Laura Wiens, The Triplicate

Giant creatures are putting on a show, but you don't want a seat in the front row

They took over the pleasure boat docks and picnic tables at the south end of the harbor, forcing workers to remove them. They rose from sea level to street level, encroaching on the sidewalk and parking lot.

If only they weren't so cute.

Crescent City's signature marine mammals sprawl by the dozens between the Chart Room restaurant and the Crab Shack, occasionally barking and baring their teeth - especially the big males that weigh 700-800 pounds.

California sea lions seem more in evidence than ever this winter. Ironically, a town that's always looking to pull in more tourists now has an attraction that's too strong.

Some folks get much too close, risking painful bites or even the possibility of disease.

"People have come in here to ask for food to feed them," said Joni Baugh, owner of the nearby South Beach Outfitters with her husband Barry. "I see people within feet of them. It's a huge concern because hopefully it doesn't happen but someone can get hurt. A lot of people look at them and think, 'How cool.'"

"It doesn't deter business, but what a smell. When the wind is going a certain way you can't even breathe through your nose."

Still, the scene attracts more than it repels.

Celine Corre of France stopped to shoot a few pictures recently and spoke for many visitors when she said, "I never saw seals so close to the road. To see them in the wild like this is pretty awesome."

Unlike some people, Corre kept at least 10 feet away. Indeed, it's almost impossible for people to stay as far away from the sea lions as officials would prefer.

Catherine and Arbee Moore of Crescent City picked up their 1-year-old son Corbin before he could make a bee-line for the sea lions.

"They sure seem friendly," said Arbee. "They sure do seem to take over the sidewalk."

"I've always thought they were very interesting," said Catherine. The smell is out of this world. They probably ruin a lot of people's appetites before going into the Chart Room."

But restaurant employee Justine Lopez said, "Most customers enjoy their company. We just let them know to stay back. Other than our fish and chips and chowder, they're our star attraction."

Gabrial Carter of Crescent City and his kids are among those customers.

"There's no lack of them," said Carter. "I wouldn't want to get too close to them. I definitely don't let my kids get too close. They think it's cool. They're really cool to look at and watch, but probably more of a nuisance than anything. I imagine for a commercial fisherman they're probably a lot bigger of a nuisance. I fish for fun and I've lost some nice fish."

Harbormaster Richard Young wouldn't disagree with the term "nuisance." His employees regularly attempt to hose off the area to clear away sea lion excrement.

"The ideal thing is to separate the seals and people," said Young. "They're really not compatible. We've got a huge problem with people trying to get too close. We hear all kinds of reports - people walking up to the sea lions, people posing their children with the sea lions for pictures. People seem to ignore the signs that are up, even those who know better. It's like the elk, people want to walk up to them and pet them. That's not such a red hot idea."

It's hard to overstate the potential danger, said Dr. Dennis Wood, a veterinarian and founder of the North Coast Marine Mammal Center.

"Unfortunately people are getting too close," said Wood. "Uninformed people don't have a concept of how dangerous they are. They've only seen them in a zoo or aquarium. These guys can charge you and take you down. It'd be worse than any bite you could get from a rottweiler."

Sea lions employ a "shake and tear" method when attacking prey, he said.

"Look at them from your car," said Wood. "Do not approach them. No dogs should get near them. People shouldn't be walking anywhere near where the sea lions have defecated or urinated. Leptospirosis infection can be fatal to dogs and humans."

Baugh of South Beach Outfitters summed up the spectacle, saying, "The long and the short of it: They don't belong on the sidewalk."

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