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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Smile for the Sea Lions

Air Date: Week of

There's a pier in San Diego where sea lions gathered which was thought a nuisance by the locals. But that attitude turned around when tourists also began to gather there to see the sea mammals up close. From San Diego, Jo Ann Mar visits southern California's latest tourist attraction.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When hundreds of sea lions invaded a San Francisco pier a few years ago, local business people thought they were a nuisance, possibly even a menace. Today the sea lions are still there and the business people are hardly complaining. The animals have become one of the city's biggest tourist attractions and business is booming. Jo Ann Mar has our story.

(Music and people celebrating and clapping)

MAR: Pier 39 is a typical tourist spot near San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. There are dozens of souvenir shops, hot dog and pretzel stands, and a carousel for children. All this hubbub of activity has been joined recently by hundreds of noisy and playful California sea lions sunning themselves and wrestling for position on the docks.

(Sea lions bark)

WIEZBOWSKI: It was a miracle. You know, we were all a little bit confused on what to do when they first started to arrive.

MAR: Restaurant manager Steve Wiezbowski recalls that this mostly male herd of sea lions took over Pier 39 soon after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

WIEZBOWSKI: The spirits were down, business was down significantly. As the sea lions appeared, they just -- the numbers grew and grew. We didn't know exactly why they came, but they started out as very few and ended up multiplying to up over three, four, five of them. They basically took the docks over out there.

(People milling)

MAR: No one knows why these reclusive wild animals settled in a busy urban area. One theory is that the docks at Pier 39 provide refuge from predators like sharks and killer whales. Another is that they were drawn by abundant quantities of herring that come to the bay to spawn every winter. Whatever the reason, when they first arrived, the sea lions were viewed as a nuisance according to Ann Bauer. She's the director of education with the Marine Mammal Center.

BAUER: There were thoughts of what could we do. There were suggestions by peoplewriting in of all sorts of things from mechanical sharks to shark sounds to killer whale sounds. But the pier chose to see if they could work with these new inhabitants of their dock and leave it for them, also thinking maybe it was a fluke and next year they'd be gone.

(Sea lions bark)

MAR: Instead the sea lions returned year after year and quickly went from being seen as a nuisance to being a boon. Business and tourist trade had dropped off dramatically following the Loma Prieta earthquake. Pam Lundquist, who owns 3 stores at the pier, says the sea lions soon brought tourists back.

LUNDQUIST: We joke around about it. Basically it was Mother Nature saying to us, I've given you a jolt and I shook things up for you but now I've brought you the sea lions and I'm balancing things out. They single-handedly brought so many people back to the city.

(Children gathered. Woman: "Okay, boys and girls. Does that look like a seal Children: "Yeah." Woman: "Well a lot of us think so, but I'm gonna teach you that this is a sea lion." Child: "A lion?" Woman: "A sea lion. Let me hear you say that." Children, shouting: "Sea lion!" Woman: "Oh! You guys are so good.")

MAR: The Marine Mammal Center has used the sea lions at Pier 39 as an opportunity to educate school children, tourists, and store owners. Restaurant owner Steve Wiezbowski says the sea lions took some getting used to, but Pier 39 merchants adjusted.

WIEZBOWSKI: My office is right out perched over the sea lions, and during the peak of their season in the winter time on a warm and sunny day, it's certainly a bit hard to do business with them barking out the windows.

MAR: But striking a balance that works for both people and the animals has also been a challenge. Ann Bauer with the Marine Mammal Center says her group is working with the pier to make sure the sea lions are not disturbed. Feeding the sea lions is strictly forbidden, and people are not allowed onto the docks to touch them.

BAUER: The problems haven't been the sea lions, they've been people trying to interact with the sea lions. People, oh, trying to jump over the pier railing to go visit them, or throwing things like bread and other things that could be harmful, and it's mostly human behaviors that have been a problem.

(Sea lions barking)

MAR: Sea lions are creatures of habit. In July most of the Pier 39 sea lions will depart for the Channel Islands in Southern California to mate. As far as anyone knows, if they remain undisturbed by humans, the sea lions plan to come back to the pier by early fall. I'm Jo Ann Mar in San Francisco.



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