As of May 6, 2024, the San Francisco sea lions are still out in full force.Photo: Pier 39 Sea Lion Webcam

Watch: More Than 1,000 Sea Lions Swarm Popular San Francisco Pier

San Francisco Wildlife News
by Matador Creators May 6, 2024

Pier 39 in San Francisco is a major tourist draw. It’s covered in shops, restaurants, and attractions, ranging from a mirror maze to a “7D” theater to an escape room, arcade, aquarium, and historic carousel. It’s also where you’ll find remnants of what once made the city so unique, like street performers, sidewalk caricatures, and the “Musée Mécanique” (Museum of Mechanics), not to mention all kinds of outdoor food vendors (and some of the world’s best ice cream).

And right now, it’s extremely easy to find your way to Pier 39 from anywhere in the city: just follow the sound of more than a thousand screaming sea lions, which will lead you right to the famous pier and its most famous residents.

San Francisco’s sea lions first appeared in 1989 on docks originally intended for use by boats in the marina. But the sea lions stayed, and quickly became a popular attraction in the city. Their combined weight soon sunk the original docks, and the city replaced them with the current floating barge-style docks. Normally, there are anywhere from 150 to 500 sea lions on the piers. But in early May 2024, observers noticed something unusual: three to five times the normal amount of sea lions.



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As a result of an unusually large anchovy school moving into the San Francisco Bay, there are now well over 1,000 of the enormous sea lions hanging out at Pier 39. Harbormaster (akin to the Pier’s manager) Sheila Chandor told news outlets it’s the most they’ve counted in more than 15 years. The previous record was from 2009, when just over 1,700 sea lions decided to “haul out” on the pier (meaning they used it as a place to rest out of the water).

Videos posted by Pier 39 and other outlets show the piers absolutely covered in the six-to-seven-foot-long pinnipeds, with very little free space available on the platforms.


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How long the sea lions will stay in their large numbers is anyone’s guess, as it’s completely dependent on the anchovies. Currently, the sea lions are feeding with gusto, as they’re building up their energy for the upcoming mating season near Channel Islands National Park, roughly 400 miles south. They’ll head there in early summer to mate in July and August, with pups born the following spring. Many of those pups will then return to SF with their mothers later that year. The oversupply of food is making them very playful and energetic, so it’s a great time for visitors to the Bay Area to observe the famous San Francisco sea lions before they begin their journey to the national park.

If you can’t make it to SF, you can still see the city’s famous sea lions via the Pier 39 sea lion live webcam, offering several vantage points of their favorite hang-out spot.

Tips for seeing the San Francisco sea lions

san francisco sea lions boom 2024

Photo: Jeff Whyte/Shutterstock

Pier 39 is the top spot for viewing the cute creatures, but it’s not the only spot in SF. They’ve also been seen in the spring at the nearby marine terminal (just a block away) and Aquatic Park Cove, at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. If you are headed to Pier 39, take note of the following sea lion viewing tips.

  • For the best chance of seeing the sea lions basking in the sun and being active, go in the morning or evening. With the current recent surge, they’ve been active all day. But normally, daytime is more for relaxing than playing and feeding.
  • The pier gets packed, and while there are a few rows of wooden benches, it can be hard to see them with a constant stream of people walking in front of you. Avoid busy weekends, or prepare to spend a lot of time standing.
  • Respect the wildlife. They are completely wild animals that are not fed or supported by humans in anyway. Trying to give them food is stupid, illegal, and harmful. And be extra careful when carrying anything near the water, especially small items like bottle caps or napkins. The sea lions can be hurt or killed if they ingest anything outside of their normal diet.
  • You’re likely to see sea lions swimming in the bay if you book one of a few on-the-water activities that leave from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. You can hop on a ferry from Pier 39 to Sausalito or Alcatraz, or take a kayaking tour on the bay, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot them swimming on the way, especially when their numbers are so high.
  • You don’t need binoculars. You can bring them if you want, but the floating barges where they bask in the sun are very close to the pier.

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