There are many places along Oregon’s 363-mile coastline where you are can see seals or sea lions in natural settings or in developed harbor areas. Simpson Reef off Cape Arago southwest of Coos Bay and the area around Sea Lion Caves north of Florence are among the most accessible and dependable areas for spotting Pinnipeds, the family that includes both seals and sea lions.
Harbor seals are year-round residents on the Oregon Coast and are commonly seen on rocky haul outs, at the sandy mouth of bays and as regular visitors to coastal marinas with possible sightings anywhere from Astoria to Brookings. Some of the most likely locations for seeing Harbor Seals in a natural environment include Shell Island of Simpson Reef in Charleston, Salishan Spit in Lincoln City (mouth of Siletz Bay), Alsea Bay in Waldport, Strawberry Hill, and the mouth of Nehalem Bay. Harbor Seals grow to five or six feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds.
Steller Sea Lions (or northern sea lions) can also be seen year-round though they tend to prefer haul out areas in more isolated locations. Their most visible haul out areas are Shell Island off Cape Arago, the area near Sea Lion Caves north of Florence and offshore at Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge near Oceanside. Male Stellar Sea Lions can weigh over a ton and grow up to 11 feet in length while the “dainty” females weigh in at only 600 to 800 pounds. Stellar Sea Lions roar rather than bark and are lighter in color than the California Sea Lion. They are a federally threatened species.
California Sea Lions are seasonal visitors who spend much of the year on the Oregon Coast. Only males migrate north to Oregon in late summer, while females and pups remain in California all year. The males will remain in Oregon through fall, winter and early spring, then return to California for the breeding season. California Sea Lions are social animals and congregate in tightly packed groups at haul outs. Their barking often echoes throughout the area. Males can reach 850 pounds and seven feet in length. The main haul out areas for California Sea Lions along the Oregon Coast are in the Columbia River near Astoria (East Mooring Basin), Newport’s Port Dock One, Three Arch Rocks off Oceanside and Shell Island at Simpson Reef.
During the winter breeding season and through spring and summer, Northern Elephant Seals might be seen on Simpson Reef’s Shell Island, the northernmost breeding site on the Pacific Coast. Most of the year, they live well offshore. Adult males grow to 13 feet in length and can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.
Sea Lion Caves north of Florence is an 80-year-old Oregon Coast attraction with an elevator that takes visitors down to America’s largest known sea cave, a haul out for Steller Sea Lions. When they are not in the cave, the sea lions can usually be seen in the haul outs below the viewpoints at Sea Lion Caves. Other popular attractions that offer viewing of Pinnipeds include the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Seaside Aquarium.
Note: it’s illegal and harmful to feed marine mammals. Learn more about responsible marine wildlife viewing practices on the NOAA site.