Ah, Dana Point, California. This iconic Southern Orange County beach town has a lot to offer to casual visitors and longtime residents alike. Whether it’s beautifully rugged beaches, fantastic shopping or maritime history, this town has something for everyone who loves natural beauty, gracious living, or ocean sports…
Hey, did we mention they also have the best sunsets in Orange County? Catch the view from the harbor and you’ll see what we mean.
Dana Point also has the most interesting traffic in Orange County. Well, not in Orange County… more like a mile or so offshore from it.
If you’ve guessed that we’re talking about whales… congratulations! You’re right!
Fun Fact: Gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to Mexico and back again every year. And you thought the commute on the 405 was tough!
Dana Point is the West Coast’s whale watching capitol, especially from late December to early April when the grey whale migration is moving through Orange County’s local waters. These magnificent thirty to forty ton marine mammals make for fascinating seasonal neighbors, and that’s exactly what’s celebrated at Dana Point’s famous Festival of Whales.
What happens at the Festival of Whales? Grab your sunscreen and your binoculars, because we’re about to tell you everything you need to know about one of Dana Point’s best events of the year.
The Festival of Whales in Dana Point
Dana Point’s Festival of Whales has been a local tradition since 1973. The Festival of Whales runs two weekends in late winter/early spring, generally in March. It’s timed to run during the gray whales’ winter migration as they make their cruise south to warmer waters. The Festival doesn’t just aim to celebrate whales… it’s intended to educate festival-goers about them.
This family friendly beach party runs for two weekends only and has everything you want when it comes to a seaside celebration: food, fun, sand, surf, concerts, classic cars… in fact, it’d be easier to list what doesn’t happen at the Festival of Whales than it is to list all the events, celebrations, activities and food.
Let’s start with the basics…
Note: For 2021, due to Covid, large group events like the Parade, Concert & BBQ, Clam Chowder Cook-off, Cardboard Classic & Dinghy Dash, Sand Sculpting Contest, Ocean Awareness Day, Street Fair, Kids’ Fun Zone, Car & Boat Shows, etc. will not be. Please check back often for new additions to the lineup being added daily.
The Festival of Whales generally begins at 8AM on Saturday and 9 (or 10) AM on Sunday (be sure you check the event listing to be sure) and runs to 5PM.
Parking and Shuttles
Parking might be at a premium at the Festival of Whales, but don’t worry. There are quite a few designated lots to choose from. Even better, there are shuttles available at seven stops that run from 10AM to 4PM, so you can park and ride at your convenience. The shuttle service is free and designed to make it easy to get around the festival.
Pro-Tip: Extended shuttle hours are in effect the morning of the parade and the afternoon of the Whale of a Concert.
Be aware that while the parade is going on, a different shuttle route will be in effect. This one only goes between Doheny State Beach and the Golden Lantern at Dana Point Harbor Drive.
Pro-Tip: If you want to take advantage of shuttle access to your car at any time during the festival, parking at either of these lots is your best bet.
Things to See and Do at the Festival of Whales
NOTE: For 2021, due to Covid, large group events like the Parade, Concert & BBQ, Clam Chowder Cook-off, Cardboard Classic & Dinghy Dash, Sand Sculpting Contest, Ocean Awareness Day, Street Fair, Kids’ Fun Zone, Car & Boat Shows, etc. will not be held this year. Please check back often for new additions to the lineup being added daily.
For 2021, select events will be held March 6 & 7. Activities include virtual programming, kids fishing clinics and fishing trips, music in the Harbor, activities at the Ocean Institute, story times, stand-up paddle lessons, and whale watching trips.
Enjoy Whale Watching Trips all month long, or participate in blufftop viewing from the Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center. Save $10 off your whale watching ticket purchase by booking with Dana Wharf Whale Watching with the promo code FOW21. Other whale watching charters include Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari and the Ocean Institute.
The Festival of Whales will feature virtual programming and a city-wide scavenger hunt throughout March 2021.
The Festival of Whales runs two consecutive weekends in March… mostly because there are too many neat activities and events to pack into one weekend. While the event lineup has shifted over the years, there are plenty of festival faves that appear year after year. (Find the event listing here.)
Festival of Whales Parade
Cancelled for 2021
If the weather cooperates, around 10AM on Saturday, you’ll see gray whales, orcas, and octopi swimming through the skies near the beach (great for families with young children interested in ocean animals!) It’s the coolest parade outside of Disneyland!
*Note: The parade is weather-dependent, and there is no make-up date/time for a cancellation.
Cancelled for 2021
If you love sand and art, the Festival of Whales has several outlets for your creativity… but the best one is definitely the sand sculpting competition. Bring your buckets and shovels and have a go at creating your best ocean-themed sculpture. Walk-up spots are available, but beware, they’re on a first-come-first-served basis. You can get your sculpt on starting early in the morning… judging is in the afternoon.
Dana Point Fine Arts Association Show and Sale
If you like your art with a little less sand and a little more ability to be hung on your wall, then stroll on over to the Fine Arts Association Art Show. You can browse gorgeous works by talented local artists while enjoying a sea breeze… and a portion of the proceeds goes to support the Art Department at Dana Hills High School. The Dana Point Fine Arts Association is a nonprofit organization. *Weather Permitting.
Ocean Institute Education Center
The Festival of Whales is about education as much as it is about having a great time at the beach. The Ocean Institute hosts a talk on the history of whaling in Dana Point, complete with rare artifacts. History buffs, make sure you make time for this!
Sailing Rides and Paddling Clinics
Party on the sand, party on the water… The Festival of Whales will help you learn to be a better sailor with half-hour sailing rides (includes instruction) and 45-minute stand-up paddling clinics. There is an age limit (5 years old for sailing, and 12 for the SUP), and a small separate fee.
Kids Fun Zone
Cancelled for 2021
If your kids (and you) still have energy after beach walks, sailing, art strolls, and whale watching, head over to the Kids Fun Zone where the littles can have a great time bouncing on the inflatables and playing games.
The Festival for Everyone
We’ve listed some of the enduring attractions, but there’s so much more to the Festival of Whales. It’s got live music, art, classic cars, history, and science… and whale watching (watch from land or get close to these magnificent marine mammals on a narrated cruise). There’s not just something for everybody… there’s a lot of something for everyone in your family. The Festival is a great way to spend an idyllic weekend enjoying beautiful Dana Point and her biggest seasonal residents.
So… when are you going?
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Kelly Smith is a freelance writer living in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side. Find her at www.bluerosecopywriting.com.