Taking the lion’s share of docks

There must be something in the water because the sea lions are making an epic splash this year.

More than 1,500 are piled on top of each other on the docks at Pier 39. That’s not only a record-breaking number of the massive creatures at the pier, it’s also three times more than normal. And it’s not just at the pier, it’s up and down the coast.

Researchers at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County are scratching their heads at the numbers.

The population and food sources have increased, center spokesman Jim Oswald said. “But we really don’t know ultimately what’s driving them to go to one particular area and not go to another,” he said.

The mega mammals are big on anchovy, sardines, herring and squid, according to Oswald.

“The current run of anchovies has a lot of them hanging out in some areas in greater numbers than we’ve grown used to,” center Executive Director Jeff Boehm said.

That saltwater ceviche, however, wasn’t around when the sea lions needed it a few months ago.

There are about 255,000 California sea lions and about 59,000 of them were born this year in the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. But when it came time for the animals to leave the area, an ocean upwell had sucked away the fish that would have sustained the sea lions.

Since May, the Marine Mammal Center has rescued some 1,200 of the creatures, many starving. Only about 20 percent survived.

“We were inundated with all these young sea lions that were so malnourished. Many, many died,” Oswald said.

Meanwhile, Pier 39 is accommodating the influx of animals by installing more docks.

The manager at two restaurants that overlook the barking pinnipeds said there are now so many that they are even propping themselves up against boats and other docks.

“They’re all just piled on top of each other. I kind of feel sorry for them,” said Nick Gonzalez, who manages Neptune’s Palace and the Sea Lion Cafe.

With the increase in numbers, the marine center is preparing for a busy rescue season and has more than 800 volunteers for its triage centers. Since August, the marine center has picked up about 80 sea lions for things like being malnourished and broken fins.

More changes could be afoot if El Niño comes to the coast. The periodic winter warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean can bring storms to the Bay Area. That, in turn, could disrupt the natural flow of the mammals’ food chain, Oswald said.

“We’re definitely bracing for it,” he said.

California sea lions

Facts about the iconic animals:

  • Latin Name: Zalophus californianus
  • Meaning: With crest and of California
  • Colors: Chocolate brown for males and lighter, golden brown for females
  • Males can reach 1,000 pounds in weight and 7 feet in length
  • Females usually grow to 220 pounds in weight and up to 6 feet in length
  • They can be found from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico
  • They commonly float in groups called “rafts”

    Source: Marine Mammal Center

    kkelkar@sfexaminer.com
     

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