America’s Largest Sea Cave

by Wendy on January 15, 2013

content provided by: The Saubert Family & Sea Lion Cavessea-lion-caves-logo

The Sea Lion Caves north of Florence is the largest sea grotto in the world as identified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Formation of the cavern began about 25 million years ago. It is composed of basalt rock that has been gradually eroded away by the ocean. It now soars to the height of a 12-story building and stretches the length of a football field.

It is the year-round home of the Steller Sea Lion. Sea lions normally gather inside this natural amphitheater during fall and winter. In spring and summer, they breed and have their young on rock ledges just outside the cavesea-lion-cave-cp

Care is taken not to disturb the natural habitat of the wild animals that dwell here. Since 2009, the Sea Lion Caves area is one of the few places along the west coast where the population of the Steller Sea Lion is increasing.

The Cave vicinity is home to several other animals other than Steller sea lions including bats, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, gulls, orcas, gray whales, humpback whales, harbor seals, California sea lions, bald eagles, mountain lions, black bear, elk, deer, chipmunks, gray squirrels, owls, common murre, tufted puffin, marbled murrelet, black oystercatcher, anklets, sandpiper, dunlin, whimbrel, snowy plover, osprey, killdeer, and numerous ducks and geese. Many seabird species are endemic and found nowhere else, except along the Oregon Coast.

The Cave system is at sea level and the ocean continually washes into the main cavern. This room has a floor area of about two acres and a vaulted rock dome about 125 feet high. Southward from the main chamber a low passage runs 1,000 feet to a sea level opening. This corridor is flooded at high tide and free of water a low tide.

The western entrance is a short, high passage also flooded at high tide and free of water at low tide. From the north, a third entrance opens into the main cave, about fifty feet above the ocean. This entrance serves as an elevated observation area from which one may view the entire underground cave system and its wildlife.sea-lions-on-rocks-cp

The sea level portion of this cave and the sea cliff rocks just outside the cave have become, over the centuries, the only know mainland rookery of the Steller sea lion, and to lesser extent, the California sea lion. The high vault is a natural resting place for fascinating sea birds.

Originally the cave was entered by a trail and stairs. The quarter mile of steep trail and the 250 stairs were often a formidable climb for many visitors and impossibility for some.

The decision to install the elevator was almost public obligation although the construction promised to be an expensive, difficulty, and lengthy task.

The job was started in April of 1958. A ten by ten, 70 foot drift tunnel was blasted in the cave wall and then an eight by fifteen foot vertical shaft was excavated, ascending 215 feet. The blasting necessary to drive these two intersection shafts was confined to spring months when the sea lions were out of the caves. The engineers and construction workers used every possible precaution to insure that the wildlife would not be disturbed.

But a unique problem was encountered; the entire shaft was subject to water seepage. The water could not be controlled until a Gunnite lining was installed, and the lining could not be stable until the seepage was controlled.

What seemed to be a classic paradox was finally solved by an intricate system of small catch basins which collected the waster to be carried away in pipes.

During the fall and winter of 1960-61, the elevator building and the emergency staircase inside the shaft were completed, By June of 1961; the new method of reaching Sea Lion Caves was opened for public use.

The elevator has a capacity of twenty-three passengers, a decent of 208 feet, and a travel rate of 250 feet per minute. It will accommodate about 400 people per hour. Many of its parts and fittings were specifically fabricated to resist the corrosion of salt and moisture, and in the years since its completion the elevator has proved to be almost trouble free.

Sea Lion Caves History 1880 to the presentsea-liion-caves-card

1880 – Sea Lion Caves was discovered by a local seaman, William Cox, who entered the grotto through the western channel in a small boat on a calm day. He reportedly returned to explore the caves a number of times and on one occasion was marooned for several days because of stormy weather and rough ocean. During this time he supposedly sustained himself by shooting a young sea lion and eating the meat of its flippers.

1887-1926 – Captain Cox purchased the land containing the sea lion Caves from the State of -Oregon. William Cox and his family owned the property until 1926.

1927-1930 – There were no roads in to the area that that time. The slopes of the rocky headlands were used for sheep pasture. Access to the caves from the hillside above was not even considered, until after the land was acquired by R.E. Clanton in 1927, with the specific intention of opening the Caves as a business. Clanton was joined by J.G. Houghton, and J.E. Jacobson in 1930.

1932 – When it became clear that U.S. Highway 101 would be completed, these three partners decided to risk all that they owned to build a safe access to the cave. Despite the difficulty and danger of the construction, a trail 1500 feet long, was excavated by the hand, into the face of the cliff. At the trail’s end a wooden tower was extended down to the north entrance of the caves, which housed the 135-step staircase into the cave. The trail and stairs provided safe access for visitors and the Sea Lion Caves was opened to the public by this route in August 1932.

1934-1942 – Traffic was light at first. The highway was only graveled until 1934. Even after paving, until 1937 there were just five ferry crossings within 100 miles. Despite the challenges just getting to the remote location, word of the amazing phenomenon spread, and the number people visiting Sea Lion Caves slowly grew until 1942, when virtually all such travel was halted by World War II. During this time, Clanton withdrew from the partnership and R.A. Saubert was admitted as part owner. Since 1942 the same three families have operated the Sea Lion Caves with ownership passing to the partners’ son after World War II.

1958-1961 – Elevator shaft was started in April of 1958 and completion of the Elevator shaft was met with a sharp rise in admissions as more people were able to easily access the caves. Eventually the gift shop and office headquarters building through which the cave is reached was added.

1982 – In Septembers of 1982 The Caves celebrated its 50 year anniversary with the addition of a bronze statue of a family of sea lions sculpted by Ken Scott.

2007 – In September of 2007 The Caves celebrated its 75th year anniversary with the addition of a Caves Totem Pole.

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