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Rogue sea lion bites at least 14 people in San Francisco lagoon; city bans swimming in area

11/17/2006

SAN FRANCISCO — A California sea lion has bitten at least 14 people and chased 10 others out of the water this week at a public park's lagoon, prompting the city to temporarily close the area to swimmers.

No serious injuries have been reported, but officials decided to ban swimming at the Aquatic Park Lagoon on Wednesday until the testy marine mammal has moved on.

Experts say the rogue sea lion could be protecting his harem of mates or might have brain damage from toxic algae.

Celeste McMullin, who was bitten Monday, said she saw the animal lurking nearby but didn't think much of it.

"I was swimming along, and I felt a brush under my feet. And I thought, 'These feel like whiskers.' So I stopped, and the animal popped up. He/she looked at me."

McMullin then tried to swim away, but the sea lion followed, biting and bumping her continuously until she made it back to shore. She ended up with six bites: two puncture wounds and four cuts.

Marine Mammal Center veterinarian Frances Gulland said the animal may soon leave the area and advised swimmers to avoid the lagoon in the meantime.

"The migration has started, and the animals are moving north to Washington state and Oregon," she said.

City health officials aren't recommending rabies shots, but victims were advised by the Marine Mammal Center to take antibiotics to ward off infection.

Aquatic Park Lagoon is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and not far from Fisherman's Wharf, where dozens of sea lions bask year-round on rocks below the pier and are a major tourist attraction.