The whales are coming!

SAT 3/1

Watching whales just puts things into perspective. They're so big -- and we're so small. Each measuring up to nearly fifty feet long, California's grays swim some 5,000 miles every year from Baja, where they breed and give birth in warm lagoons, all the way to the Arctic for their summertime feasting -- and we, their fellow mammals, can barely make it ten times back and forth across the YMCA pool.The Mendocino coast, one of the West Coast's whale-watching capitals, celebrates the migration with two annual festivals. This year, the first is set for Mendocino on March 1-2 and the second in Fort Bragg on March 15-16.

Both weekends will feature ample opportunities to watch gray whales from the shore and aboard chartered vessels. These boats draw close to the big bottom-feeders as they breach, a spectacular surfacing gesture whose function has never been determined for sure, and as they "spy-hop," raising their heads above the water with seeming curiosity. Other activities for visitors include tide-pool adventures, tours of Pt. Cabrillo lighthouse, film screenings, live music, and venues for eating like -- well, like the whale that swallowed Jonah, and for drinking like a fish.

Highlights of the Mendocino festival are a chowder cook-off and wine tastings in nearly two dozen village galleries and businesses. Shops and galleries will also stage special displays of whale-themed and appropriately nautical art. The Fort Bragg festival features a classic car show, microbrew tastings, an arts and crafts fair, and lots more steaming-hot seafood chowder. For those who can still stand, Fort Bragg's Whale Run follows a 10K course along the coast in MacKerricher State Park.

Equipped with that oral filter known as baleen instead of teeth, gray whales eat minuscule plankton as well as small fish, mussels, and squid. Ours aren't the type of whales to provide homesick sailors with materials for making scrimshaw, nor are they the type to bite the legs off brooding Nantucket sea captains. But like other species, grays have suffered the depredations of commercial whaling. Hunted during the 19th century, grays were still being hunted in the Pacific as late as 1966 -- Korea was the major culprit. Gray whales used to cruise the Atlantic as well, but that population has now become extinct.Trails along the rocky Mendocino bluffs are among the state's best viewing spots. Armed with binoculars, spectators can watch for flukes and knobby gray backs about a quarter-mile offshore. It's one of those now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't marvels -- and once seen, never forgotten. For more information, call the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce at 707-961-6303. -— Anneli Rufus

SAT 3/1

Hey, Pack Rats!

What's gray and has a trunk? A mouse going on vacation. What's white and has a trunk? Um, a ginormous rummage sale? The 43rd Annual White Elephant Sale happens Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and if you dig bargains on new and slightly used antiques, books, clothing, toys, furniture, household items, or damn near anything else, this is the place for you. The sale, benefiting the Oakland Museum, is the largest of its kind in Northern California and has raised more than $9,250,000 since 1955 -- which buys a lot of educational programs, exhibitions, and permanent acquisitions. The warehouse is located at 333 Lancaster St. Carpooling and BART are strongly suggested, with a shuttle bus running continuously from the Fruitvale BART station during sale hours. 510-536-6800. -- Stefanie Kalem

TUE 3/4

Fatter than You'll Ever Be

The Berkeley Farmers' Market is always a pretty funky spot, but on its Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras celebration, the Ecology Center's famous/notorious food market takes on the flavor of a Third World bazaar. Tuesday's street party features Saint Buckwheat, a New Orleans-style marching band, plus the Wild Buds, who play anything their hearts desire -- mostly soul-rock. They'll be joined at the market's site, Derby Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, by the Berkeley Mardi Gras Parade. For aficionados of the "hippie dance," that wild flinging of arms and legs, this is the the place to let your freak flag fly. The yadda-yadda begins at 2 p.m. and runs until 7. It's free, of course. 510-548-3333 or -- Kelly Vance

SAT 3/1

Brazil Nuts

Why not celebrate Brazil? They just made Gilberto Gil Minister of Culture, and he once posed on one of his record covers wearing nothing but a red Speedo and a damp Afro. But if you need more reason than that, Saturday night is Brazilian Carnaval, the kick-off for Ashkenaz' month-long Festival of Music and Dance. The evening's headliner is the socially conscious Entre Nos, a core quintet (bassist, drummer, guitarist, cavaquinho, and ganza and surdo) plus brass and percussion. Also appearing is the Ginga Brasil Dance Troupe, plus an 8:30 p.m. dance lesson with Aisha. The show starts at 9:30, and tickets cost $15. Ashkenaz is at 1317 San Pablo in Berkeley. 510-525-5054. -- Stefanie Kalem


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