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How to See the Pier 39 Sea Lions

Updated: September 5, 2023
 By Britt

This post explains where and when you can see famous California sea lions at Pier 39, why they come here, and if you can feed them.

Where are the sea lions?

The sea lions are at Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf. Walk to the end of Pier 39 on the left side along the backs of the stores.

There are plenty of things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf in addition to paying the sea lions a visit. Read more here.

You might like to try our pay-what-you-wish guided walking tour of Fisherman's Wharf tour.

On this tour, we visit a variety of locations in the area including Ghirardelli Square, the cable cars, the Balclutha, an 1800s-era clipper ship, and so much more.

When can you see them?

The best time to see the sea lions is from late July through mid-May. There will be anywhere between 600 to 900 sea lions and seals during this time. 

When the summer months roll around in early June, these marine mammals migrate south to breed on the Channel Islands of Southern California.

Fortunately, a small group usually sticks around so you should be able to see some whenever you are in San Francisco despite their migratory patterns.

To see the sea lions at their most active, come in the morning when they will be barking at each other. 

By the afternoon they find a comfy spot to sunbathe and nap, before becoming active again in the evening.

Why are the sea lions at Pier 39?

California sea lions have always come to the San Francisco Bay, but did not begin “hauling out” of the water to rest onto Pier 39’s K-Dock in droves until 1990. 

Some speculated that the first sea lions to arrive, numbering between 10-50, came here when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in October of 1989.

Another possibility is that, due to work being done on the docks, boats were not docked at the pier and the sea lions took over, much to the dismay of boat owners who docked there!

Others believe that there was a large herring run in the immediate area and that sea lions came for plentiful food. Once there, they benefited from the protective environment.

Whatever the explanation, within a few months of the first few arriving, the sea lion population numbered over 300.

At first, the staff at the Pier 39 Marina didn't know what to do about their new visitors, but after much debate, the Marine Mammal Center decided they should stay right where they are.

This group is well known for their rehabilitation of marine mammals, so you can trust that they're being honest when they say that the Pier 39 sea lions are safe here.

Turns out the docks have made life easier for the sea lions. They are easier to haul out onto and more protected from storms than a rocky beach. 

Besides, they love being local Sea Lebrites!

TIP: If you want to learn even more about these boisterous barking pinnipeds, you'll find a lot of interactive displays and educational videos at the Sea Lion Center of San Fracisco, a free display here at Pier 39.

Can you feed the sea lions at Pier 39?

No. It is illegal to feed them anything. They are not tame like those you see at the zoo. 

Feeding wild sea lions can have negative impacts on the animals, including increased aggression, injury or death.

All types of sea lions are opportunistic feeders, so we recommend that guests avoid the temptation to throw food to them.

Violators of the law could face over $10,000 in penalties, so we really mean it when we say this: DON'T DO IT!

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About The Author


Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: September 5th, 2023
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