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Dana Point is Officially the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World!

Dana Point Harbor - Photo by Jeff Gritchen

Dana Point Named First Whale Heritage Site in North America

By  | [email protected] | Orange County Register

In Dana Point, homes surround the Pacific Ocean like an amphitheater.

It’s no wonder, much of the town’s character and its economy focuses on the ocean and the marine life that migrates past its doorstep for months on end each year.

Dana Point was trademarked as the Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World a year ago and now it has been designated the first Whale Heritage Site in North America by the United Kingdom-based World Cetacean Alliance.

The designation, for which the group partnered with the U.S.-based nonprofit World Animal Protection, recognizes the seaside town as a spot where cetaceans – the scientific name for whales, dolphins and porpoise – are embraced in the local culture, economics, politics and social fabric of the community and where people and cetaceans coexist respectfully.

“This designation distinguishes Dana Point as a beacon for tourists to select this as a sustainable travel destination,” said Ben Williamson, programs director for World Animal Protection. “It includes serious community involvement, economic importance and a look at the way whales impact the area’s heritage.”

The designation was created in 2015.  The first two sites, Hervey Bay in Australia and The Bluff in South Africa, both won certification in October 2019.  Tenerife, Spain, will become the first Whale Heritage Site in Europe.

“When they explained the criteria, I said we’re the perfect location,” said Gisele Anderson, who with her husband, Dave Anderson, operates Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari out of the harbor. “We have history, education, saving of animals. We’re really excited because now Dana Point has set the bar.”

Anderson worked with Donna Kalez, who operates Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, to get the city its trademark and then when approached by the World Cetacean Alliance after that success they partnered to earn it the Whale Heritage Site designation, which was announced this week.

“I’m so proud of myself and Gisele for getting this done,” Kalez said. “It finally brings us the recognition we’ve been trying to get for so long.”

Despite Dana Point’s breathtaking coastline, the selection is not based on geography or its visual splendor, organizers said.

“You could be in the best place in the world, but if you’re not acting responsibly or sustainably, you wouldn’t fit the criteria,” Williamson said.

Another key point, Willliamson said, is recognizing locations near captive animal entertainment sites.

“It provides tourists an alternative to watching animals in the wild,” he said. “In Dana Point, tourists can see animals in their own backyard. This lowers the demand for captured wildlife entertainment.”

The new title should be lucrative for the town, making it an even more popular destination for ecotourism, drawing folks looking for vacations that not only benefit themselves but the environment.

“Increasingly, we find that travelers are looking for vacations that do more than just entertain,” Williamson said. “They want to give back and contribute positively to the local economy and environment. We’ve seen support for captive wildlife entertainment falling year after year in independent surveys.”

In Dana Point’s DNA

The Headlands, a towering cliff outcropping overlooking the Pacific Ocean, has been identified by experts as a navigational point for gray whales charting their course from the Bering Sea in Alaska to the warm lagoons of Baja Mexico, where they mate and give birth. A platform at the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center there allows people on land to watch the passing behemoths and pods of hundreds and thousands of leaping dolphins.

And Dana Point’s Festival of Whales is the world’s first and longest-running whale festival.

Hundreds of thousands of people every year make their way to the annual two-weekend-long event started by the “father of whale-watching,” Don Hansen, who with Philip Grignon, a high school teacher, opened the first whale and dolphin watching charter in a small trailer when the town’s harbor opened in 1971. It was a way to teach students about the migrating gray whales. Hansen is Kalez’s father.

Since its early days, the festival has included whale lectures and information on the town’s history with whales – both of which continue to be part of the event that celebrates its 50th anniversary in March.

There are references to the marine life throughout town. Dana Hills High’s mascot is a dolphin, and whale images represent two elementary schools in town.  A whale mosaic welcomes people at the town’s south entrance along Pacific Coast Highway and a 40th-anniversary whale fluke stands at the Dana Point Harbor Sailing and Events Center. At Doheny State Beach, there are whale fossils on exhibit near its interpretive center and there’s the famed Whale Walk along the beach.

