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Tail Gating

From now through April, gray whales swim within 30 miles of O.C.'s shoreline. The Dana Point Festival of Whales offers one chance to meet these ocean neighbors.

February 22, 2001|PHIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Adam Willingham turned away for a moment. His heart sank as the passengers of the R/V Sea Explorer cheered the 30-ton gray whale that burst from the ocean, spun gracefully and crashed back into the water--a rare display called a breach.

Breaching is probably nothing more than a unique form of back-scratching, scientists say. But it is spectacular when performed by a creature as big as a Newport Beach millionaire's yacht.

"All I saw was a splash," said Willingham, the at-sea program coordinator for the Ocean Institute of Dana Point. "I'd been out on the boat for 2 1/2 years, three to four times a week, and I was finally there [for a breach] and I missed it. Then the whale breached about five more times no more than 50 feet from our boat."

In a world of scripted thrills, whale watching remains Southern California's best winter spectator sport. There is no better place on earth to catch a glimpse of the majestic gray whale as it makes its annual 10,000-mile, round-trip mating odyssey from Alaska's icy Bering Sea to the warm lagoons of Baja California.

Between December and April each year, most of the world's roughly 26,000 grays pass within 30 miles of the Orange County coast--some venturing less than half a mile offshore. The odds of seeing one of these 45-foot giants are excellent.

"You see them doing their natural thing," said Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and co-chairwoman of the 30th annual Dana Point Festival of Whales, which begins Saturday. "It's not like Sea World. No one is prompting them to do anything."

Relying on unpredictable Mother Nature has its downside. So far this year, whale watchers have been vexed by dismal weather and an apparent decline in the number of grays venturing close to shore. Researchers say the whales are probably taking a shorter, less visible route behind Santa Catalina Island.

That's bad news for the whale-watching fleets in Dana Point, Newport Beach and Long Beach, which mostly venture just a few miles offshore on two- to three-hour jaunts. Tourists who want a guaranteed whale sighting--not the promised "marine mammal," which includes dolphins--will have to shell out more than $40 and spend all day on the water instead of the typical $14 for a shorter trip.

"I just went nine days without seeing a gray whale," said Mike Bursk, captain of the Sea Explorer, a 71-foot research vessel that makes daily excursions from the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. "We're just not seeing them."

*

On Feb. 14, the American Cetacean Society Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project had logged 355 grays passing their watching station on the Palos Verdes Peninsula--the fourth-worst tally in 20 years, said project director Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

No one can say exactly why the numbers are down this year. It's probably not a population problem. The gray whale population remains stable after declining to a dismal 4,000 in 1947 when the whales were first listed as an endangered species. (They were removed from the list in 1994.)

Reasons for the decline in sightings range from acoustic clutter forcing the whales into quieter waters to trouble with their northern food supply. Schulman-Janiger expects the census numbers to rise as most of the grays begin heading north later this month.

"The first couple of weeks of March should be really good," she said. The census count hits a statistical peak in early March when most of the whales, and quite a few calves, are heading back to the food-rich waters of the Bering Sea. The project's daily numbers are available at http://www.acs-la.org.

Mother whales often stick closer to shore on the northbound leg of the journey because it offers more protection for their calves, which feed constantly to prepare for the cold arctic waters, Schulman-Janiger said. A baby gray is nearly 16 feet long at birth and gains 50 to 100 pounds a day.

Schulman-Janiger's prediction bodes well for the Dana Point Festival of Whales, a nine-day celebration of the grays' migration. In addition to whale watching, the event features guided tours of the tide pools in the Dana Point Marine Life Refuge, an art show and the first-ever Capt. Dave's Whale & Wild Dolphin film festival. The Festival of Whales ends March 4.

Although whales are the headliners, dolphins are turning out to be the saviors of the 2000-01 season.

"This has been an amazing year for dolphins," Schulman-Janiger said. "They're everywhere." Boat skippers agree. "We see incredible dolphin pods every day," Bursk said.

*

Long ago, savvy captains learned to promise passengers a "marine mammal" sighting instead of a whale sighting. Dolphins are more playful members of the same marine mammal family as gray whales. And they're a lot easier to find.

Although whale breaches, flukes and spy hops (in which the whale pokes its head out of the water) are relatively rare, dolphins can be counted on to put on a show, cavorting and frequently surfing on a boat's bow wakes.

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