Note: This story appeared in the September-October, 2011 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
I love roadside attractions. I think my fascination with them started when I was a kid, rolling down Route 66 or old U.S. 30 in the back seat of my dad’s Hudson. I think we stopped at every teepee motel and tourist trap selling genuine Indian tomahawks that were made in China. I remember seeing a snake pit where live rattlers hissed, an alligator farm in Florida, and a dozen or more places with everything from bears to mountains lions in cages. Even today, it’s hard for me to drive past one of these places without stopping.
An interesting attraction on the Oregon coast is Sea Lion Caves, located eleven miles north of Florence, on U.S. Highway 101. At 125 feet high and covering two acres, it is America’s biggest sea cave.
The cave, and rugged rock formations at its entrance, are the only known mainland rookery of the Stellar sea lion. Here visitors can see not only Steller sea lions, but also California sea lions, an occasional orca or grey whale, and an amazing variety of sea birds.
The caves were first discovered in 1880 by a local seaman, Captain William Cox, who entered in a small boat on a calm day. Cox returned to explore the caves many times and legend has it that on one occasion, he was marooned for almost a week by bad weather and high waves that kept him from getting back out. Cox later said that he shot a young sea lion and ate its flippers while he was stranded.
In 1887, Cox purchased the land from the state, and it remained in the family until 1926. In the early days there were no roads in the remote region and the family grazed sheep on the steep hillsides above the water.
An entrepreneur named R. E. Clanton acquired the property in 1927, partnering with J. G. Houghton, and J. E. Jacobson to develop the caves as a tourist attraction. A 1500 foot trail was built down the face of the cliffs to a 135 step wooden tower, which led down into the caves.
Sea Lion Caves opened for business in the summer of 1932, and though only gravel roads led to the attraction, an ever growing number of visitors came to descend down to sea level to view the sea lions. In 1961, an elevator was added, which made accessing the caves easier for visitors, and tourist traffic has grown ever since.
Today an elevator takes visitors down to the Whale Watching Deck, which offers a 20 mile view out to sea, making it a popular platform for whale watching. While orcas migrate past the caves every year, typically several grey whales stay in the area and can be seen any time of the year.
Winter and spring are the best times to see Steller sea lions and California sea lions inside the cave, when they seek shelter from rough water. They rear their young and lounge on rocks at a rookery just outside the cave’s entrance in the summer and fall.
On our visit, we saw a large number of sea lions, as well as an impressive number of birds, which included pigeon guillemots, which are a migratory bird of the murre family.
These interesting birds spend the winter far out to sea, only coming to land to build nests of seaweed or grass on the ledges inside the caves, where they lay one or two eggs. The parents feed small fish to their young until they are able to fend for themselves.
But while the birds are interesting, here it’s all about the sea lions. Steller sea lions can be found from California to the Bering Sea. Mature females (cows) average from eight to nine feet in length, and weigh from six to seven hundred pounds. The bulls are much larger, averaging twelve feet in length and weigh around 1500 pounds, though some large bulls have been known to weigh well over a ton.
Their pups average four feet long at birth, and weigh 40 to 50 pounds. At birth, they are slate gray in color, turning dark brown after about six months, and at age two they begin to acquire the lighter tan color of adults. Pups remain with their mothers for over a year, growing rapidly to about six feet long at the end of their first year.
In the spring, bulls gather a harem of 10 to 20 cows and keep them together until breeding is finished in early July. Younger, smaller bulls are driven away until they are older and large enough to fight the older males to win their own harems.
Sea lions feed on bottom fish such as skate, small sharks, squid, and various species of rock fish. The Steller sea lion has no fur, but rather short hair about one inch long on its body. Mature bulls have slightly longer hair, resembling a mane around their necks. Their average life span is about 20 years.
The cave also included two sea lions skeletons on display. One is of an old bull that Captain Cox discovered in 1880. The other skeleton is that of a young female that was found near Newport, Oregon with a fatal gunshot to the head. When alive, she was over seven feet long and weighed 327 pounds.
Even with access to the Whale Watching Deck, visitors with physical limitations might experience difficulties at Sea Lion Caves. Once on the deck, a series of steps lead from the elevator that takes you down into the caves. The elevator is not wheelchair accessible. There are about 400 yards of uphill and downhill walking at a grade that ranges from 10% to 20%. There are also 63 steps in the cave.
While there are small parking lots on both sides of Highway 101, larger RVs can find parking up a short hill on the inland side of the highway. There is also a large paved parking area just north of the caves, which offers some excellent views of sea lions longing on the rocks below. There is no charge for parking.
Sea Lion Caves is open daily from 8:30 a.m. The last tickets are sold at 7 p.m. Admission is $14 for adults, seniors are $13, and children ages 3 to 12 are $8. Children under 2 are admitted free.
For more information about Sea Lion Caves, call (541) 547-3111, or e-mail them at [email protected].
It’s Thursday, which it means it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Blood Honor, the debut novel in my friend Russell Blake’s The Day After Never post-apocalyptic trilogy. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – In my defense, I was left unsupervised.