In Oceanside Harbor, the sea lions are winning

Sea lions sit on a dock in Oceanside Harbor
Sea lions on their platform at the Oceanside Harbor.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Special platform doesn’t always keep pinnipeds off the docks


Sea lions have their own special place at the Oceanside Harbor, but it’s not enough.

Harbor employees built a platform for the sea lions several years ago in an effort to keep them off the boat docks. But the sea lions and the occasional harbor seal can go where they want, and nothing requires them to stay on their floating “island.”

Recently, the city modified the sea lion platform to make it more accommodating by making an opening in the center to allow sea lions to enter at the middle. They also added some space and moved the platform closer to shore. But the pinniped problem persists.

Harbor visitors love to watch the sea lions and seals, which often sun themselves on their platform or on the rocks and docks around the harbor. But to many boat owners, especially those who live aboard their vessels, the marine mammals can be a loud, stinky nuisance. They bark, urinate, defecate and regurgitate, leaving a malodorous trail wherever they gather.


“I had an email from somebody who was afraid to disembark her boat in the middle of the night to use the restroom because the seals are so aggressive,” said Steve Ford, a boat owner and member of the Oceanside Harbor and Beaches Advisory Committee, at the committee’s November meeting.

Attacks are rare, but the woman’s fear is not unwarranted. In 2015, a sea lion grabbed the hand of a man holding a fish up for a photo on a boat and pulled him overboard into the Mission Bay channel. The sea lion held the man underwater for several seconds before he escaped with injuries to his hand and a foot.

But the animals are intelligent, vocal and easily trained. They have long been stars in shows at zoos and aquariums such as SeaWorld San Diego.

Part of the problem in Oceanside might be that people are feeding the sea lions, said committee Chairwoman Liz Rhea.

“They are inducing them to stay in the harbor instead of going out fishing,” she said, adding that the city should put up more signs advising people not to feed the wildlife.

The sea lion platform has helped with the problem at the northern end of the harbor, but the animals remain “very active on the docks” at the southern end, said committee member Michael Cobas.


Sometimes the sea lions, which can grow to be 7 feet long and up to 800 pounds, will climb onto the low steps at the stern of many pleasure boats and damage the steps or the boats.

Crew members on charter boats throw their leftover bait to the animals, Cobas said, which encourages them to hang around.

“We absolutely do not want anyone feeding any wildlife in the harbor,” said Harbor Division Manager Ted Schiafone. “It creates a population that can’t be fed by the normal environment. That’s something we don’t want to see.”

People should try to shoo the sea lions away when they show up where they don’t belong, Schiafone said.

“I tell people when you see them, bother them as much as you can,” he said. “Eventually, they will end up on this platform where nobody bothers them, and that’s the whole intention.”

Sea lions were hunted for their pelts to near extinction early in the previous century. They are still sometimes shot illegally by fishermen trying to protect their catch.


The species has been protected since 1972 by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and since then their population has steadily increased. The act specifies that the animals can’t be harmed, but shouts, noisemakers, water hoses and flashing lights are OK to keep them at a distance.

The population at the Oceanside Harbor fluctuates depending on the season and other factors. Sometimes the marine mammals congregate farther north or south. Lately, Oceanside’s numbers appear to be up again.

“It used to be that the seals would congregate on the bell buoy” near the harbor entrance, said committee member Carolyn Krammer. “Can something be built by the bell buoy ... and take them back where they wanted to be to begin with?”

That’s unlikely because the city doesn’t control the water outside the harbor, Schiafone said, and “to place anything out there anchored or attached would be an issue.”

The Oceanside Harbor gets both sea lions and seals, but the sea lions are more common. Sea lions are larger, more vocal and more aggressive than seals, and they can support themselves and walk on their front flippers.

Seals are shy, rarely bark, and can’t walk on on their flippers.

Diehl writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.