A tourism opportunity

There is a greater density of dolphins per square mile just off Dana Point than anywhere else in the world, they said.  There are year-round opportunities to see various species of whales, such as blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, killer and pilot sperm.

The area also has a moderate climate and mild ocean conditions, providing opportunities for year-round tourism.

Combined, the charters operated by Kalez and Anderson already take out more than 100,000 people a year – who 95% of the time successfully spy sea creatures during their outings. Together, the charters employ nearly 70 people.

And, the harbor is presently undergoing a $440 million renovation that should entice more visitors with the reconstruction of the commercial core and marinas, two new hotels and fully rebuilt docks.

Bryon Ward, president of Burnham-Ward Properties, which is building the commercial core, said marine education is a key pillar in the harbor’s history and future. The company is consulting with marine biologists and artists to create additional educational exhibits and whale-related public art installations, he said.

“With this designation, we know that even more visitors will depart on their whale watching adventures from Dana Point Harbor,” Ward said. “As we further revitalize the harbor,  we will instill the importance of education, conservation and viewing whales in their natural habitat.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents the harbor and Dana Point as part of the county’s Fifth District, calls the harbor one of the O.C.’s two major assets and sources of revenue, along with John Wayne Airport.

“This new title will draw people from all over the world either on business or in a personal capacity,” she said. And even if they are here for a business conference, she said the resorts find “that people will come back and bring their families because of what Dana Point has to offer.”

In 2016, Visit Dana Point was created and is now funded through a room fee collected by 11 lodging properties in town. In the fiscal year 2019, the first four resorts involved raised more than $1 million, booking nearly 600,000 room nights, to market Dana Point as a destination.

Whale-watching and the resort industry make up about 48% of the city’s revenue, said City Manager Mike Killebrew, adding that those who come to whale watch often come back to take in more of the town because of the “good experience” they had. The two industries brought into city coffers about $14 million in bed taxes and nearly $6 million in sales tax in fiscal year 2019.

“Whale watching has been something all the hotels and resorts promote on their websites and destination information. That’s the biggest thing here,” said Jim Samuels, chairman of Visit Dana Point and general manager of the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa. “This will help people all around the world really know how special Dana Point is.”

Tourism with a conscience

Conservation goes hand-in-hand with tourism in their charter operations and that is a big part of what sets Dana Point apart and drew interest from the World Cetacean Alliance, Kalez and Anderson said.

Both operations have been certified by the alliance as a responsible whale watching charter and each provides naturalists aboard their vessels to educate passengers on the animals they are seeing and what needs to be done to protect the species.

They keep track of popular celebrities, like Patches, a bottlenose dolphin with distinctive pink, white and black blotches, so they can point them out and help deepen the connection people have with the animals they are seeing.

For more than a decade, Kalez has worked with researchers at the University of Redlands on projects such as mapping sightings and looking at the impact of vessels on marine mammal populations.

They participate in ocean cleanups and watch for animals that have become entangled.

Anderson’s husband, Capt. Dave, works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coordinating a team of trained boat captains who are at the ready when entangled whales are sighted – he’s even penned a children’s book about Lily, a gray whale entangled in a fishing net. 

“Our goal is that everyone who walks away from a trip feels more connected to the ocean, whales and dolphins and somehow that is translated into a perspective that protects them,” said Gisele Anderson.

For Barbara Johannes, president of the Dana Point Historical Society, the Whale Heritage Site distinction brings more responsibility. Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana Jr.,  who detailed his experiences and those of other sailors in 1834 in his book, “Two Years Before the Mast.”

“It is our inherent responsibility to promote a safe cetacean habitat along our coast for the benefit of present and future generations,” she said. “I think Richard Henry Dana Jr. would be pleased.”