Dana Point Duo Establishes City as a Whale Heritage Site

From adversaries to advocates: Donna Kalez, left, and Gisele Anderson; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Once bitter rivals, Donna Kalez of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching and Gisele Anderson of Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari worked together to have Dana Point recognized as the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas.

Photograph by Matt Larmand

Tell us briefly the history of your individual companies.
Kalez: Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching started in Dana Point Harbor in 1971. My father had a business called San Clemente Sport Fishing in the ’50s and ’60s, and when the harbor was built, he moved his fleet. He also started the Festival of Whales, which is the first and longest-running whale festival in the world. This is its 50th year.

Anderson: Captain Dave’s started in Dana Point in 1995. Dave and I met because we had our own boats. We met on the dock, and we got married.

How did you start working together?
Anderson: Donna and I have known each other for a long time as competitors, and that can get rocky and unpleasant. But we got together one day and talked about how much we liked each other.

Kalez: It was about three years ago at a Visit Laguna Beach meeting, and we started to compare notes. We talked about how wonderful Dana Point is for dolphin and whale watching and the struggle of explaining that to the world.

Anderson: I told her, “If I had just met you at a party, I would have spent the whole night talking to you!” And it’s not just that we have so much in common; we really respect each other. It made sense for us to come together.

What was the original goal?
Kalez: We wanted to trademark Dana Point as “The Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World.” And we wanted to get the designation of being a Whale Heritage Site (from the World Cetacean Alliance).

Anderson: We had no idea how difficult it could be getting the trademark until we got it (in 2019). Our lawyer was very surprised we were able to get it.

Photograph by Frank Brennan

The World Cetacean Alliance bills itself as the world’s largest partnership working to protect whales and dolphins. The only other places the group has named Whale Heritage Sites are in Australia, South Africa, and Spain. How hard was it to get the designation?
Anderson: It was a very arduous process. More extensive than adopting a child probably.

Kalez: I joined the WCA about 10 years ago. When they started the Whale Heritage Site program (two years ago), I told Gisele about it and she was like, “Let’s do it, why not?” Um, because it’s hard, Gisele!

Anderson: I saw the criteria and I thought, this is us. We check all the boxes.

What are the boxes?
Anderson: You have to have tremendous community support. A location that’s been involved in research. Public outreach and education. Advocacy. And we have something very special here. When Dave and I travel, we go to places with dolphins and whales—Alaska, Tahiti, the Mediterranean, New England, Hawaii. You can see whales, but only in a three-month period. Here, we see them year-round.

Kalez: And we have a beautiful area where you can watch whales from land, too—the Headlands.

Anderson: We see five species of whales and five species of dolphins. I’ve traveled to Auckland, New Zealand—they’re so into whale watching that the prime minister shows up when they launch a new catamaran. And the whales weren’t there at the time, but we went to see dolphins. I asked the captain and the crew, “So what’s your population like?” “Oh, we have a resident species of dolphin, and there’s as many as 200 of them.” For us, we have 450,000 dolphins, and we see pods as big as 10,000 at a time. I didn’t want to embarrass anybody, but I was thinking, what the hell? This is what the whole country gets excited about? I asked them how many trips get canceled due to weather. He said a third! Sure enough, that day was windy and bumpy, and we never even found the dolphins.

Photograph by Dale Frink

Why is Dana Point so great for whale watching?
Anderson: So besides having all these species—I mean that’s true of us but also San Diego, Newport, Santa Barbara, Monterey—what makes Dana Point special are some other things. We have a small harbor, and it’s not a commercial harbor, so you don’t see these big tankers. Catalina acts as a buffer, so we don’t have big waves rolling in. Right off our harbor, within a mile, there’s a huge dropoff. And that’s deep, cold, nutrient-rich water that attracts fish and all of these animals. We don’t have to go 3, 4 miles out.

Kalez: All our trips are 2, 2½ hours. So that coupled with the best weather in the world, we really stand out. But we never dreamed we’d get the Whale Heritage Site designation so quickly.

What’s next?
Anderson: (The certification) is not a one-and-done. We have to up our game and increase education, public involvement. We really are a poster child for the program. They loved the fact that millions of kids come through the Ocean Institute. They were really excited about our Festival of Whales. But this is an ongoing process.

Kalez: Now the work starts. There’s follow-up and lots of things we want to do to continue to build on that certification. When my dad started this, it was his dream that everyone would know that the California gray whale travels through here November through May. It makes me very proud that that’s something we’ve accomplished. That we now have the credibility of the world.

Anderson: Our goal has been to let the world know what we have here, and to let the people of Orange County have true pride in this. Dave has said, “I want to do for the dolphins and whales of Orange County what John Muir did for Yosemite.” And Donna’s father is so proud. We’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of other people, too. We are blessed to be the faces of this, but it’s been half a century in the making.

Photograph by Matt Larmand

Final thoughts?
Kalez: It’s easy to take it for granted, but what we have in our own backyard is worth getting on a plane and traveling halfway around the world to see. And COVID-19 didn’t stop us. We’ve been so lucky to be able to continue doing tours safely.

Anderson: Frankly, there’s nothing like getting on a boat and leaving the world behind. Dolphins and whales do not care about COVID-19 or politics. It’s freeing. And the best way to see these beautiful animals is in the wild, where they belong.

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