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FESTIVALS & EVENTS : A WHALE OF A TIME : Finally, There's Big Reason to Celebrate at Dana Point's Annual Homage to Marine Mammals

February 20, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

At a time when environmental horror stories dominate the headlines, Dana Point has found cause for celebration in the story of one creature that was thought to be near extinction but now seems to be doing just swimmingly.

The Pacific gray whale, whose numbers dwindled to fewer than 2,500 under intense hunting, has rebounded to a population now estimated at more than 21,000. In an action supported by biologists and environmental groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed taking the marine mammal off the endangered species list.

"The gray whales represent one of the singular success stories in the endangered species saga," says Stanley L. Cummings, executive director of the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point Harbor and chairman of the Festival of Whales committee.

The 21st annual Festival of Whales, opening Friday and continuing through March 8, includes whale-watch cruises and educational exhibits at the Marine Institute, along with a street fair, classical concert, golf tournament and fireworks show.

Other events: a boat parade, a sailing regatta, a bike hill climb, a longboard surf contest, a 5-kilometer run and an exhibit featuring a robotic model of a prehistoric relative of the whale.

The marine institute, which helps educate some 90,000 children a year about the sea through school and extra-curricular programs, was host to the Festival of Whales until last year. "It became too big an event" for the institute to handle by itself, Cummings says, and organization was turned over to the city. Dana Point this year is giving $50,000 to help put on the event, and the Dana Point Harbor Assn. is giving another $10,000.

Cummings says the festival will be considerably larger than past events. Once confined to the harbor, the event has now spread to sites throughout the recently created city of Dana Point, and organizers are hoping for more than 100,000 visitors during the 17-day festival.

At the center of the hoopla is the Pacific gray whale, which can weigh up to 45 tons, reach lengths of 50 feet and live as long as 60 years. Each winter, they migrate some 6,000 miles from Arctic waters where they feed, south to the warm waters off Baja California, where they breed and spawn. They make the return trip and are back north by spring.

The whales' passage within a few miles--sometimes within a few hundred yards--of the Southern California coast--has spawned a whale-watching industry that brings in an estimated $35 million a year. Off the local coast, the migration season is spread out from December to April. The peak for seeing southbound whales is late January; the peak for the northbound migrants is late February.

Pacific grays were about 15,000 to 20,000 strong, naturalists estimate, before hunting began in the 1840s. They were driven to near-extinction by the 1930s.

The whaling past will be commemorated as part of the festival, with the tall ship Pilgrim in Dana Point Harbor outfitted as an old whaling vessel and volunteers in costume singing sea shanties and educating visitors about the early days of whaling.

Cummings says that some have accused the institute of "glorifying" whaling with the program, but he argues that it was an important part of history that deserves to be explored. "You have to understand the culture of that time," he says. "Back in that culture, it was a very noble, a very dangerous profession."

The comeback of the Pacific gray has happened not only because of restrictions on whaling--first imposed in 1947--but also because the government of Mexico has worked to protect the whales' favorite spawning areas.

As part of Dana Point's Festival of Whales, more than 20 coastal cities, along with the state and federal governments, will honor Mexico's contribution to saving the Pacific gray whale in a ceremony Feb. 29, aboard the tall ship Californian, which will sail from Los Angeles to Dana Point as the "ambassador ship" for the Festival of Whales.

The festival will keep an environmental theme throughout, Cummings says. Part of the proceeds from the golf tournament and other athletic events will be given to the Surfrider Foundation, a Huntington Beach-based national organization dedicated to cleaning up beaches and coastal waters.

Any money raised through the festival will go toward the group's Blue Water Task Force, which is aiming to provide surfers and other beach users with kits for testing ocean water for pollution, according to executive director Jake Grubb. The task force is part of the Surfrider Foundation's 1992 Coastal Environmental Action Program, for which the group is trying to raise $199,000.

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