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A Pod of the Family : Dana Point's Affection for Whales Continues


For a quarter-century now, folks in Dana Point have been opening their hearts--if not their refrigerators--to thousands of gray whales migrating from their summer homes in the Arctic seas to their winter digs in Mexican lagoons.

On Saturday, the city's 25th Festival of Whales gets underway, offering three weekends of activities. Coordinated through the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce and the Dana Point Harbor Assn. with hundreds of volunteers, the festival is designed to give visitors a better appreciation of the leviathans now moseying south off Dana Point.

The festival starts with a community parade and street fair and includes hands-on activities, tide-pool walks and educational cruises at the Orange County Marine Institute. Also on tap are a 5K Whale Run, a Junior Whale Run and daily open houses at the Doheny State Beach Interpretive Center.

There is a new volleyball tournament this year too, plus sandcastle and sailing workshops and a golf tournament and pretournament dinner, among other activities. Event calendars will be available at several festival sites, and free shuttles will run between locales on weekends.

At the heart of the festival are whale-watching excursions that leave daily from Dana Wharf Sportfishing and on weekends from the marine institute, said event co-chairman Don Porter.

The typical whale-watching season in this area runs from late December into March. Because the barnacled travelers don't pack planners, however, that timeline has been known to shift by a month or so in either direction.

During the season, whale-watching excursions depart daily from several coastal cities in Orange County, but Dana Point residents tout their town as one of the best spots because of the harbor's proximity to open ocean.

As local historian Doris Walker writes in her book, "Adventurer's Guide to Dana Point," gray whales are the supercommuters of the sea. The whales, which can reach a length of 45 feet and weigh 50 tons, travel an average of 6,000 miles in each direction during their yearly migration from the plankton-rich Arctic seas to Mexico's warmer waters, where they give birth to their calves.

Visitors who opt for the institute's cruises can take advantage of the educational center's specialized research equipment, including a hydrophone that allows cruisers to listen to the underwater environment.

"The acoustic environment of the water is very important to whales," said Harry Helling, an institute director. "They can hear at ranges, high and low, that humans can't. By listening to the sounds of the water, hearing the sound of snapping shrimp or a small outboard motor a mile away, you can appreciate a little of what they must hear when they swim by a small boat harbor [with] 20 or 30 boats following them."

Institute cruisers also have special equipment and a video microscope system that lets visitors see the kind of food gray whales eat.

Naturalists and marine biologists will be on board to answer questions and direct research activities during the 2 1/2-hour cruises, which Helling recommends for visitors in first grade and up.

Cruisers on all excursions are advised to dress warmly and to take binoculars, because whale-watching vessels are required by law to stay at least 100 yards from the mammals.

Dana Point's Festival of Whales began the same year Dana Point Harbor was completed, Porter said, when local sportfishing companies hit on the idea of offering whale-watching excursions during the migration season to offset a slow sportfishing period.

It now draws visitors from as far as the East Coast, who, like the whales they come to ogle, may be attracted by the climate.

"I talked with a lady in Vermont about the festival the other day," Porter said, "and I told her the weather was in the 60s. She said she couldn't wait to get here."

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