North America has its first Whale Heritage site: Dana Point, California!
The seasonal migrations of Humpback Whales along the Pacific coast have always fascinated me. It is hard to fathom exactly how many whales travel along the coast of California on their journey from Alaska to Latin America and back. That is one reason why, in January of this year, Dana Point became the first designated Whale Heritage site in the United States. But what are Whale Heritage Sites? And why are they important? Let’s find out in this post.
What is a Whale Heritage Site?
The Whale Heritage Sites (WHS) certification program was established by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA). The aim is to create a platform where communities engage with marine culture and biodiversity. Notably, they hope to create a world where cetaceans only live in the wild and live in harmony with people.
Ultimately, Whale Heritage Sites preserve cetacean species and their habitats on a global scale so that they can exist for generations to come. In these areas, interactions with marine mammals cannot be not exploitive and must be positive. All sites will add to an existing network of EBSAs (Ecologically or Biologically Sensitive Marine Areas), MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), and other protected areas to protect habitats that are critical to endangered cetaceans.
A Whale Heritage Site must meet a set of standards that shows their commitment to cetacean conservation through responsible wildlife interactions. These include:
- Encouraging respectful human-cetacean coexistence
- Celebrating cetaceans
- Environmental, social, and economic sustainability
- Research, education, and awareness
Whale Heritage Sites encourage sustainable whale and dolphin watching and provide guidelines to the travel industry. As a result, Whale Heritage Sites give tourists a transparent and easy way to select dolphin and whale watching holiday destinations.
Why Dana Point?
Southern California is a prime location for watching whale migrations; possible species include Humpbacks, Gray-Blue, Fin and Minke whales. It is a year-round destination, with more wild dolphins per square mile than anywhere else in the world. In fact, 450,000 common dolphins live between Southern California and Baja, Mexico. Dana Point, in particular, is nested about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
In 2019, Dana Point was trademarked by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as “The Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World”. After all, they have been hosting the Dana Point Festival of Whales for 50 years. Like all of the selected sites, there is a focus around heritage, education, and conservation sustainability.
Where are the other Whale Heritage sites?
There are five current sites…
- Hervey Bay, Australia
- The Bluff, South Africa
- Algoa Bay, South Africa
- Tenerife-La Gomera Marine Area, Spain
- and now, Dana Point, CA, USA
There are also multiple candidate sites, such as…
- Vancouver Island, Canada
- Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
- Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
… just to name a few.
Now, I have to be completely honest. I have lived in Southern California my entire life and never knew exactly how prime this area was for whale tourism. Of course, I would see pods of common dolphins and an occasional seasonal Humpback on my journeys to Catalina Island for school. The Pacific Coast is home to an incredibly diverse range of marine mammals. Not just whales and dolphins, but California Sea Lions, Elephant Seals, and more! It’s easy to forget just how elusive these majestic animals are.
Whale watching is a double-edged sword: the industry can bring in money for local economies and may be a more sustainable option than more exploitative industries like industrial fishing, but boats present s threat of physical and noise pollution to whales. Responsible guidelines set forth by the WHC could just be the best of both worlds.
In short, if I have learned anything from this, it’s to take more time to look at what’s in your own backward. The story behind your favorite local spots or species may surprise you.
Brianna has a background in marine biology and currently works as a live-aboard deckhand/educator at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI). Her research interests include ocean conservation, specifically in the high seas and polar regions, and identifying marine mammal vocalizations in the global soundscape. She is passionate about music and can’t write without coffee.