2,000 Sea Lions Set Record in San Francisco


The number of visitors to San Francisco has not rebounded to its prepandemic level — not among humans, anyway. Sea lions, on the other hand, are swimming to the city in higher numbers than ever recorded.

This week, sea lion counters — yes, they exist — tallied 2,000 of the whiskered, blubbery creatures in the water alongside Pier 39 on the city’s northern edge. That’s 600 more than the previous record of 1,400 set in the early 1990s, according to Sheila Chandor, who has been the harbor master at Pier 39 since 1985.

“They’re not buying the doom loop!” Ms. Chandor said with a laugh, referring to the theory circulated by detractors that San Francisco is on the verge of ruin. “We have been truly overrun.”

Adam Ratner, a sea lion expert at the Marine Mammal Center across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, described the surge as “truly remarkable.” He said his group tallied a record of 1,701 sea lions in 2009.

“Every dock is full,” he said. “It’s quite the sight, quite the sound and quite the smell.”

The animals were initially drawn to a large school of anchovies just outside the Golden Gate Bridge, though it is not clear what has kept them around, Ms. Chandor said. The sea lions, in turn, have attracted flocks of tourists and locals alike.

When the onlookers arrive, they are greeted with the deafening sound of 2,000 heavyweights grunting, growling, snoring, splashing and chanting, “Arf, arf, arf!” — all of which makes for an unforgettable city soundtrack.

Pier 39 is one of the most popular tourist spots in San Francisco, situated near one end of Fisherman’s Wharf with a carousel, T-shirt shops and restaurants famous for their sourdough bowls of clam chowder. In a stroke of genius, Pier 39 officials installed wooden floats more than three decades ago to serve as a rest stop for curious sea lions.

But there simply is not enough space these days. There are far too many sea lions to fit on the floats, and on a recent afternoon the marine mammals repeatedly piled on top of each other and pushed each other off.

Others have taken to lounging on docks farther away, one of which has already begun to sink under the burden of the 800-pound behemoths. Ms. Chandor said her team had to turn off the fresh water supply to a dock because the lumbering sea lions damaged the faucets and sent the water gushing.

Julian De La Cruz, 36, rode the ferry from his home in Vallejo, Calif., just to check out the bountiful beasts.

“I love them,” he said, showing his baby and toddler the sea lions for the first time. “They’re part of San Francisco, part of California. People travel from all over the world to see these guys.”

Erica Schmierer, 31, lives just a few miles away in the Castro District of San Francisco, but had never ventured to Pier 39 until this week, when she was hosting an out-of-town friend. Locals often consider the pier a tourist trap.

“I always thought this was just a carousel and shopping,” she said. “I didn’t know there were 2,000 sea lions in my backyard.”

As San Francisco struggles to recover from the pandemic, which battered its tourism industry and hollowed out its downtown, the sea lions have been a big plus. It mirrors the sea lions’ arrival in early 1990, a few months after a devastating earthquake in 1989 that similarly brought tourism to a halt.

The first sea lions threw themselves on the docks back then, causing damage and angering boat owners who couldn’t reach their vessels, recalled Ms. Chandor, the harbor master. So the Pier 39 staff decided to build the wood floats, and an overlook for gawking tourists. The animals have been a regular presence in varying numbers ever since.

There are currently 250,000 sea lions off the coast of California, and most of them breed in the Channel Islands near Los Angeles. Every spring, the females stay there to have their pups while the males swim off in search of food, some traveling as far north as Alaska.

This year, more males than ever have found a refueling station at Pier 39, but the mothers and babies down south have suffered. Researchers have reported seeing hundreds of dead sea lion pups wash ashore, apparently born too early to survive.

Researchers consider the current population of sea lions to be healthy overall, but they are studying the pups’ premature births, which they believe are the result of climate change and the rising temperature of the ocean, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Warmer water has led fish to swim farther from the sea lions’ breeding grounds, which has forced pregnant sea lions to swim farther to reach them and keep their pups healthy.

The dads, though, seem to be doing just fine. Maybe too well, Ms. Chandor said.

She said the males will probably leave in a couple of weeks to swim back down south, and she hopes the numbers will not increase in the meantime. The pier, she said, has reached its sea lion capacity.

“Everybody loves a feel-good animal story,” she said. “But it will literally go from sublime to ridiculous in a very short time.”

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