “Sea lions just took advantage of the space. They used to haul out on Seal Rock by the Cliff House, [but] Seal Rock is a difficult place to haul out with the waves and the swells crashing against the rock. Pier 39 just offered an easier place to haul out.”

The number of sea lions fluctuates throughout the year, with the summer months typically seeing the least because that’s when many head to Southern California to mate. An all-time record number of sea lions — 1,701 — was counted at the K docks in November 2009.

And rain didn’t stop the sea lions from hauling out to the docks on a recent Tuesday.

“We’ve seen [sea lions] before, in New Zealand, and it was really cute. We wanted to have the same experience again,” said Yesim Korman, 39, who had traveled to San Francisco from Istanbul, Turkey, with her husband Gunkut.

For the couple, a visit to the sea lions was high up on their list of San Francisco landmarks to see, along with Alcatraz Island, Chinatown, the Castro and Haight-Ashbury.

“They’re cute,” Yesim Korman said with a laugh as the sea lions barked in the background, “but loud.”

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