Whale Watching Operations

Because of worldwide efforts to protect whales, every year the number of whales visiting the Great Barrier Reef is increasing. This makes it more likely that you will encounter whales during your tourism operation, especially between May and September. You are most likely to encounter either minke whales (in the Cairns region) or humpback whales throughout the Great Barrier Reef.

As well as conventional whale watching tours, a small swimming-with-whales sector has developed in the vicinity of the Ribbon Reefs based on voluntary approaches by the whales. The industry is working actively with GBRMPA to manage this activity by participating in the Dwarf Minke Whale Tourism Monitoring Program.

Whales are very special marine mammals and all species are protected in Australian waters, including the Great Barrier Reef. There are important management arrangements in place to help protect whales in the Marine Park.

Do I need a Marine Parks permit?

If you are a commercial operator who:

  • enables tourists to observe whales or dolphins,
  • enables tourists to undertake swimming-with-whales, or
  • uses a vessel or aircraft to find whales or dolphins

in the Marine Park, then you must have a Marine Parks permit specifically allowing the activities of whale watching or swimming-with-whales.

Can I offer whale watching anywhere?

Whales are migratory and the Great Barrier Reef is an important winter calving ground for some species that migrate from southern waters. To protect the whales and to minimise any disturbance or stress, especially during migration, mating and calving there are some important management arrangements about whale watching.

Because there is already intensive whale watching in southern Queensland and New South Wales, commercial whale watching in the Marine Park is only allowed north of about Mackay.

There is also a cap on the number of Marine Parks permits for whale watching and swimming-with-whales activities in the Cairns Planning Area, and on the number of Marine Parks permits for whale watching in the Whitsundays Planning Area. No additional permits can be granted in these two Planning Areas, but existing permits may be transferred.

Swimming-with-whales activities focusing on dwarf minke whales may only be conducted in the Offshore Port Douglas and Ribbon Reefs Sectors of the Cairns Planning Area.

What particular rules apply?

There are strict requirements about how you should operate when whales are near you. These are explained in the legal section of the responsible reef practices for whale watching.

You will also have some specific conditions about whale watching or swimming-with-whales activities in your Marine Parks permit. In particular, sighting and interaction information must be submitted to better assist management of the activities. Please make sure that you know your permit conditions.

The Whitsunday Planning Area is an important calving ground for humpback whales and there are additional management arrangements to protect whales in this area:

  • You must conduct all whale watching outside the Whale Protection Area (see Download Maps - Whitsunday Settings map).
  • You must not use a helicopter for whale spotting.
  • No vessel may approach closer than 300 metres to a whale - see the legal section of the responsible reef practices for whale watching.

What if I see a whale by chance?

If you are out in the Marine Park and you see a whale, but you do not have a specific whale watching or swimming-with-whales permit, there are some basic rules you should follow.

If a whale is off in the distance, you should not divert your course to bring your clients closer to the whale. This becomes 'whale watching' and you need a specific whale watching permit.

Please make sure you abide by the specified approach distances and other requirements explained in the legal section of the responsible reef practices for whale watching.

How can I help to protect whales?

Whenever you see whales in the Marine Park, you can help to protect them by following the responsible reef practices for whale watching. You can also help scientists and managers track whale migration paths and calving grounds by downloading and use the Sightings Network through the Eye on the Reef mobile phone app whenever you see a whale.

Look out for whales

Keep a special look out for whales during their migratory season, from May to September each year. Please report sick, injured, stranded or dead whales or dolphins.

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