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Missing the Boat on Whales : Tourism: This season is called one of the best in years to spot Pacific grays off the coast. But local operators say a stagnant economy and stormy weather are keeping whale watchers away.


DANA POINT — A stagnant economy and bad weather have taken a toll on the whale-watching tour industry this year, say boat charter companies in the county.

Although large numbers of Pacific gray whales have been spotted off the coast, leading tour operators to brag that this is the best season to go whale watching in years, most operators at the county's two main harbors say business is off because of the recession and stormy weather.

"We're not tearing our hair out yet," said Jodi Tyson of Dana Wharf Sportfishing in Dana Point Harbor, who estimated that tour attendance out of Dana Point has declined 10% from the previous year.

Whale watching has become a $35-million-a-year business in California with an estimated 200 tour boats statewide shuttling the curious for an up-close encounter with the Pacific grays, which rank among the world's largest mammals.

In Orange County, three companies offer whale tours along with several other smaller private fishing charters out of Dana Point and Newport Beach. County residents also use other tour firms that sail out of Oceanside and Long Beach. The outings last about two hours and run about $12 for adults.

Many tour operators depend on income from whale-watching excursions, particularly in the cold winter months, when revenues from sportfishing and sightseeing tours decline.

"Whale watching normally saves us," said Jim Watts of Newport Landing Sportfishing, who estimated that business is down 40% from last year. "It's what keeps us going through the winter months."

Ironically, tour operators say that whales have been migrating through Southern California waters in their greatest numbers in some time.

"This has been the best season in many years," said Richard Helgren of Helgren's Sportfishing in Oceanside. "The other day, a pod of eight swam through, which is highly unusual. We've had breachers and hoppers (whales that leap from the water) and snorkelers (those that spray water from their blowholes). They've been quite active."

Whale activity has "just been great," Tyson said. "Yesterday, one of our tours didn't see any whales and it was the first trip they were missed in the last 17 trips."

The drop-off in whale sightseers this year has much to do with the recent string of winter storms that slammed Southern California, she said.

"If it gets too windy and rough out on the ocean, we just don't go," Tyson said. "People don't show up anyhow when the weather is bad."

Worst of all, the storms hit on the Christmas and New Year's holidays, when tour operators say they do a booming business, drawing on holiday tourism and families whose children are on winter vacation.

"It broke our hearts to have that (bad weather) happen during Christmas," said Helgren, who estimated his losses so far at about 25%. "That cut badly into our business."

The recession has been a factor as well, Tyson said. People are spending less on entertainment and school districts are dealing with budget crunches by cutting back on field trips like whale-watching excursions.

Just one of the firms, Davey's Locker Sportfishing in Newport Harbor, reported business about the same as last year.

"We've been here for about 40 years and everyone knows us," said Mike Yocum, an employee for the boat charter company. "We also get referrals from the American Cetacean Society," which is a nonprofit environmental group that helps arrange tours.

Watts said some of the decline can also be traced to bad publicity that emerged last year about tour boats coming too close to the giant cetaceans. That sparked a backlash from whale watchers who may have felt that they could better appreciate the whales by leaving them alone.

"Customers have stayed away because they heard that boats were pushing the whales farther offshore," he said.

Federal law currently restricts boats from "harassing" whales, said James H. Lecky, chief of the protected species division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. By next year, the law will be changed to keep boats at least 100 yards from the Pacific grays.

The whale-watching season runs from December to April. From Alaska, Pacific gray whales migrate south in the fall, closely paralleling the coast as they head for the warm waters and sheltered coves of Baja, Mexico, to have their young. They return north with the calves, generally in the spring--in the longest migration of any mammal on earth--and spend the summer off Alaska in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, to the north.

Traditionally, the best time to spot the migrating whales has been February, when whales that have finished mating begin making the return trip north. But tour operators say prime-time whale watching has come early this year.

Clear skies and unseasonably warm weather caused a small resurgence in whale-watching attendance last weekend, tour operators said. Near-perfect weather is predicted for this weekend as well when whale-tour companies hope to continue making up for some of their losses.

"All of last week the ocean was calm and flat, with blue skies and 70-degree temperatures," Watts said. "There's a whole lot of people with cabin fever who might want to get outside. It'd be hard to find a better time to go whale watching."

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