Sea Lion Caves and Pier 39

January 17, 2011 — Here’s how I imagine it. An archangel, let’s just say Michael, walks into God’s office and says: Uh, God? I need to talk to you.”

God sighs, looks up from a TV Guide, and says, “I’m not really sure I can wait long enough for them to invent it, Mike,” and then after a sigh that births sorrow in a thousand other creations continues, “So…what brings you here? Is something wrong with Earth? Remember, it’s brand new, so expect that a few bugs will need to be worked out of the system.”

“No, no. Everything’s fine. You did a great job. The ecosystem seems to be sustaining itself, the weather maintains optimal pleasantness, and everybody has so far stayed away (God-willing) from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s just…”


“Well, it’s about the pinnipeds.”


“Seals, sea lions, walruses, those chaps.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Well, me and the guys have been talking. Honestly? Not your best work.”

“How so?”

“Well, they’re awkward and jiggly on land, blubbery and weird in water, they’re faces don’t match their bodies, and they make the most Godawful…excuse me…awful noises, like someone coated their throats in talcum and turned their larynxes upside down.”

God lets out a thoughtful “Hm” that lasts a few millennia and then answers, “I can see your point, Mike, but, truthfully, I kind of like them. I’ll tell you what. Let’s just let natural selection figure it all out. That’s what it’s there for, after all.”

Now, I kind of agree with both God and Michael in that scenario. That’s why any chance I get to see one of those mammalian slugs we call seals, sea lions, and walruses, I take advantage of it. Very few things in life provide the opportunity to both marvel at and be befuddled by them. Pinnipeds are my standard for that.

I posted already about the time I spent with seals behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium in Boston, but pinnipeds have popped up a couple more times in my life, most relevantly to this article, in sea lion form. I’m speaking of Sea Lion Caves outside of Florence, OR, and Pier 39 in San Francisco, CA.

Sea Lion Caves have been around as a natural formation for millions of years, and as a tourist attraction for almost a century. Despite that auspiciously long timeline, though, the place looks like your classic tourist trap from the outside. The entrance is a low building inches from the side of the Oregon Coast Highway on one side and even closer to the edge of a cliff on the other, with a gaudy sign and an interior that is crammed with sea lion-, Oregon-, and random-themed souvenirs. However, burn a little bit of expendable income and you’ll be pointed to a set of stairs in the corner of the building.

These stairs take you down to the ocean cliff that, like a waffling suicide jumper, the building is perched on. From here you can ascend a path past a statue of a family of sea lions to a viewing platform that overlooks the ocean and provides a peek at whichever of the sea lions have decided to hang out on the ledges outside the caves, the equivalent of those people at parties that step outside to smoke. The sea lions are pretty far away, so binoculars, a good camera zoom, or the ability to compress dimensional space into more finite forms is needed.

There are, of course, pay telescopes on the platform if you’re the type of person to carry around spare change. Stop doing that, though, please. The sooner we all get together on this, the quicker we’ll be a completely cash-free society. I haven’t had an honest-to-goodness gumball from an honest-to-goodness gumball machine in like five years because I only carry around a credit card, and I want gumball machine gumball bad.

Anyway, this viewing platform is only a sort of sea lion aperitif, as eventually you’ll retrace your steps down a hill and into an elevator to descend 200-odd feet to the base of the cliff. “Sea lion aperitif” sounds disgusting, but I think I’d still try it.

As soon as those elevator doors open, you’ll find yourself in a small, well-lit cave that’s basically an observation area. The side of this cave overlooks the main event: A massive basalt rock dome filled with the writhing, roaring bodies of hundreds of Stellar sea lions.

The giant cave is 120 feet tall at its highest point and over 300 feet wide at its broadest. Depending on the tide, the floor of the cave is covered to various depths in ocean water, with all kinds of rock ledges and islands interspersed about. The website for Sea Lion Caves touts it as the world’s largest sea cave, but I really have trouble believing that. Still, it’s huge, completely open to the ocean, and absolutely squirming with sea lions.

The only things between you and the masses of loosely formed blubber are a bit of distance and a wire mesh, so you get everything, the fascinating sights, the echoing sounds, the pervasive smells. This time mechanical magnifiers and God-like powers of space alteration aren’t necessary, but it does come in handy if you want to focus on the individual creatures better.

Again, since these are sea lions, it’s both an awe-inspiring and hilarious sight, as hundreds of these braying, snorting, thumping creatures flip off rocks, wriggle across ledges, splash around the water, weave their heads randomly, bob up from the depths, roll over each other, laze about, drape themselves over crags, and generally just do things that parody all of God’s creation. Obviously, it’s a hard thing to describe with a mere 26-letter alphabet, but I did include some quick footage I took of the cave in my West Coast road trip video.

Elsewhere in the observation cave, you’ll find a few displays on sea lions and the history of the attraction itself, along with a couple of sea lion skeletons. At the opposite end of this cave from the sea lions is another opening, which offers a nice view of the Heceta Head Lighthouse.

Moving on down the Pacific Coast Highway about 500 miles, you’ll find the bright, decidedly un-cavey environs of sunny San Francisco. Here, you can have a sea lion encounter of a slightly different sort.

Pier 39 is one of San Francisco’s tourist draws. Tons of restaurants, shops, and attractions are jammed onto the two levels of this man-made protrusion into the waters of the San Francisco Bay. In fact, this place was such an entertaining play land that it started attractinf way more than tourists. In 1989, a host of California sea lions arrived from elsewhere in the bay to stake a claim to some of the smaller boat piers adjacent to Pier 39.

Now you can walk to the edge of the pier and be just a few dozen feet from more than a thousand of them, coating the small island-like piers like something both disgusting and heartwarming, although when I visited it seemed like less than hundreds. Crack sea lion census taker isn’t on my resume, though. It’s basically the experience of Sea Lion Caves, as far as witnessing a roiling mass of flippered fat, but without the caves, at a closer distance, and you can eat at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. afterward. So two different experiences, I guess. I have footage of these sea lions, as well, on the same already-referenced West Coast road trip video.

Interestingly enough, just six months after I saw them, the sea lions left Pier 39 for the first time since their arrival two decades previously. Due to a population surge at Sea Lion Caves, the prevailing theory is that they all ended up there for a time visiting their less urban cousins. I can’t blame them. It was a cool place. Since that time, though, the sea lions have started to return to San Francisco in their previous numbers, much to the relief of the people who write all the marketing materials for Pier 39.

So, seals here, sea lions above, and walruses, well, you guys are next. Expect Wilfred Brimley jokes for that one.