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A whale of a day at sea: The 49th Annual Dana Point Festival of the Whales kicks off on March 7 


On Saturday, March 7 and Sunday, March 8, Dana Point begins celebrating its 49th Annual Festival of the Whales. The festivities, which will also take place on March 14 and 15, include a myriad of activities – and opportunities – to pay tribute to the whale migration.

On Friday, I had the pleasure of taking a whale watching excursion on the Dana Pride from Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, which was founded in 1971.

Whales and dolphins galore 

Although there’s never a guarantee that a whale watching expedition will come across whales or even dolphins, it’s a sure thing that going out on one of the Dana Wharf Whale Watching boats will be a fantastic couple of hours at sea. Friday was not only a beautiful, sunny day, but to make it even more perfect, we came across three gray whales and several pods of common dolphins – and lots of babies who were jumping straight up out of the water, obviously giddy with excitement. 

This is the ideal place to witness the migration. Known as the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World®,” Dana Point welcomes the greatest concentration of blue whales and dolphins on earth, and offers the best year-round whale watching opportunities. Dana Point Harbor has quick and easy accessibility to open ocean and unobstructed views, giving whale watchers a sense of pristine and spectacular encounters.

A whale flipping

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Courtesy of Loriannah Hespe and Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching

Gray Whale spotted during an excursion 

All of the whale and dolphin watching cruises are narrated by expert marine naturalist captains, and the one on our trip provided all sorts of interesting facts about gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and dolphins. The migration route of the Pacific Gray Whale is often described as the longest known mammal migration in the animal kingdom and is easily observed along the California coastline. Beginning in the Bering and Chukchi seas and ending in the warm-water lagoons of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, their round trip journey covers over 12,000 miles. 

As pointed out by our knowledgeable captain, gray whales live as long as humans, and if one lives to be 75 years old, it will have traveled 900,000 miles in its lifetime.

Seasonally, excursions will see over 1,500 gray whales, and in the summer they see blue whales, and year-round fin whales, minke whales, humpback whales, and even sharks. Gray whales are found only in the Pacific Ocean, with a population of approximately 26,000. They are medium-sized whales, reaching up to 45 feet (14 m) in length, with the females usually being larger than the males. They are gray with white patches, which mostly consist of areas where barnacles and lice have attached themselves to the whales. 

Extra baggage

Surprisingly, they carry over 400 pounds of these barnacles and whale lice. As identifying features, gray whales have no dorsal (back) fins. Instead, they have a low hump and a series of six to twelve knuckles or bumps. Gray whales are baleen whales, and each has approximately 300 plates of cream-colored baleen hanging from its upper jaw. Two to five throat creases allow their throats to expand during feeding. Sparse hairs are found on the snout, especially in young whales. Their blows are usually low and puffy or heart-shaped. 

A Whale poster

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Submitted photo

2020 Festival logo designed by Laguna native Mika Kelly

By late December to early January, the first of the gray whales begin to arrive to the calving lagoons of Baja. By mid-February to mid-March, the bulk has arrived in the lagoons, including those calves born along the way. During these two months, the first gray whales to leave the lagoons are the males and females without calves. Once they have mated, they will begin the expedition back north to their cold water summer feeding grounds which are rich with food. Gray whales are the only baleen whales to feed along the bottom of the seafloor. They scoop up large mouthfuls of sediment and strain small invertebrates through their baleen. 

A new meaning to being half-asleep

Our captain describes their complicated breathing process; whales have to think each time they take a breath. As a result, they sleep only 23 minutes at a stretch, putting one side of their brain asleep at a time, in order to keep the other side active. That side stays awake at a low level of alertness and also signals when to rise to the surface for a fresh breath of air. 

Don’t miss the chance to celebrate the Festival of Whales in a big way; hop aboard a Dana Wharf Whale Watching excursion boat to see and learn about the magnificent creatures that pass through our waters during the longest migration in the animal kingdom. 

Festival of Whales Parade

The Festival of Whales Parade kicks off the two-weekend celebration on Saturday, March 7 at 10 a.m., and for the first time, will travel through the Harbor, beginning at the island side of Island Way and ending at Golden Lantern and Dana Point Harbor Drive. 

A whale two

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Courtesy of Loriannah Hespe and Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching

Two’s company 

The public can join Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari for 5-star tours featuring underwater viewing pods, fast and fun zodiac, and more. Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching is Orange County’s first whale watching company, and all cruises are narrated by an expert marine naturalist captain who will educate on the abundant ocean life on the coast. 

In addition to the opening parade, activities and events are hosted during the festival that include a street fair, arts and craft shows and sales, classic car exhibits, stand up paddling, sailing, sand sculpting, a cook-off competition, concerts on land and water, environmental education programs, kids activities, culinary delights, beer gardens, and whale watching excursions aboard a variety of vessels. 

Pet Project Foundation will be hosting a new event for both two-legged and four-legged family members to enjoy. On Saturday, March 7 from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. outside The Brig Restaurant, sniff, schmooze, and sip craft beer at Pet Project Foundation’s “Whales, Tails, and Ales.” Event highlights include delicious eats, family fun and inflatables, a dog costume contest, opportunity drawings, and local artisan and dog-friendly vendors. Dogs on leashes are welcome and all proceeds benefit Pet Project Foundation and the lost and abandoned pets at the San Clemente-Dana Point Animal Shelter. 

Attendees can join iHeartYoga for the inaugural “Wisdom of the Whale” meditation workshop on Saturday, March 7 from 7 - 9 p.m. Relaxation specialist Alan Hostetter will lead participants on a transcendental ocean journey in celebration of the beautiful Pacific Ocean 

For more on Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, go to

For more on Captain Dave’s Dolphins, go to

For a complete list of Festival activities, click here.


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