Captain Don Hansen


A couple of weeks ago we reported on the passing of one of the great members of our fishing community. Now that the dust has settled we thought it best to have a brief history on Don and his impact on the Southern California fishing community.

As told by BD Outdoors contributor Gary Graham.

The Legend of Don Hansen / April 10, 1934 – January 5, 2022

Donald Keith Hansen was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on April 10, 1934. By 1940, Hansen’s family had relocated to San Clemente, Calif., a small development overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Questions have been asked whether Don or the Pacific Ocean was the luckier as their futures were entwined for almost eight decades. I would answer that they both were better at being part of the other. Don spent his life defending and promoting public access to sportfishing and whale watching, earning a reputation as an international magnet for marine recreation. His leadership never slowed. His humor never dulled, and his caring never stopped.

His ethics, integrity, ideas, vision, and insight earned him a seat at the tables of many community and governmental organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and in the state, county, and city arenas. He resolved to do what was right and reasonable—allowing him to become an Influencer Extraordinaire” long before the descriptive term was coined.

His future began with a red wagon when 12-year-old Don began hauling fish off the San Clemente Pier to the parking lot for anglers who fished on the small fleet of sportfishing boats that offered fishing trips on the waters off the Pacific coast.

Upon reaching high school, Don had managed to convince one of the captains to allow him to become a pinhead, which ultimately led to becoming a paid deckhand, working during his summer breaks from school. At 18, he graduated from High School and volunteered to join the Coast Guard just before WWII erupted.

A Korean War veteran, his tour of duty lasted four years, two of which he spent in Guam. Don valued his time in the Coast Guard and often attended Memorial Day Services held at San Clemente and Dana Point each year.

Upon his return from his tour of duty, he began taking classes at Orange Coast College and earned his Captain’s license when he was 23.

He began his new career as the captain, running the Mustang, a charter boat, for Bob Miller back on the hometown pier, and eventually worked for Nelson Cook at San Clemente Sportfishing.

Clemente One

He captained or helped build each of the boats in the San Clemente Sportfishing fleet during the following decade, ultimately leading him to purchase the company in 1966.

His day would start at the ungodly hour of 4-a.m. He would help retrieve the boats, fill them with fuel and bait, sell the tickets and then skipper one of them to San Clemente Island or some other fishing hot spot. He oversaw and operated a fleet of four different sport fishers during this time, averaging 10,000 anglers every season from the San Clemente Pier for the next 25 years.

Don Hansen in the early days

He rarely took a day off. And, reminiscing, he confirmed, “I enjoyed every minute of it.”

During that time, realizing an opportunity to use his fleet to share the beauty of whales and dolphins, Don and his friend Phillip Grignon (a San Clemente High School teacher) began using the boats to take local students to witness the majesty of whales at sea.

However, when he heard that Dana Point Harbor was starting construction, he was early to step up to the plate to move his business there.

Fondness for his home and the pier in San Clemente were of significant consideration, as was his involvement in that community for over a quarter of a century. However, relocating to Dana Point offered too many opportunities for his prosperous enterprise for him to ignore.

For example, Dana Point Harbor would offer a ready supply of diesel for the boats, consistent, nearby access to bait, and the safety of loading customers off the dock in a protected harbor rather than unloading them during the risky, unpredictable swell against an open pier. 

After moving into the newly built Dana Point Harbor in 1971, he founded Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, becoming the originator of whale watching in Orange County.

Starting the whale watching industry kept his fleet busy during the off-season. He also created the Dana Point Festival of Whales to celebrate the migration of gray whales and other cetaceans (whales, dolphins, or porpoise) along the Southern California Coast. Don was delighted to celebrate the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2021. It is currently the longest-running Festival of its kind globally.

The 51st annual Dana Point Festival of Whales in 2022 will be dedicated to Donald “Captain Don” Hansen’s honor.

Hansen was delighted to introduce his daughter Donna and son Mike into the family business and cherished what they and their employees (some of whom have been with Dana Wharf for more than 30 years) accomplished together. 

The company grew to include sportfishing and whale watching in Dana Point and Oceanside Harbor. Under Don’s watchful eye, the Hansen team has continually been active with charitable works, volunteerism, and helping the community, just examples of his philosophy.

He served as Vice President of the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC), Chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Chairman of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, and on the boards of many other organizations, including his local hospital.

“The word “served” doesn’t do justice to the decades he spent in each position and the effort he put forth toward the betterment of family, fleet, and community.” …Ken Franke, President, Sportfishing Association of California (SAC).

Don received many awards and words of recognition over the years––a few recent highlights include the Coastal Conservation Association of California’s (CCA CAL) highest honor, the 2021 Anthony Hsieh Conservation Award, in recognition of decades of tireless work and dedication to improving California sportfishing and making angling accessible to all.

Don loved his fleet and spent his life defending and promoting public access to sportfishing and championing the awareness of the awe-inspiring whales and dolphin that his fleet and passengers witnessed daily off the coast of Dana Point. His leadership never slowed, his humor never dulled, and his caring never stopped.

He is survived by his children: sons David Hansen (Kelly), Michael Hansen (Deanna), Jeff Jonas (Elizabeth); daughters: Jenifer Gressett (David), Jane Graff, Donna Kalez (Mark); and grandchildren: Zac Hansen (Talia), Sean Hansen, Jake Graff, Jason Graff, Alexis Persons (Blake), John Gressett, Erik Gressett, Shannon Herrera (Christian), Shane Hansen, Christine Jonas, Bennett Jonas, Cameron Jonas, Tess Jonas, Julia Kalez and Emily Kalez.

Don loved his family intensely and was proud of them all. His 15 beloved grandchildren were the lights of his life.

I saw a video of “Don’s 86th Surprise Drive-by Covid-19 Parade” 4-10-2020; he was sitting in a folding chair in his driveway in sock feet, as car after car of friends and family drove by with Happy Birthday signs and calling out greetings of love. Don called out thank you to every vehicle, always with a grin on his face, never showing any impatience. Although, he did call out a time or two that he was ready for his food! 

All too soon, his friends and loved ones were to get together again. Approximately a thousand attended the celebration of his life held on January 29, one year later, at the Ocean Institute, Dana Point, and 300 on the boats for the Burial at Sea.

Don Hansen, “Influencer Extraordinaire,” touched many lives before he left this earth and changed the path that many took. It was easy to believe in him because Captain Don cared, and he let you know it.