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Whale Watching: Cruising the Orange County Coast with Richard Henry Dana

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A gray whale off the coast of Southern California on January 19th | Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Henry Dana had a soft spot for Dana Point. Not because it was named for him--that honor came posthumously.

Rather, it was the small cove's isolation and solitude; its pounding waves, and massive rock formations, shear and jagged, that struck him most: "there was a grandeur in everything around," he wrote in "Two Years Before the Mast" (1841), a charming travelogue of his time aboard the Pilgrim, a regular Jack Tar on a Boston merchant ship that cruised along Alta California in the mid-1830s seeking cattle hides in exchange for New England manufactured goods.

The stark setting "gave a solemnity to the scene, a silence and solitariness which affected every part!" he enthused. "Not a human being but ourselves for miles, and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! And the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the `world of waters'!" The 19-year-old sailor was smitten; Bahia Capistrano, as it was then known, and San Juan Bay that stretched from its rough shore, "is the only romantic spot on the coast."


A harbor in Dana Point | Photo by Justin in SD/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Dana wouldn't recognize the place today, I thought while standing on the deck of the Manute'a, a sleek 50-foot catamaran. We had come aboard to do a bit of whale watching on a bright and clear day in early January, drawn to Dana Point by reports of a spectacular run of gray whales along the Orange County coast.

No longer is the harbor quiet and sublime: its formidable cliffs remain but they are now crowned with McMansions and adorned with thick green landscaping that muffles the spare, hard surfaces that had entranced Dana.

Once open to the sea--"it tumbled in," a thrilled Dana wrote, "roaring and spouting, among the crevices of the great rocks. What a sight, thought I, must this be in a southeaster!"--Dana Point is now framed behind a massive set of breakwaters; these rocky formations shelter marinas jammed with the pleasure craft of the modern mariner--sloops and yawls; high-powered speedboats; cabin cruisers; and tour boats, such as the Manute'a, whose winter business is structured around the southern migration of the California gray whale as they head to their historic feeding grounds in the bathtub-warm lagoons of the Gulf of California.

Although the news of increased sightings had brought us to Dana Point, our hopes were kept in check: previous outings from Long Beach and Newport Beach harbors had been disappointing. Sure, we had seen a whale or two, and pods of rollicking dolphins, but nothing we witnessed on those trips prepared us for what we would encounter on this one.

Fifteen minutes out of Dana Point, the show began, and it did so with a bit of misidentification: the captain shouted out that he had spotted a large pod of dolphin off the port bow, only to discover as we slid closer that what he thought had been a roiling group of Bottlenose turned out to be 20 or more sea lions, cavorting. Their playful antics proved a quiet interlude.

Ahead, maybe another mile south, the air and sea were in frantic turmoil. Thousands of pelagic birds--gulls, murres, pelicans, and terns--crisscrossed the skies, rising up and then dive-bombing the dark waters. Below, countless dolphins churned unseen, pushing schools of fish to the surface. This symbiotic feeding frenzy between mammal and avian, a so-called bait-ball, was as riveting as it was frustrating--trying to identify the birds was impossible; their movements were so frenetic; their attacks so swift. This intense, noisy ballet of life and death, juxtaposed to the otherwise calm, flat seas, was such that had we circled north and returned to Dana Point I would have been happy.

But not as happy as I was when the captain urged us to tear our eyes away from that surging struggle for survival, and scan the horizon: I was half hoping he'd bellow "Thar she blows," but his more prosaic "I've spotted a pod of grey whales ahead" did the trick.

Whalebone uncovered on San Clemente Island | Photo courtesy of Jennifer Perry

These magnificent creatures, who summer in the frigid waters of the far northern Pacific, and then cruise south to mate, feed, and rear their young, grow to 45 feet and weigh in at 30-40 tons. Their annual transit along the long stretch of the Pacific coast, during which they rack up 10-14,000 miles a year, has occurred for millennia. For just as long they have figured centrally in the oral traditions and foodways of the Alaskan native peoples; their harpoons, water craft, and hunting skills made these migrating mammals a key component in their diet.Strikingly, the gray whale figures less crucially in the culture of the Chumash, a puzzling lacuna given that they too were deft mariners, regularly plying the turbulent waters between the Southern California coast and the Channel Islands. "The Chumash did not actively hunt whales," according to my good colleague Jenn Perry, an archaeologist who specializes in these ancient peoples' lives and livelihoods, "mostly because their boats are designed more for cargo capacity than speed, quite in contrast to the Inuit kayak. However, they and the Tongva regularly capitalized on stranded or beached whales, not just for food, but for building materials and tools. Whale bones were used to construct the frameworks for houses, as evidenced at sites on San Clemente Island."

A different kind of opportunism marked the industrialization of whaling in the early 19th-century. Utilizing whale oil for illumination, bones for corsets, and a host of other material purposes, European and American investors sent hundreds of ships into the Pacific to kill, strip, and render these creatures into hulking carcasses, which they then dumped overboard; a foul wake.

Like most energy-resource booms, this one also crashed: so intense was the slaughter that whale populations collapsed, leading to a spike in the hunting costs that outran the return on investment; besides the whaling fleet was pressed into service during the Civil War and shortly after the end of hostilities, coal and petroleum became a cheaper, more reliable sources of fuel and light.


Flensing a whale in San Simeon | Image from an 1888 U. S. Fish Commission report via State of CA Fish & Game Commission

Yet despite its brief, violent run, whaling launched a cultural type, a young man of means who sought himself and his fortune by heading out to sea. Among them was Herman Melville and Richard Henry Dana, who mined their youthful experiences on the bounding main for their novels (Melville's "Typee," "Omoo," and "Moby Dick"), and memoirs (Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" and "Twenty-Four Years After"), a trafficking in literary commerce that turned the Pacific and the continent's West Coast into an American Eden.

Dana made this case through the ubiquitous and gentle presence of gray whales in his narrative:

This being the spring season, San Pedro, as well as all the other open ports upon the coast, was filled with whales that had come in to make their annual visit upon soundings. For the first few days that we were here and at Santa Barbara, we watched them with great interest-calling out "there she blows!" every time we saw the spout of one breaking the surface of the water; but they soon became so common that we took little notice of them.

Out west floated a Peaceable Kingdom.No whaler would have been so benign, which makes Dana's initial excitement akin to the energy that surged through the Manute'a as we neared the slow-moving pod of gray whales, a couple of miles off Laguna Beach.

Richard Henry Dana | Image: Public domain

As they blew and sounded, their white-blotched flukes on full display; as their dolphin escorts glided alongside us, knifing through the sun-flecked water with little visible effort; as gulls and pelicans and terns wheeled and dipped across cloudless skies, we drifted south, lost in time. Our reverie was broken when a gray whale breached, thrusting its body up into the air and then slapping back into the ocean.

Rising behind it were the twin concrete domes of the San Onofre Nuclear Power plant, an odd tableau that sparked this thought: that rigorous conservation would solve the dilemmas that humans and whales face. More efficient controls, individual and social, over the energy we generate and consume would put the lights out at San Onofre. Paralleling that environmental good would be a crack down on the killer fleets that continue to decimate whale populations globally; stringent regulations might help their numbers rebound, which would be a salubrious outcome for California gray whales, which number about 22,000, about half to one-quarter as many that were alive when the first whalers sailed into the Pacific.

Should they once again frolic and feed in the harbors and bays of the West Coast, should once more we be able to say with C.H. Townsend who wrote that "At the San Simeon station in December, 1885, I could see whales blowing almost every hour during the day," then we will be on our way to confirming Herman Melville's conviction of their enduring greatness:

...we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah's flood he despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

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