Friday, October 22, 2004
San Francisco sea lions
I spent this week in San Francisco, a city loaded with world-class
museums, unusual shops and charming neighborhoods. So what was the first
thing I did? I went to a wrestling match and watched a bunch of macho
males pretend to fight.
This isn't usually my idea of a good time, but these weren't your typical
wrestlers. Unlike the professional fighters of WWE (World Wrestling
Entertainment), the performers I saw at Fisherman's Wharf couldn't care
less about having an audience.
That's because they were male sea lions, which focus on two things:
females and fish.
The sea lions that hang out around San Francisco's Pier 39 are mostly
young males who, between naps, spar for space on the floating docks.
These clashes look vicious, but like TV wrestling, these immature males
aren't trying to hurt each other. They're just practicing for the day
when they will try to hurt each other. California sea lion bulls, which
can weigh up to 850 pounds, fight in breeding grounds called rookeries
to win beachside harems.
Most of the males hanging out at Fisherman's Wharf are still small and
resemble females, which grow to about 250 pounds. But a few of the
older, larger bulls are there, too.
When a young male tries to jump onto a float owned by one of these
bruisers, everybody knows it. With a lunge of his massive head, the
roaring bull usually sends the youngster crashing back to the water.
During this commotion, other challengers try to board the pier from
different sides, causing the big bull to rush to the defense.
Just like at ringside, spectators cheer for their favorites during these
Males begin arriving at Pier 39 in August after the summer breeding
season is over. Their numbers peak to about 1,000 in January, and the
docks float low under piles of snoozing sea lions. Come June, they
leave, most to the main rookery about 370 miles away in the Channel
Islands, to fight for females.
Sea lions didn't always hang out at Fisherman's Wharf. A few months
after San Francisco's devastating 1989 earthquake, six pioneer sea lions
hauled out on a section of Pier 39. By 1990 about 150 males had taken
over the docks there. Since federal law protects sea lions, that was
Sea lions like resting on floating docks because on a beach the animals
have to move with the changing tides. Here the docks do the moving.
Some people think the earthquake scared the sea lions away from their
previous haul-out spot, called Seal Rock, just outside San Francisco
Bay. Others believe the abundance of herring, sea lions' main food, in
the bay attracted them to the human-made docks.
During the winter, herring enter the bay in large schools to lay their
As you might expect, a bunch of loud, smelly animals taking up boat
slips was not a welcome phenomenon here. But when the colony started
attracting tourists, the city saw these colorful animals in a whole new
Today, the sea lions have ample food, good accommodations and even
health care. Workers from the local Marine Mammal Center monitor the
colony daily, taking care of those sick, injured or entangled.
In return, these testosterone-loaded males' mock-fights draw about 10
million visitors a year.
WWE should consider featuring sea lions.