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51 Years of the Festival of the Whales

Dana Point celebrated its 51st annual Festival of the Whales on March 5 and 6 with two days of food, music, games, and competitions. All proceeds went to several different charities and organizations to better the community, state, and world.

DANA POINT—The 51st annual Festival of the Whales was hosted in the whale watching capital, Dana Point, from March 4-6. This year’s festival was held in honor of Don Hansen, the festival founder. Hansen passed away on Jan. 5 of this year at the age of 87. The festival has been the centerpiece of Dana Point since 1971.  


I attended the two-day festival and was lucky enough to see the parade return after missing the previous year due to COVID-19. 


The celebration kicked off on Friday, March 4, behind the Ocean Institute, with the Welcoming of the Whales ceremony and reception. The free event began at sunset with a welcoming ceremony by the local Acjachemen Nation members and a surfers’ paddle out at the Marine Protected Area behind the institute. The Welcoming of the Whales is a ceremony held to kick off the festival and honor the whales.  


Following the beach ceremony was a reception sponsored by the Dana Point Harbor Partners with guest speakers held inside the institute. Cetacean expert and guest speaker Dr. Ari Friedlaender included an update about Dana Point’s World Cetacean Alliance designation as the first and only Whale Heritage Site in the Americas. In addition, the welcoming ceremony had food trucks, complimentary beverages, and the institute offered free interactive educational activities and displays. 


On March 5, the festival commenced at 8 a.m. with the fifth annual and hilarious Cardboard Classic & Dinghy Dash, a cardboard boat building contest and race (the Dinghy Dash), Business Barge display and voting, food, celebrity emcee, music, and awards. The classic event has become a favorite of the festival, and we all saw why, drawing hundreds of participants and even more spectators to Baby Beach each year. Participants constructed dinghy boats made of cardboard only moments before they raced to the beach to see who could row their boat out to and around the buoy and then back to the sand. All the event proceeds are donated to the Dana Point Aquatic Foundation to support educational boating for at-risk youth in the Dana Point community.


Dinghy Dash Teams work through the morning designing and building their crafts from

corrugated cardboard and duct tape and then compete in age division races. Business Barge boats are pre-built and on display in the morning for the public to view and vote their favorite. The races culminate with the sensational Business Barge division.


At 9 a.m., marine muralist, Wyland, continued the Landmark Whale and Dolphin Adventure “Art Lessons in the Wild,” where children created their work of art aboard a Dana Wharf vessel and had Wyland personally judge the artwork. There were multiple winners and a single grand prize winner who walked away with a signed work of art by Wyland titled “OCEANS,” valued at $4,000. After the art lesson, children could go on a free two-hour whale and dolphin watching adventure. 


The festival’s “Magical Migration” parade began at 10 a.m., starting its route at the Richard Henry Dana statue on the Island Way bridge. The parade traveled over the bridge and then turned right onto Dana Harbor Drive and ended at Dana Point Harbor Drive and Golden Lantern. The parade featured giant parade balloons designed as a whale, a turtle, and a shark, marching bands, military units, city officials, floats, and local businesses. Families and friends lined the streets as the show passed by, cheering, and applauding the businesses, councilmembers, pups, and locals of their city as they passed by. 


On the other end of the harbor, the Whales, Tails & Ales Street Fair began at 10 a.m. as well. This pet-friendly street fair was filled with family and four-legged friends to enjoy craft beer, delicious snacks, dog costume contests, local artisans, dog-friendly vendors, art booths, inflatable slides, and much more. The ratio of dogs to humans was close, but every being alike was enjoying the perks of the festivities. 


The event went on to host the 9th Annual Clam Chowder Cook-Off on Baby Beach. For $10, guests received two voting tickets to vote for the best-tasting clam chowder and the best-decorated booth. The cook-off featured clam chowder from 11 different restaurants in Dana Point and beer from Left Coast Brewery, wine from Westerly Vineyards, and Tito-ritas from the Tito’s Vodka Garden. Music was provided by the band Retrofits. Proceeds from the cook-off went to Fish for Life to fund fishing trips for special needs children. The 2022 winner of the clam chowder cook-off has not yet been announced. 


Throughout the Saturday events, other attractions included the Pacific Coast Corvettes car show, the SoCal Woodies car show, the Dana Hills High School Young Artists Show and Sale, festivals merchandise booths, and the display of the whale tail sculpture (new to this year).  


New to the festival this year was the Whale Tail Sculpture. The Dana Point Harbor Partners commissioned artists Joel Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova to construct Fluke: A Tale of Plastic, a life-sized depiction of an adult gray whale tail, in the act of ‘fluking,’ or raising its fluke vertically above the surface to propel itself to the depths. The sculpture was constructed during the event. 


The sculpture was created using reclaimed steel, damaged curbside trash bins, and single-use water bottles. Stockdill and Salnikova tried to highlight the scale of the waste and its impact on the ocean. The sculpture further highlights Dana Point Harbor Partners’ partnership with “Stand Up to Trash” – a nonprofit beach cleanup group. The artists used trash collected from Stand Up to Trash’s beach cleanups. Construction of the sculpture began March 5 and remained on display on the grassy area at the entrance to the Harbor throughout the Festival.


The festival ran through Sunday, March 6, with some of the same events and a few new ones. Sunday featured the Diamond Dig hosted by the monarch Beach Sunrise Rotary Club. Baby Beach is filled with youngsters who dug for diamonds to support the Diamond Dig’s goal to raise money for various children’s charities locally and worldwide. 


The festival celebrated from 12-5 p.m. with concerts on the water featuring musicians Drea Sheva, Neon Nation, and Who’s Zeppelin- Tribute to the Who & Led Zeppelin. A BBQ was thrown during the concerts, with proceeds benefiting Dana Hills High School Swim Program and a Spirit Garden for those over 21, benefiting the Marine Corps League South Coast Detachment.


The Sunday festival hosted a Kids Fishing Clinic and Trip hosted by Dana Wharf Sportfishing for hands-on learning for kids from fishing experts. 


In addition to the weekend full of ceremonies, festivities, education, and food, for all of March, Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching as well as Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari will have boats going out to look for marine life. 


As a first-time attendee of the event, the Festival of Whales was an exciting and fun celebration that brought together too many people to count. From city officials to local businesses, it seemed everyone was accounted for. From people to pets, there was a smile on every face. Vendors were happy, and so were shoppers. As a first-time attendee, I can assure you I’ll be there next year. 


A complete list of the Festival’s attractions can be found on the Dana Point Festival of Whales website

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