From the cold Arctic seas in the north, to Mexico’s warm and shallow lagoons down south, gray whales travel thousands of miles to nurse and feed every spring, allowing those throughout coastal regions an opportunity to feast their eyes on the magnificent marine mammals firsthand.
Every year, more than 100,000 Orange County residents and visitors make their way to Dana Point Harbor for the Festival of Whales, a two-weekend long event celebrating the return of the once-endangered California gray whale. This year, the festival has returned for its 43rd time, bigger and greener than ever before.
The festival first began in 1972 as a way to bring people to the newly opened harbor after a long, cold winter, and to market the new and wondrous whale-watching experience offered for the first time at Dana Point by Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching. Decades later, the festival has expanded into a community event with a mission to bring attention to the environment and the importance of being a good steward of natural surroundings by protecting the whales and other marine wildlife.
“The festival is a great event and we hope that visitors will take something away with them that gives them a greater understanding of the whales and the ocean they live in. We also hope they get a great sense of our amazing and supportive town,” says Donna Kalez, general manager at Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching.
The family-friendly event is offering numerous activities for people of all ages. The festival kicked-off March 1 and 2 with events like the Polynesian Connection, where Baby Beach was transformed into a recreation of a Polynesian village, the 6th Annual Grunion Run at Doheny State Beach and the Whale of a Sand Sculpting Competition.
The festivities will continue March 8 and 9 with over 30 events and activities to take part of, including a marine mammal lecture series taking place at Harpoon Henry’s; Whale of a Classic Car Display, where vintage cars and boats will be showcased; as well as the opportunity to experience Doheny State Beach’s Mobile Marine Mammal Museum, and much more.
“It’s a very family-friendly event and it’s good for all ages, that’s the part that I like about it,” says Penny Elia, the festival’s executive director. “We have babies to young kids to teenagers to elderly folks… there’s something there for everyone, and when you get all those people together they enjoy each other. It’s a beautiful sight.”
Event-goers will also have the opportunity to go on a whale-watching excursion while at the festival. They can choose from the three different companies at Dana Point: Dana Wharf Whale Watching, Ocean Institute Gray Whale Adventure Cruises or Capt. Dave’s Whale & Dolphin Safari. All three excursions offer unique experiences and a chance to witness several marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and sea lions in their natural habitat.
This year, the number of gray whale sightings has doubled, increasing the chances of witnessing the breathtaking animals. “Gray whales are what made Dana Point famous, their migration comes past Dana Point every year and we take two weeks out to really celebrate them! They are magnificent giants of the ocean and we are amazed that we get to see such huge numbers as they migrate past,” says Kalez.
Along with offering attendees the best experience possible, festival organizers have also made it a priority to keep the environment in mind when planning the event. Elia says that a goal of the festival is to send out a message of clean and green and environmental awareness. One way that they are doing this is by bringing in a water truck for the first time this year and selling refillable water bottles in order to completely do away with single-serving plastic bottles, which are harmful to the ocean and its inhabitants.
Elia hopes that those attending the festival have a great time and experience nature, which makes Dana Point a great destination: “That’s what it’s all about, just having fun and for two weekends, just immersing yourself in the natural beauty… I’ll say that’s the takeaway, come have fun and play with the whales.”