I ain’t got a nickel and I ain’t got a lousy dime.
She don’t come back, think I’m going to lose my mind.
If she ever gets back to stay, it’s going to be another brand-new day,
Walking with my baby down by the San Francisco Bay.”
As visitors to San Francisco, we bring a lot of background information about this city that may or may not be useful. For example, we may well know the chorus of the song, San Francisco Bay Blues, but we may not know much about the Bay itself and how it borders one side of the San Francisco peninsula. We have probably all heard of the San Andreas fault and the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco but know little of how the fault underpins the modern city. For example, when we flew into San Francisco, the airport sits on the bay side of the peninsula, not far from the narrow San Andreas Lake that runs down a large section of the peninsula. This lake is directly above the fault line of the tectonic plates that drive against each other well underground but if this line triggers another earthquake in San Francisco, the San Fran airport will no longer be of much use.
On the map above, the ‘San Francisco’ label is placed over the area that was so badly affected in 1905. The image below of San Francisco burning (courtesy Wikipedia) is looking from a distance back at downtown San Francisco. It illustrates the statistic that while the original earthquake caused significant damage, 80% of the destruction of the city took place as a result of the fires that broke out afterwards. The smoke from the fires covers the waterfront docks that was and still is the lifeblood of the city. When we drove to Fisherman’s wharf from out hotel not far from Union Square, our bus driver explained how all the buildings along the foreshore had to be rebuilt after 1905; a long line of buildings in the path of the fire had to be destroyed to create a fire break to protect broader parts of the city. Dynamite was the explosive of choice! It didn’t always blow the buildings up without adding to the fires ravaging the city.
After the famous Golden Gate Bridge, the Fisherman’s Wharf is the second most prominent tourist destination in San Francisco. It starts at Pier 39 and we were greeted there by the huge image of the Blue Whale welcoming us to the pier as well as to the Aquarium by the Bay. If we hadn’t got the message that Fisherman’s wharf was all about the sea-life and the seafood of San Francisco, the huge giant crab that sat at the centre of the welcoming area completed the picture. The shopping area around Pier 39 is a cross between a carnival and a shopping and dining precinct and is a very pleasant place to wander around.
We had already decided we weren’t here for the shopping but to visit the curious inhabitants at the end of Pier 39, the seal-lions. The story of the presence of a large gathering of California sea lions choosing to spend large parts of their year on floating docks beside Pier 39 is a curious one. The sea lions have always been in San Francisco Bay but generally made their home on Seal Rock, an island on the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula as per the map below. There was an earthquake in 1989 that some have claimed disturbed the sea lions and they then began to choose the docks around Fisherman’s wharf as their home. As the numbers increased inside the bay, the diehards who stayed on Seal Rock declined. It was almost as if the sea lion grapevine had explained to everyone the advantages of spending their resting days here, safe from attacks by their predators, the great white sharks and the orcas. As the sea lions are seasonal hunters, they go in search of anchovies and sardines and so the numbers vary throughout the year. In early 2017, the estimated number of animals ranged from 150 to 600 around the pier. We were there in late November 2019 and their seemed to be considerable numbers there. Contrary to general practice, there seems to be the odd seal that has decided to join the sea lions at their comfortable home at Pier 39. No nasty rock edges of oyster shells slashing away when you try to land and unlike rocks in the ocean, these landing sites go up and down with the tides. These beasts are clearly not stupid.
Play is a feature of intelligent mammals when they have organized their food sources and the safety of their home front. As we were watching the sea lions, it became clear that the floating docks had quite the hierarchy going. The biggest sea lion had the smallest floating dock to himself but he was occasionally challenged over his sole exclusive possession. Next door to him was a larger floating dock that three or four sea lions continuously wrestled with each other for possession. It was Greco-Roman wrestling, sea-lion style, as they pushed, rolled and shoved each other with the aim of putting their opponents in the water. At times it was a three or four way battle. These were clearly dominant teenagers, preparing to roll the old guy off his exclusive residence one day. The curious thing was when they were pushed in the water, they quickly returned and used their small fins to lift their whole body weight (between 500-700lbs) swiftly up on to the deck with little evident strain. In the background, the rest of the mature adults, probably females, ignored the ruckus and calmly dozed away the morning.
If we turned our eye away from the wrestling sea lions, we immediately got a great view of San Francisco Bay out to Alcatraz Island. This small and notorious island is another world famous icon of San Francisco and attracts many tourists each year. Alcatraz Island and its home state California has only been part of the United States since 1850, having been initially colonized by the Spanish (1769-1821) and becoming part of Mexico between 1821-1848. California became a state of the USA in 1850 after the Mexican-American War. Unsurprisingly, the conveniently located island became a military fort for protecting San Francisco if their southern neighbours ever decided to restart hostilities.
However the Island’s claim to fame arises from the relatively brief period of time in the twentieth century (1934-63) when it was developed as a Federal Prison. It was chosen as a prison site due to the ferocious currants swirling around the island so the chances of escaping by swimming were limited…no successful escape attempts were recorded. It has also been famous for the colourful criminals it has housed such as Chicago’s Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It has been part of the setting of at least ten major films. If you are visiting San Francisco and would like to book into a tour of Alcatraz, you need to do so well before your arrival in San Francisco. These island tours leave from Pier 33, not far from Fisherman’s wharf.
The other feature of the Fisherman’s Wharf district that is worth a visit are the maritime museums that stretch along the dock from Pier 41.There are two world War Two vessels here that are available for inspection; one is the diesel powered submarine, USS Pampanito built in 1943 which toured the Pacific in the last years of the war.
The second major exhibit is SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of the two remaining fully functional ‘Liberty Ships’ that were mass produced by the Americans during the war, not only to fill American requirements but also to fill the cargo ship needs of their British allies who had lost large amounts of shipping during the early years of the war. They were conceived as simple low-cost constructions and ship yards across America built 2710 Liberty ships at an average of three ships every two days. They had only been given a five-year design life but many of them remained functional to become part of the world’s commercial fleets long after the war. This exhibition emphasises the participation of women in the maritime workforce, replacing the men who had been shipped off to war.
During our inspection stroll of the Fisherman’s Wharf area, we stopped twice for food and rest. We stopped at Pier 43 for our morning coffee and we tried ‘Frankies’ delicious beignets, a New Orleans style small crepe. Wonderful. For lunch, as it was on many days in the US, we stopped for clam chowder!