Great Read: Whale-watching rivals spar off Dana Point
Captain Dave Anderson’s face tightens as he peers toward the horizon through his binoculars. The Manute’a has been out at sea for nearly an hour, bouncing across the waters off Dana Point, and so far there’s not a single whale to be seen.
Clutching cameras and wrapped in sweaters, passengers, who moments before were entranced by a pod of dolphins, crane their necks, looking in every direction.
Anderson’s reputation rides on giving his 49 passengers an up-close view they’ll share over and over once they get back to port. And, with any luck, some eye-catching video he can upload to his website.
As Anderson searches, his rival is one step ahead. Donna Kalez’s crews have already spotted a pair of whales during their first voyage of the day.
Just then, a passenger shouts up to Anderson, “10 o’clock!”
Anderson revs the boat’s engine. Was that a puff of water in the distance?
In Dana Point — a city so well-known for whale watching that it’s home to an annual festival dedicated to the mammal — two companies doing business from docks only half a mile apart compete over nearly 12 square miles of wide open sea.
Anderson’s outfit, Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, and Kalez’s Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching both claim to be the region’s No. 1 operation and the best option for front-row viewing of the magnificent creatures that swim just past the jetties to this picturesque harbor.
On both the ocean waves and the airwaves, the rivalry is fierce — what one observer called “a reality show” for the whale-watching set.
When Dana Wharf built a faster boat, Captain Dave attached a pair of glass, V-shaped, underwater pods to the bottom of his boat so riders could view dolphins as they zipped past.
When a Dana Wharf employee posted a video shot using a drone, Captain Dave tried to one-up his competition, posting a clip from his quadcopter, a similar unmanned aircraft. His five-minute compilation of scenes captured with the drone has gone viral — getting more than 5 million views.
Both businesses constantly update their Facebook pages with videos, photos and promotions. (Anderson’s page has 6,255 likes; Kalez’s has 5,926.)
Though Kalez and Anderson are on friendly terms, they have a rocky past.
Kalez’s father, Don Hansen, is credited with introducing whale watching to Orange County, taking out schoolchildren and then adult customers in a 60-passenger boat he docked in San Clemente. More than a decade later, he moved his fishing and whale tour business up the coast to Dana Point when the harbor opened in 1971, setting up shop with four boats.
Kalez, a brunet with a wide smile, spent summers with her brother at the harbor, scrubbing fishing rods and cleaning boats. Eventually she became office manager, her brother a captain. They took over the business in 1994.
The siblings now oversee 25 to 40 employees, depending on the season, and have a fleet of six boats, the largest of which — the 95-foot Dana Pride — can reach speeds of 24 knots and carry up to 149 passengers, ideal for a fishing expedition or to catch up to a migrating gray.
In 1997, Anderson was running a small boat off a nearby dock, taking tourists out to see dolphins year-round and whales in the winter.
About three years later, Kalez invited him to use one of her docks in exchange for a cut of his profits. It was one of the few locations on the harbor that allowed a commercial catamaran, a two-hull boat Anderson hoped to buy. Plus, her business was already drawing a crowd, and it seemed logical that some customers would drift his way. So he said yes and bought a 26-passenger vessel soon after.
But as whale watching grew more popular, Anderson wanted to buy a 49-passenger boat and continue chasing the beasts. When he asked Kalez for permission to dock a larger boat, he said, she told him the dock wasn’t strong enough and there was no other place to hold it.
He says that when he pressed her, Kalez said she was in the process of buying another boat and wasn’t interested in renewing the agreement with Anderson.
These days Anderson, who at the last minute ended up securing a lease from the county for a dock, runs a six-passenger, a 26-passenger and two 49-passenger boats: ORCA, DolphinSafari.com, the Manute’a and their newest boat, the Lily, a 62-footer that doubles as a whale rescue vessel and reaches speeds of 18 knots.
Kalez said their alliance was based on the understanding that he would stick to dolphins and leave the whales to her — which he denies.
“Our relationship outgrew itself,” she said.
It’s still a sore subject for Anderson.
“I don’t mind competing,” he said, “but I believe in treating fellow businesses the way I want to be treated, even if it costs you.”
For years, whale watching was just a winter business, something to help fill the boats once fishing season slowed down.
But with record numbers of whales migrating up and down the Southern California coast in recent years, it has become a year-round pursuit.
The competition is fierce among the scores of tour companies that dot the Southern California coast, but no more so than in Dana Point.
To make sure they’ re noticed, Anderson and Kalez regularly supply video footage and photos to the media, as well as to outdoor and action sports websites.
“It’s kind of like a reality show,” said Pete Thomas, a writer for GrindTV who also runs his own outdoor sports site and for years was a Times sportswriter. If it lands on the right site, an eye-catching video can lead to millions of views, he said.
Occasionally Dana Wharf and Captain Dave’s will send Thomas footage of the same breaching whale or pod of dolphins. He’ll choose the best one — and usually get caught in the middle, with Anderson or Kalez asking why he didn’t use their video.
“If they have the same thing, they don’t want the other business getting recognition for it,” Thomas said. “Believe me, Donna knows when Dave’s on the news and vice versa.”
Anderson had the sort of day in 2012 that helps cement a reputation in the whale-watching trade.
The evening before, he was told of a gray whale migrating up the coast, its fluke tangled in a fishing net. Anderson and seven volunteers kept tabs on it through the night. The next day they were joined by volunteers from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and spent eight hours hacking away at the netting.
The rescue effort landed him on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, where he recounted how the whale swam up to his boat once the netting had been cut away.
It “opened its mouth, it looked like it was almost saying thank you,” Anderson told DeGeneres. “I probably could’ve touched him if I would’ve reached out.”
Kalez said it’s admirable that Anderson is passionate about saving entangled whales.
“But I don’t know if it’s for publicity,” she said. “I know he wants to be the whale-watcher rescuer, but I don’t know if that’s really his place.”
In an effort to improve their chances of getting dramatic footage, both started experimenting with attaching GoPro cameras to drones that can hover above a whale thrusting itself from the ocean or a pod of dolphins dancing in the waves.
In January, Frank Brennan, a captain for Dana Wharf, is believed to have become the first employee of a California whale-watching company to upload images of a whale taken with a coptercam, a remotely operated device used for aerial photography.
The clip of a 70-foot fin whale was posted on its Facebook page and days later it was on several news stations, setting off a discussion on how close the unmanned devices should be allowed to get to the whales.
When her captains recently spotted a group of false killer whales — calling it a rare sighting — Kalez quickly tweeted it out, along with the times for the next two charters and the number for her reservation’s line.
Dana Wharf grabbed more headlines this winter when one of its captains got on the radio to warn a 419-foot Navy combat ship that it was headed for two gray whales. The huge vessel halted and altered course.
“It becomes a rush to see who can get on the nightly news,” Kalez said.
Back on the boat, Anderson’s hand is on the gas and the Manute’a quickly picks up speed, skipping across the water like a stone. Passengers shift in their seats. Some ready their cameras or tap on their phones.
“We have two baleen whales,” Anderson says, their backs now clearly visible. “Going about 4 knots.”
A collective “ooh” ripples across the boat as passengers watch an enormous tail break through the water, sending up a spray of mist.
Anderson smiles; minutes earlier he was almost certain the trip would be a bust.
On this day, his boats reported eight gray whale sightings — five fewer than Dana Wharf’s.
“Healthy, fair competition is good for a business,” he says later. “It keeps your operation on its toes.”
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