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Endangered Whales' Comeback Makes Big Splash With Excursions

February 18, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF

The whale-watching industry went through a scare a few years back, as sightings of California gray whales off the Southern California coast started to plummet. It appeared that many whales were migrating on routes farther offshore, to the far side of Santa Catalina Island, out of the range of whale-watch excursions.

Last year, however, coastal sightings were up, and this season is shaping up as the "best year ever," according to one local operator. "It's been very good so far," said another. "We're having sightings on every trip."

Late February--the time of Dana Point's Festival of the Whales--is one of the top times to go whale-watching.

"You get two-way traffic during the festival," said Harry Helling of the Orange County Marine Institute. Some stragglers are still going south, to the warm lagoons off the coast of Baja California, while others are already heading north to summer in the rich Arctic feeding waters of the Bering Sea. The local whale-watching season continues through the end of March.

California gray whales are one of the great environmental success stories, recovering from near extinction a few decades ago to a population believed higher than in the days before whaling. In December, federal officials announced they were going to take the gray whale off the endangered species list, the first time such action has been taken with a marine mammal.

Three Orange County companies offer regular whale-watch excursions, while the Orange County Marine Institute is offering some weekend trips during the Festival of Whales. Tour operators recommend that whale-watchers wear flat, rubber-soled shoes and always take a jacket. A camera and binoculars are also suggested. Photographers should take a Telephoto lens if they have one.

Tours generally last from 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Tour boats have restrooms, along with galleys offering snacks, meals and drinks. Commercial operators also offer "whale checks": If no whales are spotted, passengers are given a free pass for another trip.

Listed below is information on local whale-watch excursions. Always call ahead for reservations and departure locations.


* The Orange County Marine Institute will sponsor whale-watching excursions Saturday and Sunday and again next weekend (Feb. 27 and 28) at 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The cost is $15 for adults and $11 for children under 12. Excursions depart from the institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive. Information: (714) 496-2274.

* Dana Wharf Sportfishing offers daily excursions through the season at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Prices are $12 for adults and $7 for children under 12 (and seniors, on some trips). Tours depart from 34675 Street of the Golden Lantern, in Dana Point Harbor. Information: (714) 496-5794.


* Davy's Locker offers tours in conjunction with the local chapter of the American Cetacean Society. Weekday times are 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; weekends are 9 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m. Prices are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Tour groups meet at the Balboa Pavilion, 400 Main St., on the Balboa Peninsula. Information: (714) 673-1434.

* Newport Landing Sportfishing gives narrated tours weekdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., weekends at 9 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m. Prices are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Tours depart from the Balboa Peninsula, on the landward side between Adams and Palm streets (near the ferry). Information: (714) 675-0550.

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