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ONE BIG PARTY : Dana Point Readies Another Whale of a Celebration to Honor Its Favorite Sea Mammals

February 18, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF

Abigail Alling's run-ins with whales include an encounter off Sri Lanka, when she became one of the first scientists ever to dive with sperm whales as part of a research project funded by the World Wildlife Fund.

"They dive very deep and for long periods of time, so they're very difficult to study," Alling said in a phone interview. Other deterrents to diving with the giant beasts immortalized in "Moby Dick" include their teeth (which most large whales lack) and the fact that they stun their prey with powerful sonic blasts. There were concerns that Alling, in her wet suit, might be confused for an undersized giant squid, one of the whale's favorite foods.

She lived to tell the tale, however.

"I was so absolutely stunned," Alling said, referring to the size and grandeur of the creature, not by sound waves. "This whale's eye was literally the size of my head. It was a wonderful and beautiful moment."

Although Alling has encountered no whales since Sept. 26, 1991, she has done a fair bit of diving. That's the date she and seven other researchers were sealed within Biosphere 2, a three-acre enclosure in the hills north of Tucson, Ariz., that will be reopened this year on the anniversary of the closure.

As associate director of research, Alling oversaw the design and implementation of a million-gallon marine and marsh ecosystem in Biosphere 2, which was planned as a self-sustaining microcosm of Earth.

Alling and other researchers living in Biosphere 2 will take part in video teleconferences with students and other visitors daily at the Orange County Marine Institute, Wednesday through Feb. 28 as part of the Dana Point Festival of Whales, the city's 22nd annual celebration of the migration of the California gray whales.

The festival opens Saturday and will continue through Feb. 28 at sites throughout the city.

Other events planned as part of the festival include a weekend street fair at La Plaza Park in Dana Point, an opening day kite-flying exhibition at Doheny State Park, a sand sculpture contest Feb. 27 at Doheny, a parade (also Feb. 27) and a variety of athletic contests, including a volleyball competition, 5K run, golf tournament, long-board surfing contest and uphill bike race.

As usual, the Orange County Marine Institute will be a big part of the festivities, with a presentation called "Whaling and the Arts of the Sailor" on both Saturdays. Sailors dressed in period costume will demonstrate early whaling techniques. On Saturdays and Sundays during the festival, visitors can tour the tall ship Pilgrim, moored at the institute.

Artist Robert Wyland, best known for his paintings of whales and other marine life, will rededicate a mural he painted at the Marine Institute in 1982, the second of more than 30 "Whaling Wall" murals he has completed. The ceremony will take place at 1 p.m. Feb. 27, followed by a video conference with Alling.

The scientific value of Biosphere 2 has been debated ever since the $150-million, privately funded experiment was announced. Project operators revealed recently that they have pumped in oxygen to supplement the dome's shrinking supply. A further setback was experienced this week when it was announced that an independent panel of scientists assembled to help oversee the project quit over a lack of cooperation from project managers.

Alling says that even the experiment's shortcomings, such as the unexpected drop in oxygen supplies, contribute to the overall knowledge generated by the project. And she added that the coral reef and marsh systems she helped create are doing much better than many predicted, and their success will contribute significantly to the science of restoring damaged habitats.

She called Biosphere 2 a "test tube" for investigating environmental problems facing Earth as a whole. "It does relate to our planet, and that's a point that's often overlooked. . . . We've recycled all our water and grown all our own food," Alling said. "In my opinion, it's the most significant science project in the world."

A specialist in dolphin and whale research, Alling said that the recovery of the California gray whale from near-extinction (enough of a recovery to warrant taking it off the endangered species list) is a symbol of what can be accomplished when public opinion is rallied behind a cause.

A Biosphere 2 exhibit, with a model of the structure and videotapes, will be on display at the Orange County Marine Institute.

Free Shuttle Is Available

Parking: Limited parking is available at the festival event sites. On weekends, parking will also be available at Dana Hills High School, 33333 Street of the Golden Lantern. From there, a free shuttle will take visitors to all event sites, leaving every 20 minutes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: To get to the high school, take Interstate 5 to the Camino Las Ramblas exit. Go right, toward the ocean; continue onto Pacific Coast Highway and turn right on Street of the Golden Lantern. The school will be on the left, just past Stonehill Drive.

Information: For festival information, call (714) 496-0593.

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