Corn dogs. Cotton candy. Caricature artists. It’s all at Pier 39–San Francisco’s nonstop carnival for the last 35 years.
It was tempting, but I kept walking past the churro stand and carousel to the railing at the back of the pier. Sunlight glinted on the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge was visible in the distance, but I didn’t linger. What I wanted to see was around the corner and I could already hear the barking and yelping.
I had to wait a few minutes for a spot to open up next to the railing, almost every person with a camera pointed toward the California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). About twenty feet away was a wooden float with fifteen or so of the huge marine mammals napping, flipper to flipper.
They haven’t always been at Pier 39, but began to show up a few months after the October 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake that crumpled a portion of the Bay Bridge and disrupted a World Series game at Candlestick Park. That was more than twenty-three years ago and no one knows for sure if the two events were related.
K-Dock was originally a boat dock when the pinnipeds took up residence, but over time the boats were relocated and the sea lions were allowed to stay. With a ready source of herring and other food available in the bay and none of their predators, great white sharks and Orcas, present it has become a favorite spot for the males to hang out. The females tend to stay near their breeding grounds in the Channel Islands.
While I stood at the rail juggling my camera and recorder trying not to drop either in the water, a constant stream of visitors flowed around me. A breeze kept the strong fishy smell at bay.
Two youngsters, judging by their size, hauled up into the group of sleeping adults, ignoring several empty floats just a few feet away. They shook themselves dry, shoving and biting each other. The napping sea lions barked in protest, rolled over, and soon the two juveniles were back in the water, chasing each other around the bay.
Pier 39 provides a twenty-four hour sea lion webcam and if you scroll to the bottom of this article on the Marine Mammal Center’s website you can also get a sense of what it sounds like out on the west side of the pier. The only thing missing is the smell!