Donna Kalez said she was "blown away" to find out Dana Point would be named the first Whale Heritage Site in the United States.
It wasn't because she was surprised. The small harbor city off the Southern California coast, where Kalez serves as co-president of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, has long been known as one of the top whale watching destinations in the world.
One of her competitors in Dana Point's renowned whale-watching tourism industry, Gisele Anderson, vice president of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari, described the designation by the World Cetacean Alliance and World Animal Protection as "an honor that we take seriously."
"And it's something that we don't just receive and then say, 'OK, good. Wash your hands, we're done,'" she said. "The work starts now."
They'll do the work together as stewards of Dana Point's Whale Heritage Site status, announced first to USA TODAY on Wednesday.
Their charge will be to demonstrate the importance of cetaceans, or marine mammals such as whales or dolphins, through education, research, conservation.
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Dana Point is an illustration that "cetaceans should be only enjoyed in the wild, where they live in harmony with people and they're experienced respectfully, by a protective and responsible tourism industry," said Ben Williamson, U.S. programs director for World Animal Protection.
"They're not forced for many trips, there's no cheesy music being piped in, there's no dancing, there's no reward of thawed frozen fish," he said. "It's just dolphins and whales being themselves in their natural habitats where they belong."
The world's four Whale Heritage Sites are all located near a captive wild cetacean facility — Dana Point is a short drive from SeaWorld, which has been under scrutiny over its treatment of whales and dolphins for a decade.
Currently, more than 3,500 marine mammals live in captivity around the world, according to a report released by World Animal Protection in 2019.
"Dolphins are forced to live in barren tanks, reduced to performing in exchange for food," Williamson said. "And it's not fun; it's cruelty."
Yet, he said, nearly 50 million people go to captive mammal shows every year. Whale-watching sites, meanwhile, draw about 20 million visitors annually, according to the World Cetacean Alliance.
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The experience at whale-watching sites is beyond comparison, Kalez said.
"It's a very powerful experience when people get out there. And they have an eye-to-eye encounter with animals that are there because that's where they live, in the wild," she said, adding that visitors often see "killer whales, pilot whales, sperm whales, false killer whales."
Part of Dana Point's draw, Anderson said, is this one-of-a-kind experience – that you see in both the waters and on land. Dana Point's whale-watching crews offer safety education, community events and festivals like the world's longest-running whale festival.
And, in 2019, Kalez and Anderson came together to celebrate the creation of Dana Point's trademark as the "Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World."
"I can't imagine not offering this as an opportunity for people," Anderson said.
The world's other Whale Heritage Sites are located in Hervey Bay, Australia; The Bluff, South Africa; and Tenerife-La Gomera Marine Area, Spain.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dana Point, California, designated as first Whale Heritage Site in US