My terrible sense of direction is a running family joke, so I thought it would be harder to find San Francisco’s famous sea lions. However, all I had to do was follow the overpoweringly musky, stagnant smell wafting through the air at Fisherman’s Wharf, until I reached Pier 39’s K Dock. As here I found that, for creatures who bathe constantly, sea lions are surprisingly stinky! To be fair, there were hundreds of them sunbathing on small rafts and rocks, so it may be a different story when encountering more solitary members out at sea.
Breathing through my mouth, I battled my way through other travellers to take a prime spot at an overhanging ledge. Putting up with the stink is worth it to watch the sea lions play, argue and push each other off the rafts, as well as do less endearing things such as a sneeze onto bystanders. Their loud “Ooo Ooo Ooo”s are still ringing in my ears as I type this!
Pier 39 is a brilliant example of nature reclaiming an area. The sea lions started moving into the pier after a nearby earthquake in 1989. More and more swam in, and hardly any left. Instead, they remained lazying on the pier’s floating docks and buoys. The sea lions had found a perfect home; sheltered from storms, with plentiful food and lacking any predators. Why would any of them want to leave?
Boat owners protested vociferously with the pier’s management, trying to kick the sea lions out – they were loud, smelly and getting in the way. But the sea lions stood their ground and ultimately it was the boat owners that got the boot. The boats were moved away to another section of the pier, and the sea lions were left to take over the dock. And they definitely strut around like they own it!
Fisherman’s Wharf has plenty more going for it as, although touristy, it is a picturesque place. Away from the sea lions, the smell of fried crab and chowder takes over, thanks to the many stalls proffering fresh seafood.
The crowds lessen further from Pier 39, as the area takes on more of an authentic fishing vibe. And reaching Pier 45 was a trip back in time, as a World War II submarine (USS Pampanito) and liberty ship (SS Jeremiah O’Brien) were docked and open for viewing; Alcatraz ominously rising out of the sea behind them.
My enjoyment of the Wharf must definitely have showed. Whilst wandering around, I was pulled over by a man calling himself the Smile Police, to be handed a sticker proclaiming ‘I Luv Your Smile’. A bit further on, this was soon replaced by shocked laughter, when a seemingly inert bush jumped out at me. A disheveled man had been hiding within it, camouflaged in twigs. Clearly delighted with my reaction, he quickly re-hid to repeat the procedure on the next unsuspecting passersby.
So, a word to the wise – if visiting, keep your wits about you, as the sea lions aren’t the Wharf’s only quirky characters!