The ‘Guests From Hell’ : Sea Lions Have Quickly Worn Out Their Welcome on San Francisco’s Waterfront


When the first dozen sea lions began hanging around a dock near Fisherman’s Wharf six weeks ago, merchants and marina officials were delighted with the rowdy, all-male herd.

The sea lions, which frolic most of the day in the water or sun themselves on one of Pier 39’s six boat docks, quickly became immensely popular with tourists, who had avoided the area’s shops and restaurants since the Oct. 17 earthquake.

“A natural phenomenon took all of our business away and a natural phenomenon brought it back,” said Anthony Worley, who said some of the five Pier 39 restaurants he oversees have seen business increase 20% to 40% since the sea lions arrived. Other retail establishments in the 120-shop complex report similar increases.


But now there are more than 300 of the smelly 700-pound beasts living on the pier’s K Dock, which caters to large sailboats and pleasure craft. They have damaged parts of the $2-million pier and chased away boat owners. And marina officials, who make most of their income from renting out slips to boat owners, fear that their uninvited guests may never leave.

It was a novelty, marina manager Sheila Chandor said, when there were only a few dozen sea lions. But now that hundreds of them defecate, urinate and regurgitate on the dock each day and then wallow in their mess, it has become a nightmare.

“We didn’t know that if you let them get a flipper in the door, there’s no stopping them,” Chandor said. “They’re like guests from hell. They overstayed their welcome. They keep everyone awake with their personal habits and their partying, and they smell bad.”

But, she added, “everyone loves them and no one knows how to get rid of them.”

While sea lions have “hauled out” on the docks near Fisherman’s Wharf before, they had never numbered more than 20 or 30. Marine mammal specialists are not certain why so many suddenly converged on one of San Francisco’s top tourist spots, though they have a theory.

Scientists suspect that the mass gathering resulted from a combination of two factors: an exceptionally large herring run into San Francisco Bay, and a population explosion that has occurred since sea lions became a protected species in 1972.

The sea lions, who once were hunted nearly to extinction for their pelts, now number about 87,000 along the California coast, according to scientists.

The sea lion problem is not confined to San Francisco. They have invaded the marina in Monterey, causing some damage to it. And in Seattle, they have decimated the salmon run at a canal leading from Puget Sound to Lake Washington. Washington officials are so irate at the sea lions that they have asked the federal government for approval to deport them to the California coast.

Since the arrival of the sea lions in San Francisco, all of K Dock’s tenants have moved their vessels.

“It’s pretty intimidating to be surrounded by that many wild animals. (Tenants) had to run the gantlet just to get to their boats,” said Chandor, who recently stopped allowing tourists past the dock’s gate after a sea lion lunged at one of them. “(Tourists) think they’re big fat puppy dogs--we even caught one guy climbing over the gate with a bag of dog food.”

But nearby residents aren’t as enthralled with the mammals. One man living about a mile away on Telegraph Hill has threatened to sue the pier owners because of the nocturnal bellowing by the sea lions.

After the electrical and telephone hookups for ships moored in K Dock were badly damaged by several hundred sea lions bouncing on the dock, Chandor began searching for ways to “passively” let the animals know they had worn out their welcome. But because they are a protected species, Chandor must be careful not to wound or hurt a sea lion while trying to chase it away.

Brad Hanson, a biologist from the Los Angeles office of the National Maritime Fisheries Service who is advising pier officials, expects that two factors--hunger and the mating season--should soon solve the dock’s dilemma.

Hanson said it is likely that most of the sea lions will follow the herring migration out of the bay in the next two weeks. The remaining sea lions probably will forsake the pier in time for their mating season next month near the Channel Islands, off the coast from Ventura and Santa Barbara, he said.

“Their biological clock is telling them to get on down to the Channel Islands if they want to participate in the breeding,” Hanson said.

But he added that the sea lions may return in late summer when the mating season ends.

Meanwhile, the tourists can’t get enough of the playful beasts. Several hundred people continue to gather daily by K Dock.

“They’re unbelievable,” said Janice Flanagan, who saw the sea lions on television at her home in Fort Scott, Kan., and immediately made travel plans for San Francisco. “This is the chance of a lifetime.”

Flanagan was among a crowd of about 100 who gathered next to Pier 39 to gawk, giggle, videotape or even bellow back at the sea lions on a recent sunny weekday.

At one point, the crowd became excited when two large sea lions on the dock began playing a version of king of the hill. Someone dubbed one of the contestants “Iron Mike Tyson” and the other “Buster Douglas.” Spectators began chanting for their favorite. Unlike the outcome in the recent heavyweight boxing match between their namesakes, “Tyson” won this contest, much to the satisfaction of his fans.

Even Chandor, despite having spent the past month trying to get rid of the sea lions, admits to her fondness for them.

“I love these guys. They’re cute and funny,” Chandor said. “But they don’t pay rent.”