The grassy bluff over the Pacific offers stunning ocean views. But the real crowd-pleaser just off U.S. 101 in southern Oregon is underground — a dim, foul-smelling cavern...

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FLORENCE, Ore. — The grassy bluff over the Pacific offers stunning ocean views. But the real crowd-pleaser just off U.S. 101 in southern Oregon is underground — a dim, foul-smelling cavern called Sea Lion Caves.

Visitors enter through a gift shop and pay $7 to take an elevator 200 feet underground to a stadium-size cavern where sea lions abound. This subterranean, rocky lagoon, where water flows in and out a natural tunnel to the open ocean, is a haven and breeding ground for two species of sea lion.

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The cave offers close-range gawking from a viewing platform in the cave of the sea lions, which some biologists describe as marine relatives to terrestrial bears.

Sausage-shaped, 12-foot-long bull Steller sea lions shelter and breed in the cave year-round. (The smaller California sea lions are seen in the cave mainly in winter.) A powerful fishy stench wafts through the cave, carpeted with dozens of Steller sea lions, which can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. The male Steller sea lions are about twice as large as the females.


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Sea Lion Caves: The cave is on Highway 101, 11 miles north of Florence, Ore. It’s open daily, 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.. Admission is $7 for adults and $4.50 for children between 5 and 16. Call 541-547-3111 or see www.sealioncaves.com.

Cave tips: Bring a pair of field binoculars to watch the sea lions and sea birds. Flash photography is prohibited in the cave, so bring film for low light conditions.

More information: For details on accommodations and other local attractions (including Heceta Head Lighthouse near the cave), contact the Florence Chamber of Commerce at www.florencechamber.com or 800-524-4864. Also contact the Oregon Tourism Commission, 800-547-7842 or www.traveloregon.com.


A private company runs Sea Lion Caves — first opened in 1932 by a trio of Oregon families who saw commercial potential in the natural wonder as U.S. 101 was paved and road traffic picked up — as both a roadside attraction and a conservation area. Owners say the sea lions don’t mind the crowds.

An Oregon ship captain, William Cox, claimed to discover the cave by rowing a small boat through the tunnel in 1880. On a later visit, Cox became stranded by a storm and spent days in the cave. He reportedly survived by shooting and eating a sea-lion pup.

Through binoculars, I watched a bull sit grandly on a rock outcrop in the cave’s lagoon, his neck arched back and mouth snapping open and shut as he barked and snarled at other bulls approaching his perch.

Steller sea lions breed from June through August, with the males assembling harems of 15 to 20 females. The bulls pull themselves ashore in early summer and won’t feed for a month or so as they guard a patch of rock that their temporary family occupies. Sparring is rare, and only during the summer months. I saw only a few timid lunges and nips. Most appeared asleep.

California sea lions, a smaller species seen more often than Steller sea lions at harbors up and down the coast, use the cave as a rest stop while migrating vast distances along the coast. They visit mostly during the winter.

Sea lions were in decline until recently, and remain locked in a fierce rivalry with West Coast fishermen over their consumption of salmon. Until 1972, when killing sea lions became a federal crime, some fishermen carried rifles in their boats and vented their anger with a hail of bullets.