A day in Dana Point, first at the Ocean Institute, and then at the beach and kayaking around is a great escape from Los Angeles. We first discovered the Ocean Institute on a whale watching field trip with my son’s class. At that time the facility was closed, so we made a plan to go back. We had a fun day exploring the Institute, checking out the fish and other critters, dissecting a squid, exploring the protected rocky beach in front, and then renting a kayak on the other side of the lagoon. Paddling out of the harbor to see sea lions, birds, and do some fishing. Every time I’m in Dana Point, I think why the hell do I live in Los Angeles. But I guess just about anywhere I go makes me wonder that.
Address: Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 10am-3pm
Cost: Adults $6.50, kids $4.50. Free parking.
Parking: Crowded on weekend afternoons
Dogs: No dogs
Facilities: Bathrooms and gift shop
Tanks of Southern California marine life, scheduled activities for kids, interactive displays, touch tank, and squid dissection. And kayak and SUP rentals.
Don’t miss the squid dissection at 12:30. Kids dig it. Also, skip the guided tide pool tour, and just go down to the beach by yourself, because they hold the tour whether there’s a low tide or not. The Institute runs twice daily whale watching trips on the weekends. Check out the calendar of events for times. On our school field trip there in March, two gray whales swam right under the boat.
What to bring
There’s really no place to eat at the Institute or at that end of Dana Point Harbor. I heard there are restaurants at the other end, but you won’t want to move your car and drive down there. So bring lunch. There is a tour company office near Baby Beach that has some drinks and snack.
What you’ll see
The Institute has many aquaria with live Southern California marine life. Most of fishes and invertebrates are alive in tanks, but there are some taxidermy displays of birds and other things. There are many small tanks of live fishes and other critters – kelp habitats, sandy bottoms, reefs, and sea grass beds. The Institute has some interactive displays, photos, and infographics and marine life in Southern California.
I’m not a huge fan of just sitting on the beach in the sand especially when there are a million people around. This little beach is crowded and there are so many little kids, it’s a bit nuts. And there are reports of occasional high bacteria levels there (surprise). But that all said, it’s a good spot to sit for a minute to eat lunch, get your feet wet, and maybe stage your gear if you’re heading out on a kayak or SUP. You’ll see lots of locals heading out for a paddle here. There’s a big grassy area behind the beach with some shaded picnic tables. I’d avoid swimming if it’s rained recently, just like an other urban beach.
Renting Kayaks and Paddle Boards
Maybe the easiest place on the planet to rent a kayak and to try paddle boarding for the first time. Right next to Baby Beach is Westwood Sailing 949.492.3035. They have a low floating dock that makes it easy for beginners to get in and out of kayaks or to hop on a paddle board. The harbor couldn’t be calmer. For a challenge, head out of the harbor along the jetty to the open ocean.
Where to stop on the way
Shwack Beach Grill 24502 Del Prado, Dana Point, CA 92629 949.218.2731 and Rita’s for frozen custard 24845 Del Prado, Dana Point, CA 92629.
Directions to Ocean Institute
I-5 freeway South to Dana Point. And then, you know, use the map on your phone.
The Institute is all about school class tours. Encourage your kids’ school to plan a trip there! And you have birthday parties there on the weekends too.