December 15, 2013

A Whale of a Good Time at Dana Point

I live in northern California, but travel regularly to Anaheim for my son’s hockey games.  While we usually have a tight schedule, we always try to fit in at least one fun family activity for my daughter’s benefit.  Last year, we visited the Long Beach aquarium, which was really fun despite being much smaller than my beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Southern California sunset
SoCal sunset 
Since the Thanksgiving tournament fell late in the month this year, it overlapped with the beginning of the gray whale migration. I have been hearing that marine mammal sightings along the California coast have been exceptional this year, they’re having a feeding frenzy due to unusually high numbers of anchovies.  Passengers on whale watch cruises are being treated to some of the best shows in decades, amazing even experienced marine biologists.

While everyone else headed out shopping on Black Friday, we headed to Dana Pointonly a half hour drive from our Anaheim hotel, which took us through San Juan Capistrano, with its famous mission and sparrows.  We booked a 2 hour whale watch tour with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, and I was a little concerned as we woke to a pretty good rain.  But by the time we arrived for our mid-afternoon cruise, the showers had stopped.  It was still cloudy, but I consider these perfect conditions for being on the water, as overcast skies make for more dramatic pictures, and there’s less glare off the water. 
SUP at Dana Point
Paddleboarder at Dana Point
Whale watching tours are available year round, as different types of whales have different migration seasons. And many marine animals including dolphins, sea lions, and the elusive orcas can be spotted year-round.  I even saw a great white shark on Dana Wharf’s sighting log for October!  Gray and humpback whales migrate between December and March, traveling south to Mexico in winter, then heading back north in the spring. We heard that the migration had started early this year, and in fact Dana Wharf had spotted their first gray whale a few days earlier, so we were optimistic as we headed out. 

The boat was very comfortable, with plenty of seating at tables on the top deck, and even more indoor seating below.  The main deck also had space to walk entirely around the ship, so there was always a good vantage point. A small galley offered grill items such as hot dogs and hamburgers, hot and cold drinks, and a good variety of snacks including popcorn, chips and fruit roll-ups.   The water was very calm so the ride was smooth, and the captain kept up an interesting and educational conversation.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whalewatching
Ready to cruise with Dana Wharf
Our first stop was a buoy loaded with sea lions, and nearby a large bull entertained us with water acrobatics.  I am always amazed how these creatures can hurl themselves several feet out of the water to get on solid ground (or metal, in this case).

sea lions on buoy at dana point
Catching some rays
It wasn’t long before the captain announced that he spotted a gray whale, and he quickly turned the boat to follow it.  We cruised slowly as the whale swam parallel to the coast, dipping in and out of the water and giving us a good look at the barnacles on its back. Fortunately for us, it was a “fluker.”  Each time it went into a deep dive, it gave us a nice flip of its fluke before disappearing for 5-10 minutes.  
gray whale fluke
A whale watching highlight
It went on like this for over an hour, until it was time to head back to the marina.  While we enjoyed the views of the coastline and snacked on warm popcorn, one of the crew members came by with a chart of marine mammals, so we could learn more about the whale we had been watching and ask questions.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Laguna Niguel shoreline
(Ritz Carlton on the bluff)
I am eager to go whale watching again soon, as every trip is different and you’ll never know what you might see. As we get further in the season there will be more whales, and they’ll be traveling closer to shore with their babies as they had back north.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching is located at Dana Point Harbor, which has plenty of free parking plus many shops and restaurants. Tickets for the Catalina Express can also be purchased there, which I hope to try out on another visit.  The Catalina Islands are just a 90 min boat ride away, making it an easy day trip or weekend getaway.

Just a few miles north of the harbor is the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, a fantastic resort for families any time of year.  It’s perched on a cliff, so it offers stunning ocean views, and quick access to a nice beach.  The hotel was decorated for the holidays, including an elaborate gingerbread display.  

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel gingerbread display
Huge gingerbread display!
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel Holiday Surfboard Auction
Surfboard Auction
We also enjoyed looking at the custom-painted surfboards lined up for their annual holiday auction to benefit Surfers Healingan organization that helps people with autism experience surfing.  Virtuoso amenities for my clients are daily breakfast, an upgrade based on availability, and a $100 resort credit.

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel
Gorgeous full ocean views
Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel beach
View of beach from the resort
This Ritz Carlton was one of the first resorts to offer the award winning Eco Adventure Program, created by Jean-Michel Cousteau, which offers unique excursions for children and families to showcase the area's natural wonders and promote environmental responsibility.  In fact, on our whale watch cruise, two Eco Adventure staff members were escorting a family as part of their whale education program.  The program is being expanded to more resorts, including Dorado Beach (Puerto Rico), St. Thomas, and Grand Cayman.

For help with planning a fun family getaway, just send a note to suzette@family-treks.com.