Whale and dolphin watching regulations

Image of Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Great Barrier Reef, QLD, Australia. Image credit Jan-Dirk Hansen

Humpback whale

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

Important to their continued survival are ‘nurseries’, free from any harassment.

If you use the waters of the Marine Park, you have a responsibility to help protect whales and dolphins and to keep safe distances from them.

The following legal requirements are set out in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019 and are complemented under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Legal requirements

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 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, do not touch or swim towards it
  • You must minimise noise when closer than 300 metres from a whale or dolphin.

When operating a vessel or aircraft (check safe distances diagram):

  • A vessel must not approach closer than 100 metres  to a whale, or 50 metres  to 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 or dolphin is a calf, a vessel must not enter within a radius of 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  to a whale or 150 metres  to a dolphin, it must be operated at a constant slow speed, if closer than 50 metres  to 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 to a whale or dolphin
  • An aircraft must not operate below 1000 feet within a horizontal radius of 300 metres of 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 500 metres of a whale or dolphin
  • If you accidentally strike a whale or dolphin 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 to a whale in the Whitsunday Whale Protection Area
  • a helicopter must not approach below 2000 feet or within 1000 metres of a whale.
Safe Whale Distances Diagram

Safe whale distances practices