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Whales, fans turn out during Dana Point's Festival of Whales

Boat excursions during Dana Point's annual Festival of Whales give visitors a chance to see the sea mammals up close during their migration to Baja, Mexico.

March 08, 2012|By Katherine Tulich, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Dana Point Festival of Whales should capitalize on what's been a busy whale-watching season in Southern California.
The Dana Point Festival of Whales should capitalize on what's been… (Dana Point Festival of Whales )

It was a clear day off the Dana Point Harbor last weekend as one of the many leisure boats headed off to search for the coast's regular visitors these days: migrating gray whales. It didn't take long before the captain announced two large adults had been spotted.

Squeals of delight rippled through the passengers. "Everyone turns into a 5-year-old child when they see one of these magnificent creatures," said Doug Thompson, onboard marine naturalist for an excursion with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching. The boat followed the whales for an hour as they frolicked and rolled in the water. The gray whales seemed to be putting on quite a show.

It's been a bumper season for cetaceans this year. By the end of February, 200 gray whales had been spotted off Dana Point (last year it took till the end of March to reach that number). Humpbacks and killer whales have also been seen, and a recent Internet video of a dolphin stampede in the area went viral.

It isn't just a marine mammal mixer happening out at sea, it's also party time on land as Dana Point continues its annual two-weekend event, Festival of Whales. It began last week and drew big crowds to the casual, intimate Orange County harbor.

Now in its 41st year, the festival has grown from a small walking parade to a jampacked, four-day event attracting more than 100,000 visitors.

"Originally it was a very low-key weekend event to help spread the awareness of the whales," said Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching. Kalez's father, Don Hansen, first established whale watching in the area, and he began the first festival when the harbor opened in 1971. "[The festival] has now blossomed into a huge community celebration with over 50 activities taking place over the two weekends," she said.

Kalez's company holds whale watching trips every hour during the festival, with more intimate trips offered three times a day on their smaller, speedier catamaran. Many other operators participate in the event as well. The Ocean Institute hosts educational trips, while exclusive yacht companies offer more luxurious experiences.

The California gray whales can be seen off the coast from December to March as they embark on their 10,000-mile round-trip migration from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to lagoons in Baja, Mexico, where they mate and give birth.

"Dana Point is one of the best places to see whales," said Thompson, an expert on the life cycle of gray whales and one of the guest speakers featured in the festival's morning lecture series. "There is easy access to the ocean quickly from the harbor, the conditions are great so you rarely get a bumpy day out at sea, and the headlands here act as a navigational beacon for the whales so we have a chance to see them close to shore."

Not only a celebration of cetaceans, there are plenty of landlubber activities as well, including a fun run, sand castle workshops, a clam chowder cook-off with local restaurants, as well as concerts and arts and crafts displays.

The festival also hosts the annual Mongoose Cup led by local surfing legend Mickey Muñoz . It's an all-day learning clinic and race for stand up paddle (SUP) enthusiasts.

"Dana Point has become a huge hub for SUP. It's grown so popular with many events getting more serious and professional, but we try to keep ours very family-orientated," said Muñoz. There will be a fun paddle that's open to everyone, safety clinics, even a SUP yoga instructor on hand. "We want to educate and make it non-intimidating so that beginner to intermediate paddlers will feel comfortable."

The festival closes with a free concert on Sunday afternoon with local bands performing off Baby Beach. "We want people to know we are here to celebrate the annual migration of the California gray whale," says Kalez. "It's a fun carnival experience but also a chance to be educated and walk away with a little more respect for the whales."

Dana Point Festival of Whales

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Dana Point Harbor, 34624 Golden Lantern, Dana Point

Cost: Prices vary for whale watching excursions. A free shuttle services all parking lots and event locations. See festival website for details.

Info: (888) 440-4309,

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