Mystery surrounds exodus of Pier 39 sea lions

The desolate docks near Pier 39 where up to 1,700 sea lions congregated just months ago has people wondering where the animals went.

It was late summer that the increase in the number of the sea lions — at least triple what is typically at the tourist hotspot — led to the installation of extra docks for the animals to lounge on. The sea lions also started occupying nearby Hyde Street commercial docks, leading the Port of San Francisco to install 200 feet of mesh fencing about 3-feet high to keep them away.

Then, the sea lions started to leave.

The exodus began at the end of October. The animals typically head out of San Francisco Bay during fall and winter months and can be spotted along the coastline up to Oregon — their usual migration route. They turn around and start resurfacing in the Bay around March, said Jeff Boehm, executive director of the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center.

“It’s not a mystery that these animals come in and out of the Bay,” he said. “What’s mysterious is the extreme numbers this year.”

There has been no explanation for the dramatic swings in the number of sea lions at the pier, according to the Marine Mammal Center. The exodus has left people pondering why there are only a handful of the animals now, a time when there are typically a couple dozen at the site.

Boehm said the herd is likely to return by the spring — as usual — which has Port officials thinking about what to do with the barricades to keep them off Hyde Street Pier.

“To tell you the truth, we don’t have a plan for the barricades yet — they’re still up,” Port spokeswoman Renee Martin said. “Normally this time of year, the numbers drop significantly … but they’re never at Hyde Street Pier.”

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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