THE WHALES' TALE : The Dana Point Celebration of the Sea and Its Creatures Is a Time to Delight and Inform Adults as Well as Children

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

California gray whales eat lunch in the mud but they never have to take a bath. And every winter, they join all their friends and relations on a monster road trip to Baja, a 6,000-mile junket uninterrupted by stops at roadside points of interest or homes of cheek-squeezing great aunts.

With a lifestyle like this, kids may feel a certain kinship with these barnacle-encrusted giants of the deep. And with the whale-watching season full upon us, now is an ideal time to get to know them a little better.

Along Orange County's coast, Dana Point has one of the hotter set-ups for cetacean-seeking families in its Festival of Whales, which runs Saturday through March 5 at sites in and around the city's harbor. Co-hosted by the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce and the Dana Point Harbor Assn., the event was expanded this year from two to four weeks with a broader selection of marine-themed events.

Activities range from daily whale-watching excursions by Dana Wharf Sportfishing to the Animal Rescue Foundation's (ARF) Wag-A-Thon on Feb. 18, a parade of hundreds of local animals, led by celebrity pooch, Moose, a.k.a Eddie on TV's "Frasier" series. Beethoven, the St. Bernard star of two films bearing his name, is expected to make a guest appearance at a pre-Wag party Saturday. Other festival highlights include family-oriented workshops on everything from kayaking to sandcastle building at the Dana Point Youth and Group Facility, a glitzy gala and golf tournament, street fairs and campfire programs. (See the accompanying calendar on Page 10 for details or call the chamber's festival hot line at (714) 496-1555).

An estimated 100,000 people took part in the 1994 festival, and, according to the chamber's executive director, Jody Tyson, attendance at this year's event is expected to match or exceed that.

"Our hope for this year's festival is not to attract more people," Tyson said. "But we do hope that all those people who could only participate in a few things last year will be able to take part in more . . . and improve their (whale festival) experience."

So, how does one go about "experiencing" a whale?

The Orange County Marine Institute is a good place to start. Best known for its educational programs for youths, the nonprofit institute also offers excursions and shore-side activities suitable for families.

On festival weekends, the institute's offerings will include twice-daily Marine Mammal Exploration Cruises aboard its 70-foot research vessel, the R/V Sea Explorer. Also on tap are guided tide-pool walks, an evening squid cruise and an open house featuring the living history "Arts of the Sailor" program aboard the Pilgrim, a 130-foot replica of the brig that carried author Richard Henry Dana from Boston to the California coast in the 1830s.

The R/V Sea Explorer motored into Dana Point last spring, and has since been an integral part of the institute's hands-on learning programs. The vessel features equipment that lets visitors examine the undersea world with minimal impact on the critters and plants that live there.

Among the state-of-the-art tools used in the marine-mammal cruises is the Peterson Grab, a remote-controlled unit that scoops soft mud off the ocean floor. The muck is then brought into the on-board lab for a lesson on gray whale feeding technique.

"We take a bite of the mud offshore to show what types of creatures live there," explained Harry Helling, the institute's associate director.

"Gray whales differ from other baleen whales because they literally plow through the mud, then filter-feed on the amphipods that rise up in the mud cloud."

In lieu of teeth, baleen whales have hundreds of thin, long bony triangles called baleen (or whalebone) that hang from their upper jaw and act like a sieve. They squeeze mouthfuls of water out of their baleen and capture any food that remains behind. Gray whales have a specialized short-fringed baleen, and can capture shrimp-like creatures as small as a quarter-inch long, Helling said.

When they're not playing in the mud, cruise participants will also have a chance to use hydrophones to listen to underwater sounds, including, hopefully, the low frequency sounds used by gray whales for communication and navigation.

The vessel's Global Positioning System, a method that uses satellites to track the movement of marine mammals, will also be demonstrated. An estimated 24,000 California gray whales migrate between their feeding grounds off Alaska to breed off Baja California each year, a round trip of more than 12,000 miles that takes several months to complete.

While on board, OCMI cruisers will be encouraged to take part in several other hands-on learning activities, all designed to give them a better understanding of whales, and the local marine environment.

"We do so much with kids, we know how to tap into the fascination of people have (for the sea)," Helling said. "Most of our programs are done from a child's eye view, but they work just as well for adults. The barriers break down quickly, and pretty soon the adults are digging through the mud and playing with the plankton too."

The cruises are suitable for all ages, but Helling doesn't encourage attendance by preschool age children who may be difficult (now that's an understatement) to control for the cruise's 2 1/2-hour duration.

During the festival, OCMI will offer the general public its "Let's Go Squidding" cruise for the first time. Popular among school groups, the evening cruise explores nocturnal marine life, particularly that of the Loligo opalescens, a local squid that measures about eight inches from its head to the tip of its tentacles. Commercial squidding lights will be used to attract the creatures to the boat, and several will be brought on board for observation.

A cousin to the octopus, squid have 10 legs and can propel themselves through the water faster than many fish by sucking in water and squirting it out of a tube in their long, pointed bodies. Although the squid studied on this cruise are small, there will be a guest appearance (via the wonders of videotape) by one of their larger--make that much larger-- kin.

"We show people clips from that part in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' when Kirk Douglas does battle with the giant squid," Helling said. "We talk about the body parts that all squid use for attack, and at the end, we tell them that giant squid aren't just in the movies; there have been ones as long as 60 feet washed up on the beach, mostly around the Channel Islands.

"People are pretty blown away by that," he added, laughing. "But then, we like to leave people with that 'oh, wow' feeling."

* What: Dana Point's 24th Annual Festival of Whales.

* When: Saturday, Feb. 11, through March 5. List of events, Page 10.

* Where: Multiple sites in and around Dana Point Harbor.

* Whereabouts: To reach the harbor area, exit the San Diego (5) Freeway at Pacific Coast Highway and drive north. Turn left at Dana Point Harbor Drive. Most activities are in this area. To ease the parking crunch, free shuttles will run weekends between the harbor area and the Dana Hills High School parking lot at Stonehill Drive and Street of the Golden Lantern.

* Wherewithal: Prices vary.

* Where to call: Dana Point Chamber of Commerce, (714) 496-1555 or (800) 290-3262 for recorded updates.



A 30-year veteran of the children's entertainment business, Lewis and her puppet pals present their musical, audience-participation show Saturday, Feb. 11, at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. $16 to $30. (800) 300-4345.


The Children's Museum at La Habra (301 S. Euclid St.) takes a look at vision and optical illusion in its latest interactive exhibit, "Would You Look at That!," which runs Monday, Feb. 13, through June 18. $4. (310) 905-9793.


If your kids think Franz Liszt is what Franz takes to the grocery store, they might benefit from this 2 p.m. concert Saturday, Feb. 11, at Fullerton College: a living-history piece that views great composers through the eyes of this 19th-Century pianist. $5 to $8. (714) 871-8101.

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