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Whale-Watching Is a Sinking Business : Hard times: The faltering economy has hurt the charter boat business, despite good weather and an abundance of whales.

January 22, 1992|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bad times have withered the whale-watching industry this year, despite good weather and an abundance of migrating gray whales.

"There's more whales than people," said charter owner Don Haak.

Local charter companies are reporting drops in business of from 30% to 60% and worse this year, contrasted with last year.

Charter owners say the trend results from a drop in tourism brought on by the wilting economy.

"The weather has been fine, there's plenty of whales, but there's just no people, " said Haak, owner of the Avanti, a charter sportfishing boat docked at Fisherman's Landing on Point Loma. Haak said this year his business is down 30% from last year.

Boat owners and brokers also point to interest in the America's Cup as reasons why people are reluctant to spend their limited entertainment dollars on whale-watching excursions.

Some of the charter companies said business is fine this year. Others said it has virtually disappeared.

Marilyn Gregg, owner of Altair Classic Yacht Charters on Point Loma, said she is doing one-sixth the business she did last year. Most of her charters are for corporate parties, not whale-watching, but belt-tightening by corporate America has hurt that business as well, she said.

"I think people are more interested in the America's Cup right now. We used to run quite a few (whale-sightseeing) trips in great volume . . . but this year we've done only about four trips so far," Gregg said.

Although most charter companies say they can weather the bad business, the bleak forecast has forced at least one boat owner to consider lowering his sails for good.

Todd Schwede, president of Bagheera Sailing Adventures, said two tough years have forced him to put his 1924 racing yacht, available for a range of sailing trips, up for sale.

"People don't realize how bad it is. Our business is one-third of what it was a year ago," Schwede said. "When the war hit, the bottom dropped out, and this year it broke all of our low points. All of our worst-case scenarios came to be."

Schwede said he quit selling individual tickets for whale-watching trips this year after he "lost his shirt" last year--unable to sell enough tickets to break even. However, Schwede said this year he will charter his boat for private whale-watching tours.

Companies offering extended whale-watching trips haven't escaped the crunch either.

Celia Condit Taylor, a guide with Searcher Natural History Tours, which offers 8- to 11-day whale-watching trips down the Baja coast, said her company plans to offer more sportfishing and America's Cup viewing trips this year because of the decline in whale-watching.

"People are reacting to the economic outlook, there's nothing else that could be different," Taylor said. "The interest (in whale-watching) is definitely there. I think people are just holding onto their discretionary funds a little tighter this year."

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