San Francisco’s Most Blubbery & Boisterous Residents: The Sea Lions of Pier 39

They occupy prime San Francisco real estate overlooking Alcatraz and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. But the lackadaisical California sea lions of Pier 39 don’t seem to be entranced by the sweeping vistas in their neighborhood. Instead, the boisterous mammals pass their days by barking, pushing their neighbors off the dock (to maximize lounging space), and doing upward-dog like yoga poses for the mob of tourists that come to watch them each day at Fisherman’s Wharf.

During our first trip to the lovely ‘city by the bay’ in the summer of 2010, we did not have enough time to make the mammals’ acquaintance. So earlier this summer, when we road-tripped to San Francisco to renew our passports, we made it a priority to do so.

Pushing through a cluster of human bodies similar to the colony resting on the docks across from us, we had our first sighting of the animals. The leaders of the pack soon introduced themselves to their human audience. One grandfather-like character barked loudly, contorting his rotund body into poses that drew laughs from the crowd.

Shortly thereafter, a sea lion bully bumped a neighbor lion off his plot of land, plunging the slumbering fellow into the chilly water. The crowd giggled, capturing the disappearing fin, and the kerplunk caused by the dunked sea lion.

With one mammal overboard, the crowd became fixated on another docile sea lion lounging on the same dock as a sea lion that had just returned from a dip in the water.

The bully approached the animal, but instead of booting it off the dock, he gave it a kiss-like nudge. The crowd oohed and aahed. The scene had a sweet ending.

For more than twenty years, these aromatic and animated critters have called Pier 39 home. It is uncertain why the sea lions, which previously frequented Seal Rock, have taken a liking to this stretch of real estate. But it’s believed that they feel more comfortable inside the Bay. At its largest, the Pier 39 sea lion population has swelled to more than 1,700.

California sea lions are native to western North America, and they live along the Pacific Ocean’s craggy coastline. The blubbery beasts can weigh up to almost 400 kg  (more than 900 pounds). Their fat helps insulate their bodies from the bitter, marine waters. Despite their corpulence, the sea lions can race up to 40 km (25 miles) an hour.

The carnivorous critters like to feast upon anchovies, sardines, squid, and shellfish. Females in the wild can live up to 30 years, whereas the males’ life expectancy is a bit less.

Alcatraz from Pier 39 San Francisco
Alcatraz, off in the distance.
Seagull on Pier 39, San Francisco
Salty the sea lion
Sea lion in San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lion in San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Tourists photographing California sea lions
California sea lions
California sea lions
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions in San Francisco
Sea lions in San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lions of San Francisco
Sea lion in San Francisco

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and a co-founder of Eloquence. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta, as well as Heidelberg, Germany. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

32 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Most Blubbery & Boisterous Residents: The Sea Lions of Pier 39

  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful images Tricia. I am so glad that they still keep the sea lions on Pier 39, I love those fellows, sometimes I can hear them from the beach I love close to, there is a entire “gang” sitting on a huge rock out in the ocean.

    1. Virginia, with your culinary talents, I bet you could replicate a lot of the delicious recipes too! What were some of your favorites? We were only in San Fran. for a day, but of course had to have a sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder – the perfect lunch on a chilly day.

    1. Madhu, I had the same question about the potential bite marks but couldn’t find any definite answers. The sea lions definitely exhibit a ‘tough love’ approach with each other, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the result of nibbles as they tried to commandeer prime lounging space. :)

    1. Many thanks, Rachael! It does seem as though we’ve hit many of the same spots this summer that you recommended earlier in the year. I’ve really enjoyed exploring some of the national parks here. Still so much more to explore!

    1. Kat, it took me a while to get to San Francisco too. During our first visit there in 2010, we were so focused on the trio you mentioned above, that we forgot to seek out these silly seals. I’m glad we saw them on our return trip. Still so much to explore in this quirky city! You’re right that the architecture is tremendous. Where do you call home?

      1. Northern Minnesota — a lot of beautiful outdoor hikes and beautiful scenic drives along the North Shore of Lake Superior. So much to see everywhere we go, right?!

      2. Ah, the land of 10,000 lakes… I haven’t been since I was a child, but I remember it as being quite pretty. You’re absolutely right – I think every corner of the world has something special to offer.

  2. I must have joined your blog party a wee too late to see this the first time around, so I’m happy you gave it a second run. They’re beautiful creatures, really, and you captured them so well here Tricia. I suppose mid-Michigan’s version of this is the turkey’s at my nature center – one of which was “directing” traffic at a nearby intersection for a week or so last month, a bit like the superhero in the post that got me here. Ha!

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