North Beach was my first San Francisco home, and going to sleep while listening to jazz down the street, fog horns and the distant barks of the sea lions let me appreciate the fact that I was living in a magical town by the sea, on a pretty cool planet called Earth.
OK. We are not actually wonderin' where the sea lions are anymore. They are off the coast of Oregon, feasting on the plentiful supply of anchovies. And we are not wonderin' why they left. According to most news sources, they left because the herring supply that they usually feed on had diminished due to unusually warmer waters. We also know that the sea lions originally appeared at Pier 39 in January of 1990, soon after the 1989 earthquake, and that their population changes naturally with seasonal migrations, swelling to over 1600 before they swum off in the Fall. What has not changed, in two decades, is the love that people from all over the world feel for these urban marine mammals.
So, what I was wonderin' was why they are so important to us, and I travelled over s-curves to Pier 39 to find out. On this cloudy, windy day, quite a few people were watching the 22 sea lions that had returned and were lying upon a few of the docks. Smiles and photos were the common denominator. A ferry boat pulled up close and the voice on the speaker told the sea lion's story as passengers leaned over the railings to look. A group of school girls in uniforms had their photos taken in front of them, and a two young men from Australia were thrilled to watch the small group animals, having no preconcieved notions of there ever being more (I guess I spoiled that for them). I also noticed that quite few people were there for the full hour that I was there, just watching quietly. Finally, I started asking questions.
One man from Colorado claimed that he and his wife had a 3-day-weekend and chose to spend it in a Fisherman's Wharf hotel to eat well, see a play, and mostly to visit the real icon of San Francisco, the sea lions. For him, they make this town feel alive; they are at the heart of it.
What a great reminder, one of the Australians said, that there are large mammalian creatures living under that dark, wavy sea - and that they have personalities and politics and such drama! Seeing them makes me want to take care of the ocean. It can seem like cold nothingness, and the sea lions change that notion completey. The ocean is their home.