Whale and Dolphin Watching

Few wildlife experiences compare to the sight of a massive whale majestically rising out of the water and flopping backwards, or that of a pod of dolphins playfully showing off their acrobatic skills.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a vitally important breeding ground to about 30 species of whales and dolphins (or 'cetaceans'). Some of the most commonly sighted whales are the massive humpbacks which make the trek to the Reef's warmer waters from Antarctica between May to September to court, mate, give birth or rear their calves.

It's critical for their continued survival that their 'nurseries' are available to them, free from any harassment and stress which may lead to calf mortality. 

As someone who shares the waters with the Reef's precious cetaceans, you have a responsibility to help protect them and to keep safe distances.

By following these responsible practices when you're in the vicinity of whales and dolphins, you're not only playing a big part in their conservation but you're also providing a safe environment to watch them.

Responsible Reef Practices

When boating around whales

  • Be alert and watch out for whales at all times, particularly during whale migration season (May to September).
  • Post a lookout to keep an eye out for whales if they are suspected in the vicinity.
  • Make radio contact with nearby vessels to manage vessel numbers around the whale.
  • Do not approach or disturb mothers and calves - never place a boat between them.
  • Always move in a parallel direction to the whale.
  • When you're leaving an area where whales were present, turn the motor on, post a lookout, and move off slowly.
  • Slow down to minimise the risk of collision where whales have been sighted.
  • If your boat accidentally strikes a whale, ensure that your passengers and vessel are safe, note your location and continue your previous course - do not follow the whale.
  • Report any boat strikes and reassure your passengers that the relevant authorities have been contacted to assist the whale.

When boating around dolphins

  • Follow all guidelines for boating around whales.
  • Do not intentionally drive through a pod of dolphin to try to get them to bow ride. Some dolphins don't bow ride, and can become disturbed near boats.
  • Maintain constant speed and direction when dolphins are bow riding.

When viewing whales and dolphins

  • Use common sense when viewing whales and dolphins as their behaviour is unpredictable:
    • Never try to overtake whales or dolphins.
    • Avoid making sudden noise, speed or direction changes.
    • Be quiet when you are near a whale or dolphin.
    • Let the whale or dolphin control the situation. Do not try to round up or herd.
    • Move away immediately if the whales or dolphins suddenly change behaviour and appear agitated. Behaviour that indicates that boats should move away includes bumping the vessel, rapid changes in swimming direction or speed, erratic behaviour, escape behaviour such as prolonged deep dives, and tail slapping or swishing.
  • If your clients are in the water and a whale or dolphin approaches, if possible, get them out of the water and view the whale or dolphin from onboard your vessel. 
  • Ensure a staff member is monitoring the behaviour of the whale or dolphin.

With interpretation and staff training

  • Brief your clients on whale and dolphin biology, ecology, behaviour and conservation in onboard interpretation programs.
  • Brief your clients on the rules of whale and dolphin watching and explain reasons behind such strict regulations.
  • Display explanatory posters about whale and dolphin watching and regulations.
  • Train your staff in regulations, responsible reef practices, and appropriate interpretation on whale and dolphin biology and conservation.

Reporting

  • Please report sick, injured, stranded or dead whales or dolphins.
  • Please also report if your vessel accidentally strikes a whale.

Marine Parks Legal Requirements

  • All whales and dolphins in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are legally protected.
  • A specific permission on your tourism program permit is required to conduct whale watching activities. Incidental encounters are not considered whale watching.

  • Picture showing the distances you are allowed from a whale when whale watching

    Click image for full version
  • When you encounter whales or dolphins, either from a vessel, aircraft or in the water:
    • You must not kill, take, injure and/or interfere with whales and dolphins (interference includes harassing, chasing and herding)
    • You must not restrict the path of whales or dolphins
    • You must minimise noise when closer than 300 metres of a whale or dolphin
    • You must not touch or feed, or attempt to touch or feed, a whale or dolphin
    • You must not enter the water within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin
    • You must not approach closer than 30 metres to a whale or dolphin if you are in the water. If a whale or dolphin approaches you while you are in the water, move slowly away, do not touch or swim towards it.
  • When operating a vessel or aircraft (see diagram):
    • A vessel must not approach closer than 100 metres of a whale, or 50 metres of a dolphin
    • Approach the whale or dolphin only from the rear or by positioning the vessel ahead of the whale or dolphin, and always in a position that is more than 30 degrees to its observed direction of travel
    • If the whale of dolphin is a calf, a vessel must not enter within 300 metres of the whale and 150 metres of the dolphin (i.e. the caution zone)
    • If a calf appears causing your vessel to be within the caution zone, you must stop the vessel and turn off the engines or disengage the gears or withdraw your vessel at a constant slow speed
    • If your vessel is closer than 300 metres of a whale or 150 metres to a dolphin, it must be operated at a constant slow speed with negligible wake, if closer than 50 metres of a dolphin the vessel must not change course or speed suddenly
    • If there are three vessels within 300 metres of a whale or dolphin, all additional vessels must remain outside a 300 metres radius from the whale or dolphin
    • If a whale approaches close to your vessel, take all precautions to avoid a collision, either slow down and steer away from the animal, or place the engines in neutral and let the animal pass
    • Prohibited vessels (i.e. jetskis, parasails, hovercraft, hydrofoils, wing-in-ground effect craft and motorised diving aids such as underwater scooters) must not approach closer than 300 metres of a whale or dolphin
    • An aircraft must not operate below 1000 feet within a horizontal radius of 300 metres to a whale or dolphin and must not approach a whale or dolphin head on
    • In addition, a helicopter must not operate below 1650 feet within a horizontal radius of 500 metres to a whale or dolphin
    • If you accidentally strike a whale you must report it.
  • When in the Whitsunday Planning Area, there are some additional rules in relation to whales:
    • A vessel must not approach closer than 300 metres of a whale in the Whitsunday Whale Protection Area
    • A helicopter must not approach below 2000 feet or within 1000 metres of a whale.
  • You must notify the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities within seven days of becoming aware that an activity you undertook without a permit resulted in an unintentional death, injury, trading, taking, keeping or moving of a species specified in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

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