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L.A. Popcorn Adventure #90
March 04, 2008

Cruisin' the California Coastline

Whale Rider + Whale Watching

Girl power stories abound these days, but rarely with such genuine guts and charm as the film Whale Rider. In modern day New Zealand, an ancient Maori tribe has kept its culture alive since, as legend has it, their revered leader Paikea arrived on the back of a whale more than 1000 years earlier. Until now, the oldest male from Paikea's family has always been chieftain. The problem is, the next generation's males have fled or died, and the rightful heir is Pai, an eleven year-old girl. Pai tries everything possible to impress her grandfather Karo, the current chief, but he can not see beyond patriarchal tradition. The movie lovingly pits Pai's stuggle to grow up and claim her rightful position against her grandfather's struggles to protect the Maori culture from assimilation. It is the whale that finally brings this story to its conclusion: like generations of chieftains before her, Pai proves she's born to lead and that her family's bloodline runs just as strong in a woman. A change in the tides of history, but one, ultimately, Grandpa can live with.

After spending the summer months frolicking in Alaska, Gray Whales head south to the warm waters of Baja, Mexico to mate and have babies. Since these whales spend the winter months in transit off our coastline, Southern Californians have many chances to go whale watching. One of nature's great thrills, kids love getting close to these gentle leviathans by looking for their blow spouts or the flat, still-water footprints on the surface of the ocean that indicates a Gray is below. Just two weeks ago, the migration season's "turnaround" date took place; that is, the date on which more whales are heading back to their northern home (with their young) than there are traveling south. So, now is the time to book a trip and bring your young whalers out to meet the largest babies in the world. For our family day, we chose a excursion company with a scientific orientation figuring that if we weren't lucky enough to site a whale, at least we'd learn something new. The naturalists kept us peppered with facts over the loudspeaker as the ocean churned by and then suddenly, we were staring down at the blow hole of a massive Gray. We got very lucky and counted 12, but each time the captain told us to look out in a certain direction, we were awed anew. The sense of being on the hunt is palpable, and fun ... especially since we were only shooting our quarry with cameras.

Film Title: Whale Rider
Directed By: Niki Caro
2003, Rated PG-13, 105 minutes

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • What Worked for Us: A stalwart female heroine who challenges the ways of her native Maori people makes for a story that all families will love.
  • Red Flags: The PG-13 rating comes from a brief drug reference, a few instances of strong language. The film also begins with some difficult moments when a mother and baby die in childbirth. Some of the characters drink and smoke. However, these blips are well worth the magic of this film, which we feel works for kids over 10, as the story is subtle, and doesn't conform to Hollywood standards. It's about growing up, and believing in oneself but in a way that is totally different for other films for kids on this well-worn subject.
  • Other Viewing: Boys will love the antics in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney adaptation of the Jules Verne fantasy story that inspired the theme park exhibit. It's a lot of fun to see star as ?. Another choice for a family film night would be to screen John Huston's adaptation of Moby Dick - a black and white classic that will give kids a healthy sense of New England's whaling past. The Free Willy films are scary for younger kids, but may well captivate children past the age of 10.

Our tips for talking with your kids about this film:

  • Cinema Savvy: Movies that depict characters and their relationship to an animal are meant to challenge our ideas about how we, as humans, relate to nature.  Because she has a special role as leader, Pai's relationship is even more important. Ask the kids how.
  • Mythology Savvy: This film was incredibly well received and we think it's partially because of the fabulous story of a child challenging the established order of her tribal peoples. The clash of traditional cultures and modern ideas is portrayed simply and elegantly in the story of Pai, who both embraces the past and expects more of her people's established wisdom.


Whale Watching

Age Recommendation: Nine and above (younger if your child can handle slow paced action)
Time Allotment: 3-4 hours

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Adventure:

  • What Worked for Us: Whale watching is a very slow sport. Young kids will need a lot of patience for the ride out to sea, and while searching for the whales. (One ten year-old with us spent most of his trip napping.) We suggest bringing along a camera or books... or cards! It's tricky to both prepare the kids that they might not see a whale (there are always dolphin and seabirds) and also excite the about the trip, but we promise it's worth the effort to get out on the ocean and look back at the coastline.
  • Before You Go: It's COLD on the water, even it looks beautiful here on the coast. Bring layers, including a waterproof layer, and don't' forget gloves and hats (though on sunny days, you may never put on more than a sweater, it's best to be prepared for quick weather changes). You're going to have the best experience on a smaller boat, so if you or the kids get seasick, this might not be the ideal adventure for you.
  • Eat Light: Calm days make for calm tummies, but don't take a chance. Eat light and eat plain before embarking. If the weather kicks up, and the trip is rocky, it can be very uncomfortable. We bring patches or acu-pressure wrist devices just in case.
  • Sitings are Quick Glimpses: Most sitings take place 20 - 30 yards (at least) away from the boat and offer up a side view. Every now and then, an excursion group will get lucky and see whales coming toward them head on, or closer. Let your kids know that the captain will tell them where to look, and they will get a quick glimpse of these majestic creatures. The fun is in the chase!
  • Whale Tales: Here is a wonderful, fact-filled site to peruse with the kids and learn the basics of migration.
  • Spot the Babies: Click here for a primer on how to spot babies alongside their mothers.
  • Grey Whale Antics: Click here for a fun page that explains the behaviors you'll see with the whales.

Our tips for extending this adventure:

  • Aquarium of the Pacific Whale Watching Tours: Our local aquarium has a great program for whale watching, and hour tours depart from Rainbow Harbor, next to the aquarium. Naturalists claim an 80% rate of seeing whales. Count on seeing dolphin and lots of seabirds, too. Click here for details.
  • Ocean Institute: This Dana Point scientific outfit comes well-recommended by a KOTC subscriber. Click here for details on their whale watching expeditions, which have a technical and scientific focus.
  • The LA Chapter of the American Cetacean Society: Click here for information about other touring outfits.
  • Orange County Outfits: Click here for a link to a whale watching excursion that has been tried and approved by one of our OC subscribers!

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.