Editorial: Whale plate history a sorry saga

Two immovable objects — the California Coastal Commission and the marine artist Wyland — have butted heads for three years and the result is a missed opportunity for the public and the state.

Wyland's hugely popular design of a humpback whale tail on a specialty state license plate has been replaced by another humpback whale tail design, and apparently quite a lot of money was spent on it. The commission itself says the Wyland plate has been the best-selling of the state's pricey specialty plates, which cost vehicle owners $50 to purchase and an additional $40 to re-register every year.

Will the new plate measure up? Only time will tell.

State bureaucrats decided to eliminate a proven money-maker; the plate racked up $60.2 million in sales over 16 years. The Wyland design was donated to the state in 1995, costing California nothing. The new plate required the paid services of two artists and untold hours of staff time in reviewing submissions.

The Wyland whale tail saga began to unravel in 2008, when, as the economy soured, the hugely successful artist told the commission he wanted a share of the proceeds of his work to help fund his education foundation. Apparently a demand of 20% of profits from the plate was made, and a counteroffer of $100,000 a year for 10 years was proffered — and no deal was struck.

It was a standoff between Wyland and Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas, who admits that the original donation of the design was sealed with a handshake, so to speak. There was nothing in writing spelling out the rights of either party to the valuable artwork.

In the end, Douglas and the commissioners decided to cast off Wyland and search for a new whale tail plate by holding a statewide contest. Three hundred artists responded, and the process took years to accomplish.

And what is the replacement? The same whale, the humpback, in a slightly different view. A whale that, while having its own marvelous qualities, has little to do with California and is rarely, if ever, seen along our coastline, especially here in the south.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Pacific humpback spends its summers in the Gulf of Alaska and travels to the Hawaiian Islands for breeding in tropical waters. They have no special connection to California as a whole.

On the other hand, the commission could have taken the advice of Laguna Beach artist Bill Atkins, who was hired to work on the new plate, and says he suggested early on that the California gray whale be featured on the new plate. This excellent idea was rebuffed in favor of the humpback.

The California gray whale migrates along the entire coastline, from north to south, and back again, every year, giving the entire state an opportunity to view them. Moreover, the California gray whale is the official state marine mammal, and thousands of them migrate close enough to the shoreline from Northern to Southern California that whale-watchers can stand on shore and view them, or take a short boat ride for a closer encounter.

What better creature to highlight in the state, especially given the friction that often erupts between the north and south? Case in point: Witness the recent effort by a Riverside government official to divide the state in two.

Symbolically, the California gray whale represents unity in a state that is sorely in need of it, and we think the California Coastal Commission blew an opportunity to foster a sense of unity by choosing to replicate the plate.

Worse, it appears the commission intended on replacing the Wyland humpback design with another similar design simply out of spite. And that's an unfortunate way to run a state agency.

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