Mystery of the Missing Sea Lions of San Francisco Solved

San Francisco Bay witnessed a large-scale disappearing act in late November that baffled both magicians and scientists.  The famous sea lions of Pier 39 vanished.  But now, the mystery has been solved and everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, the disappearing act was really a testimony to the resilience of animals and the magic of nature.


The hundreds of sea lions that have made their home on Pier 39, along the world famous Fisherman’s Wharf, have always been a bit of a mystery and maybe that’s what made them a popular tourist attraction.  One day in late 1989 the large herd swam into San Francisco Bay, climbed onto the docks of Pier 39 and stayed in the area for the next 20 years.


Experts think the sea lions followed their favorite food source of herring into the Bay and remained there feasting on the small fish and others that were plentiful. 


When they first arrived, officials in San Francisco were not happy with the situation.  They tried to get the sea lions to move because the animals were noisy, messy and they caused damage to boats docked in the area by climbing onto them.  But the sea lions won out and won the hearts of San Franciscans and tourists as tens of thousands of people came to watch them sunbath on the dock each year.


In early November the famous pier had a huge influx of the water loving mammals.  Experts that monitor the bay say the population grew from nearly 1,000 to a record breaking 1,585 animals.


At the time they suspected more sea lions were coming into the area to find food.  But that theory didn’t pan out because suddenly on the day after Thanksgiving, the animals began to leave in droves.  The docks that were once weighed down with sea lions were left empty.


Jeff Boehm, executive director for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito wasn’t too concerned about the disappearing act.  He told the Associated Press, “Most likely, they left chasing a food source.  It’s probably what kept them here in the first place.”

Even though experts didn’t fear for the safety of the sea lions, they had no idea where the animals were. 


The mystery of their mass migration after 20 years created a lot of speculation from the public and from professionals.  One San Francisco blogger suggested that a barking dog had scared off the sea lions.  A local meteorologist looked into changing weather conditions as a source and marine biologist checked on alternations in the “fauna” of the Bay.  Some people checked to see if the sea lions had gone back to their original home at Seal Rocks, but they were not there.


Finally on December 30th the mystery was solved as marine experts finally caught their first glimpse of the sea lions. The group was found headed south toward Monterey Bay which is 118 miles from San Francisco.  Monterey Bay is teeming with herring. 


The experts at the Marine Mammal Center don’t think this is the last they will see of the sea lions.  They think the herd will return to their home by spring and will once again be sunbathing on Pier 39 – just in time for tourist season.




Morgue file photos


Susan P.
Susan P8 years ago

Glad they found them! I'm originally from the Bay Area and remember them fondly.

Janet A.
Janet A8 years ago

I'm glad they are okay. :]

Kurt Valentine

What a mystery. They went 118 miles the other way and suddenly they can not find them.

Caralien S.
Caralien S8 years ago

bark bark!

Debbie Z.
Debra Z8 years ago

Glad the sea lions are OK. What a nice story!

Josephia T.
8 years ago

A mystery? I don't think so, it's the wonder of nature, and it's beautiful by itself.

Maria H.
Past Member 8 years ago

I'm glad they are okay!

Kim M.
Kim M8 years ago

I live in San Francisco, but rarely do I make it down to Fisherman's Wharf. It's more a thing I do when my parents come for a visit. BUT, you don't have to be a regular at the wharf to feel a bit of sadness knowing that the sea lions are not there. I love watching them sunbath their big bellies and bark at each other. I'll be there to welcome them home come Spring.

Haley Y.
Haley Y8 years ago

i saw them once when we drove through there on vacation, they are truly maginficent creatures im glad there ok

Karen O.
Karen and Ed O8 years ago