People from miles around descended on Dana Point on Saturday for an experience that some Southern Californians take for granted: the annual migration of the whales. More specifically, opening day of the city's ode to that gray parade off its shore -- the Dana Point Festival of Whales.
"The idea is to celebrate the annual migration of the California gray whale and to educate the public regarding whales and other marine animals," said Donna Kalez, chairwoman of the committee that organized this year's event.
The festival is also about making money.
The opening of the two-weekend event, she said, is historically the most profitable day of the year for the merchants of Dana Point Harbor. "All of them are praying for good weather," said Kalez, whose family owns Dana Wharf Sport Fishing which, among other things, offers whale-watching cruises. "If you lose this weekend, you don't make it up. This is huge for us."
Saturday's festivities began with a parade down Pacific Coast Highway witnessed by an estimated 5,000 people. It continued with a downtown street fair, a horseshoe tournament, music, an arts-and-crafts show, walking tours hosted by the local historical society and marine exhibitions at the Ocean Institute.
"We want people to come down and have an outstanding time," Kalez said, "but we also want them to come away with an understanding of the ocean and how to protect it."
Indeed, that was the original idea in 1971 when Kalez's father, Don Hansen, started the festival with the principal of the local high school. Their aim was to educate children about the annual December-April migration of the whales from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their birthing grounds off Baja California.
That first event attracted about 5,000 participants, Kalez said. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people are expected to pass through the city this weekend and next, she said.
"We want them to come see what Dana Point has to offer, then come back to see us again," Penny Maynard, chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce, said of the festival taking place at locations throughout the city.
As always, though, its heart is at the wharf, where dozens of boats, large and small, were working overtime to ferry more than 1,500 people a day on two-hour cruises out to where the whales meander.
"It was awesome," said Robert Ferem, who, with his wife, Donna, had driven from Phoenix for the festival and had just seen his first whale. "You kind of get chill bumps," he said of the experience. "It makes you appreciate the whales and wish we could do more to protect them."
Jennifer Larivee, in from Las Vegas for the same purpose, had a similar experience. "There were lots of whales," she said. "I can't believe we actually saw them -- they made me feel small.
"I think I'll have to come back again and again."