The man at the car with the Nebraska license plates probably said it best; "That's the darndest thing I've ever seen in my life."
You don't have to be from the heartland to be impressed with Sea Lion Caves, which are located 12 miles north of Florence, Ore., on U.S. 101. Even native Northwesterners make this required stop when they visit Oregon's Central Coast.
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it is an awe-inspiring sight, with hundreds of sea lions lumbering and snorting across while others cavort in the sea below the sunning area and outside the entrance to the caves.
Most of the animals are of the variety called Steller Sea Lions, a non-migratory breed that lives in the area year-round. The pups, usually born in late spring and early summer, weigh 40 to 50 pounds at birth and the males can grown to 12 feet and 1,500 pounds. The females are slimmer and average 8 and 9 feet in length and perhaps 700 pounds.
The Steller Sea Lion usually resides on offshore islands - the caves are its only known mainland habitat on the West Coast - and the world population is estimated at 250,000. An estimated 200 usually reside in the caves, but that number can fluctuate with weather conditions and season.
There are two main viewing areas. After paying a $3.50 fee, you can walk down a paved trail to a platform that overlooks a section of rock on which the sea lions sunbathe a hundred or so feet below. The platform has pay-per-view telescopes but take your own binoculars if you go on the weekends.
The other viewpoint is from within the caves themselves. To get there, you walk down another paved path, then drop 208 feet by elevator to a drilled shaft that leads to an observatory cavern above the main cavern. The grotto of the main cavern is about 125 feet high and has a floor area of some two acres that is constantly washed by the sea.
On the May Day, the cavern provided the most spectacular viewing, although if the weather is sunny, the outside viewpoint usually is better. There were more than 150 adult sea lions snorting, grumbling and belly-flop ping from point to point on the rocks in the grotto. The light is dim here - the grotto is lit only by three natural entrances, one of which is filled with water at high tide - and no flash cameras are allowed. However, any type of magnification device can bring the sea lions close to the viewers, who are 50 feet above, about 100 feet away and cut off by a wide mesh screen.
You can look as long as you like, but those without binoculars or with small children seemed to lose interest after 10 or so minutes. There also is a fine view of the postcard-like Heceta Head Lighthouse from the northern end of the viewing cavern.
Many people seem bothered by the smell of the animals, which is obvious when you are outside and obnoxious when you are in the cavern. But the view is worth putting up with a little bad odor.
Sea Lion Caves are privately operated, unique on the Oregon Coast where most of the best attractions are publicly owned. This is a case where private enterprise stopped devastation of a resource, rather than accelerated it.
The caves, discovered in 1880 by a local resident who allegedly was marooned in the main cavern by storms and had to shoot and eat sea lion to survive. The man eventually bought the land from the State of Oregon, which probably saved the resource because there was a bounty on sea lions at the time.
Development of the caves as a tourist stop began in the early 1930's, when U.S. 101 was built. Until 1961, however, visitors could reach the cave only by traveling a 1,500-foot trail carved into the side of the cliff, then descending a 135 step wooden tower in to the observation cavern. The elevator was opened in 1961, which made the grotto accessible to almost everyone and increased tourism dramatically.
The caves are about seven hours from Seattle, via U.S. 101, or west on Oregon Highway 126 from Eugene to Florence. Both Florence to the south and Newport to the north have abundant motels and several state campgrounds are nearby.
by Lynn Mucken