Whales Few at Festival, but Who Noticed?

Times Staff Writer

OK, so there weren't many whales at the 17th annual Festival of the Whales at Dana Point Harbor on Sunday. People were just having too good a time to notice.

The festival is held each year to mark the whale-watching season as the big California grays migrate from the Bering Sea off Alaska to lagoons near the tip of Baja California.

But family events planned by the Orange County Marine Institute to promote interest in the California gray whale were just a bonus to most of the thousands who gravitated to Dana Point Harbor for the weekend. The real charmer was the weather.

Sunlight glistened on the waters of Capistrano Bay as thousands converged on the harbor for a picture-postcard array of seashore activities.

Some combed through the gift shop and museum of the institute, some climbed onto the famous brig Pilgrim, docked near the museum's door.

Absolutely Nothing

But Roger Monell, a computer salesman from Laguna Hills, sat on a boulder on the seaward side of the harbor wall, rested his head on the palms of his interwined hands, and did what he had waited to do all week--absolutely nothing.

"I'm in heavy traffic all week. I love to come here just to think," Monell said. "You don't get many days like this in February."

Francis and Kazuko Nishioka of Yorba Linda were baiting their hooks with ghost shrimp in efforts to catch snapper and halibut. Fishing would be useless until after 5 p.m., when the tide would change, Francis Nishioka explained. Then why fish in the middle of the day?

"It's such a beautiful day, why not?" he said smiling.

Kris Morgan of Laguna Niguel had much better luck with his catch. His bucket was teeming with small crabs caught in small pools of water between the rocks. Morgan, 8, said the keys were having plenty of experience and using anchovies as bait.

Two Marine lance corporals from Camp Pendleton, Dennis Roggenkamp and Jerry Burns, braved the cold waters for snorkeling near the sea wall.

"You can snorkel plenty of places up and down the coast. But there's no place more beautiful than Dana Point," Burns explained.

Like most who dotted the landscape, the two Marines had no idea there was a festival going on.

Peter Paul Ott said he didn't blame them.

Ott was center of attention at the festival Sunday. His paintings of gray whales were everywhere. He even designed the whale scene on the official festival T-shirts. Ott also spent an hour talking to a crowd about the migration of the gray whales. But he admitted it was too nice a day to be inside listening to a lecture: He couldn't wait to head for the beach himself.

Those he entertained, however, seemed to be in no hurry to go outside. For 30 minutes after his lecture a crowd was still gathered around him trying to learn more about whales and Ott's interest in wildlife.

Ott, a biologist and sculptor who lives in Laguna Beach, makes his living from his wildlife paintings and from taking tour groups to Baja--both by sea and by road--to view the whales' final spring destination.

It's no surprise to Ott that people go out on whale-watching expeditions without seeing any whales.

"The whales are migrating further and further away from shore each year," Ott said. He explained that whale watchers are driving them out to sea. While there are nearly 30,000 gray whales who make the annual migration, only a few thousand at a time are in movement along Southern California's coast.

"On weekends, there literally are more people out in boats looking for whales than there are whales," he said. "The noise pollution from the motors is driving the whales away."

Ott is not only an expert whale-watcher, he is an environmentalist, who uses his lectures to preach his views a little.

"Every year, a million people move to within 50 miles of the coast," he told his audience. "Think about the pollution that creates, and it's effect on our sea life."

The institute is more than just a gift shop and a lecture hall. It also has live exhibits which fascinate young and old: sea urchins, California spiny lobsters, sea cucumbers--the animal, not the plant--and even a horned shark small enough to fit into a shoe box.

Robert Fontes, who watches over the tank where kids are allowed to touch sea animals like starfish and cucumbers, said it is easy to recall the most-asked question: "Are these things alive?"

Betty Elder, who gives occasional whale lectures at the Marine Institute and also runs its gallery, says the question she gets most often is: Will the whales eat you?

Not a chance, she explains to a group of children. In fact, they don't eat much of anything except when feeding in the Arctic waters.

The institute does not conduct whale-watching except on Saturdays. At nearby Dana Wharf Sportfishing, however, officials reported Sunday's whale-watching at 50%--meaning that half the tour boats that went out spotted some California grays.

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