Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

They stink, they snore, they slobber. And they're adorable, San Francisco's noisiest waterfront attraction: 150 blubbery, belching male sea lions who've set up housekeeping on K-Dock near Fisherman's Wharf.

Last January, an armada of the 800pound mammals invaded the boat slips of Pier 39. A nd why not? The fishing in was great (more herring than even they could eat), the marina was calm, and oh-those-Californiarays at high noon! The good news traveled fast: One day, there were six sea lions; the next morning, 100, and four times that within a month. Tourists came in waves and business at Pier 39--a collection of souvenir shops and fooderies--picked up. By spring, though, the animals departed--presumably to find their sea lionesses and new pups on the Channel Islands to the south.

Now the whiskered fellows are back, hauled up on the K-Dock as if they never were away. "As far as the sea lions are concerned," says Fritz Arko, president of Pier 39, "this is home." Arko can barely make himself heard, as he proudly points to the pungent pinnipeds carrying on just 50 feet below beyond a locked gate. They're constantly barking and yelping as they shove one another off the dock in an aquatic version of King of the Hill. The clever ones try sneak attacks by swimming under the dock to blindside the bigger players; they usually get pummeled. "It's more exciting than an aquarium," says 8-year-old Neal Burgner, visiting with his mother.

Not everybody is amused with the antics--and hygienic habits--of the returning residents. Their nocturnal barking, which can be heard miles away, infuriates nearby yacht owners. Their droppings are the size of grapefruits, and the lingering smell makes herring seem positively perfumy. And perhaps most disgusting of all is the sea-lion expectoration. Pier management is trying to help. Workers now regularly scrub and deodorize the play areas. Additional pier space has been built. But even if most locals agreed it was time for the lions to leave, there is little that could be done. The marine animals are protected by a 1972 federal law, a statute as tough as any tenants' rights provision, which bars the harassment of these seaworthy squatters.

Experts worry that the sea lions will become like the bears of Yosemite: too used to people and too lazy to hunt for food. "They're slugs," says Brian Gibeson, a Bay Area marine biologist. "They'd do anything for fish and Pier 39 is the ultimate deli." But whether they stick around or return to their natural migratory habits along the Pacific coast, the sea lions have been immortalized in a truly San Franciscan way. Intrigued by their sounds, composer Doug McKechnie recorded the best barks of the bay and used computer technology to produce a song that would make Tony Bennett envious. Soon playing at a wharf near you: "I Left My Arf in San Francisco."