We breathed in the salty sea air. The wharf bustled with people at leisure on a perfect October Saturday in Dana Point, CA.  Paddle boats, kayaks, inflatable rafts, a motor boat and sea lions meandered.  Pierside restaurants buzzed with conversation and laughter.  The 63’ catamaran Ocean Adventure pulled up to the dock and passengers on the 12-2 PM cruise disembarked. 

Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching hails as the first Orange County, California whale watching company.  Fewer than twenty passengers boarded for the 2-4 PM whale and dolphin watching. The crew welcomed us on board: Todd, marine biologist/ captain, Frank, also a licensed captain, Kayla, PhD. and Steve.  A naturalist with the American Cetacean Society in Orange County, Steve volunteers on weekends.  He shared his reverence for the mammals, and respect for what he calls a “mom and pop” venture (dad Don Hansen, daughter and son), and the highly qualified crew. 

In a blue cloudless sky, gulls signaled our departure.  After safety instruction, children gravitated to Steve and peppered him with questions.  He engaged their interest, using models and display materials for demonstration.  During the cruise, Steve scrambled around, mostly at the bow, pointing things out, injecting his zest for the experience into interactions with passengers.

Searching the horizon three miles away, and relying on tips from others whose souls are tethered to the sea, the captain took on the adventure with gusto.  He commented on the flat ocean that day, and the megapod (literally, thousands) of dolphins seen yesterday.  His narrative was scientific with a sense of awe.  “Cetaceans are nearly hairless animals who live in water, swim with tailfin and breathe out of one or two blowholes. There are two groups: #1) whales, which have teeth and, #2) baleen, which use a filter system for nourishment”. Dolphins and whales are cetaceans.

Common dolphins are located in a 100 mile radius of the area. As we raced off to see Risso dolphins, excitement mounted. We encountered a hunting pod of Bottlenose.  
   “When the crew members grab their cameras, you know it’s going to be good”, says Steve. 

The Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin exceeds eight feet and weighs over 1,000 pounds.  To our surprise, we were escorted (bow and stern, portside and starboard) and entertained by dozens of these magnificent animals.  The captain created a playground, displacing water by a broad turn of the vessel, and these intelligent dolphins swam in the wake, breached over the horizon and performed acrobatic twirls, again and again.  The crew celebrated and the crowd shrieked.  Adults became children. 

A plastic bag tightly adhered to the upper body of one of the Bottlenose Dolphins, like a vest.  Steve noted this is a leading cause of death in dolphins.  It was a harsh reminder of the effect of man on these creatures and the responsibility we have to support initiatives to reduce plastic waste.  The only other real predator to the dolphin is the killer whale, because of the sophisticated sight and sound systems, or ecolocation, according to the crew.

Kayla, in the galley initially, accommodating our food and beverage requests, has a Ph.D. in psychology. A professor at Cal State Fullerton, she teaches cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and learning and memory.  Her research project is focused on animal behavior of the juvenile Bottlenose Dolphin. She works with the Gray Whale Foundation for data collection and education from February to April.  In 2012, Todd noted, 1200 children in thirty-seven classes participated. They logged forty-six gray whales and thousands of dolphins.
Later, we bee-lined to the coast in search of an early gray whale that was reported.  Perhaps he was hiding in the shelf or simply skittish.
Happy, satisfied passengers departed that afternoon, amazed by the life in the ocean, a fine crew, and an exceptional day.  As the captain says “Whale watching is like a box of chocolates-you never know what you’re going to get…”
Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching: 3645 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629.  949-496-5794 or 800-979-3370 for tickets.  www.danawharf.com.   Sightings are updated onto the web site each Monday.  A free voucher is issued when whales and dolphins aren’t encountered.