Don Hansen, who founded whale watching in Orange County and pushed for sustainable fisheries nationwide, was honored with a plaza dedication in Dana Point Harbor.

The plaque unveiling ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 3, was held next to Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching. Beginning in 1971, Hansen’s was the first business to operate in Dana Point Harbor.

The plaza was renamed in honor of Hansen during the ceremony.

Among those celebrating the late Dana Point legend were his daughter, Donna Kalez, who now runs the company, and other relatives, friends, and state and local representatives. Former Supervisor Tom Wilson, who began the harbor’s revitalization project 21 years ago, and state Sen. Pat Bates, a former county supervisor, were also in attendance.

“My dad would love this,” Kalez said. “He wanted his mark on the harbor. It was important to him since the first day he met the partners.”

Over a span of 50 years, Hansen operated a fleet of 17 vessels that took hundreds of thousands of people out onto the ocean for unique opportunities.

Whether it was catching a glimpse of playful dolphins or spotting blue, gray, minke, fin, and humpback whales — and even the occasional orca — Hansen loved educating the public about the ocean environment.

He also brought a robust sportfishing opportunity to the harbor, providing a deeper look into ocean life and inspiring memories for generations of Orange County residents.

Hansen died in February at the age of 87, but the family business continues to be a staple in the community.

Hansen’s reach, though, was far beyond the harbor. He served as chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and as a Pacific States Marine Fisheries commissioner. Most recently, he was vice president of the Sportfishing Association of California.

In October, the Coastal Conservation Association of California awarded him its highest honor, the 2021 Anthony Hsieh Conservation Award, in recognition of his decades of work improving California’s sportfishing industry and making angling accessible to everyone.

Still, Hansen never forgot about the aging harbor and its need for renovation.

Among his biggest concerns was adding more parking at the harbor — already a hugely popular destination for the community and residents from nearby cities. The harbor is home to more than 2,000 boaters and is popular for paddleboarding, kayaking, and other beach activities. It is a meeting spot for locals and a place to burn off calories after enjoying food at the various restaurants.

The plaque and plaza were dedicated by the Dana Point Harbor Partners, a Newport Beach development group that struck a deal with the county in 2018 for a 66-year lease to redevelop the aging and popular South Orange County harbor. The redevelopment effort has been in the works for more than two decades.

“This is an exciting day,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett. “Don is looking down upon us and smiling. The harbor was his passion. The project is moving forward, and Don Hansen was a true driver of that.”

Bryon Ward, one of the three redevelopment partners, called Hansen “a visionary” and said the plaque was important “so that future generations visiting the harbor know Don Hansen’s story.”

The dedication is among the first touches of renovation going on in the 51-year-old harbor. In October, Ward hopes to break ground on the parking structure. Meanwhile, he is holding discussions with harbor restaurants as he decides on the overall retail footprint — which is expected to be significantly larger.

“Local color is important,” Ward said. “We worked hard to keep that in the design and to embrace the DNA of Dana Point, not Newport Beach.”

Jim Miller, who operates Coffee Importers — a longtime and hugely popular restaurant that also includes an ice cream and coffee shop — was among those gathered to remember Hansen. His two waterfront spaces are doing record business this summer, he said. Locals are already in line by 7 a.m. and are there long after sunset.

“Don is a mentor to me,” Miller said. “What he did for the harbor is more than whale watching and sportfishing. He’s an amazing man, and he always had good advice. He would love this.”

Hansen also started the Festival of Whales — the longest-running whale festival in the world — as well as the annual holiday harbor boat parade. And he was instrumental in getting Dana Point named the “Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World.”

“You know how important a family is when their tradition becomes a community tradition,” Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller said. “He really taught me about how important the ocean was and how we should protect these resources. This family is a legacy in the community.”

For Kalez, both Wednesday’s tributes, as well as a memorial sign bestowed by the city earlier this year along Dana Point Harbor Drive, mean her father’s legacy will live on forever.

Kalez said her father might never have imagined his impact when he started his business in the harbor at the very spot 51 years ago.

“Dad, I know you’re up there,” she said. “Congratulations on your Hansen Plaza.”