Get us in your inbox

Seals at Pier 39
Photograph: Flickr/Amy MeredithCatching some rays at Pier 39

Where to get up close and personal with Bay Area wildlife

By Shoshi Parks

With seven million people and counting, it’s hard to believe there’s space left for wildlife in the Bay Area. But thanks to the conservationists and urban planners of the 1970s, our little corner of Northern California is one of the most wildlife-friendly urban areas in the country. Skip the zoos and aquariums and see spectacular creatures in their native habitat (in the air, on land and in the sea) at these seven Bay Area locations.

Pier 39

It wasn’t until after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that playful, barking California sea lions began “hauling out” on K dock at Pier 39. Why they chose this location is a mystery, but the protected bay, teeming with the fish and squid pinnipeds prefer, has kept them coming back for 30 delightful years. Watch the group, which is mostly made up of younger males, frolic all year long from the wooden walkway behind Pier 39. A naturalist provides commentary and answers questions daily between 11am and 4pm, weather permitting.

The Marine Mammal Center

San Francisco is a way point on the migration trail for marine mammals, including seals and whales, heading for warmer waters in the winter and cooler oceans in the summer. Unfortunately, the Pacific migration route is also an important shipping route and one that suffers from human activities that pollute the water and harm sea life. From their veterinary and research facility nestled in the Marin Headlands of Sausalito, the Marine Mammal Center rescues, treats and re-releases hundreds of harbor seals, elephant seals and sea lions each year that are impacted by illness or accident on Bay Area shores. Visiting the center is free and gets you an up close visit with the wild animals awaiting or recovering from treatment.


Whale watching was pretty cool I guess...

A post shared by Tyler Hohenstein (@tyler_the_uncreator) on

Farallon Islands

Less than thirty miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, a group of islands provides safe harbor for the creatures that call the Pacific Ocean home. Seabirds (cormorants, puffins, gulls and others) nest in the rocky cliffs. Below them, elephant seals, two species of sea lions and two seal species haul out to warm themselves on the rocks. Attracted to the promise of a hearty meal, great white sharks circle the islands and, in the waters just offshore, orcas and grey, blue and humpback whales migrate in the spring and fall. The Farallons were assigned protected wilderness status in 1974 and can only be seen by boat tour. People are prohibited from coming ashore.


Tule Elk Preserve at Tomales Point

By the mid 19th century, Tule Elk had all but disappeared from their native habitat in the Bay Area. But in 1978, environmentalists sought to re-establish them in the area, starting with two bulls and eight cows from a nearby refuge in Los Banos. Today there are over 400 Tule Elk occupying the Tule Elk Preserve at Point Reyes National Seashore. The animals graze freely in 2,600 acres of grasslands and, though they can often be seen from the road, are best observed by walking among them on the Tomales Point Trail. August through October is the best time to visit to get a glimpse of males sparring and bugling while they collect their cows for breeding season.

Crab Cove Marine Protected Area 

When the tide is out, the colorful creatures of Crab Cove come out to play. In this protected intertidal zone, beachcombers can explore a wild underwater world inhabited by crabs, bat rays, limpets, sponges and other strange tide pool residents. For a more in depth look, head to the Crab Cove Visitor Center for interactive exhibits including lifelike models of the shore and its sea life and stations for viewing microscopic animals.


Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge 

Don Edwards was the first urban wildlife refuge established in the United States. For 45 years it has served as an oasis for migratory birds (including endangered species like the Snowy Plover) and mammals (think landlubbers like the California grey fox and ocean goers like the Harbor seal) alike. Bring your binoculars and take a walk or bike ride on the miles of trails maintained by the refuge for a glimpse of the feathered, furry and flippered members of the East Bay community.

The Presidio

The city of San Francisco is one of the most wildlife-friendly urban spaces in the country and at its heart is the Presidio. The variety of habitats in the Presidio and its location on the north-south migratory route of sea-loving flocks make the park an attractive permanent or temporary home for over 200 bird species. Among the most spectacular are the Great Blue Heron and egrets that can be seen year-round patrolling Crissy Field in search of a meal. In the spring and fall, head to Baker Beach to catch a glimpse of breaching whales. Coyotes also call the Presidio home and, though they have lately had some frightening run-ins with dogs on the trails, are fascinating to watch in their native urban habitat.

Latest news