Whale and dolphin watching

 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Australia is fortunate to have many sites around our coastline that are ideal for whale and dolphin watching. Whale and dolphin watching is a growing industry in Australia, and in 2008 whale watching tourism in Australia was worth $31 million in direct expenditure * to the Australian economy. The number of tourists participating in whale watching has grown to over 1.6 million people per year.

Regulations

Commonwealth regulations

Whale and dolphin watching is regulated in the Australian Whale Sanctuary. The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching are reflected in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act Regulations. The regulations apply to all people interacting with whales and dolphins including commercial operators (tourist or otherwise) and people conducting recreational activities. The regulations specify how vessels, aircraft and people must behave around these animals. For example, vessels must not deliberately approach whales closer than 100m. Within 300m vessels must use caution and travel at low speed. Touching or feeding whales and dolphins is prohibited.

State regulations

State and territory governments are responsible for conservation and protection of whales and dolphins in coastal waters (out to the 3 nautical mile limit).

State and territory governments manage most of the human/whale interactions, and whale and dolphin watching. Each state and territory has its own regulations regarding whale watching in coastal waters.

Whale and dolphin watching guidelines

The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching have been adopted by all jurisdictions, and are a clearly defined set of standards for all human activity around cetaceans. These help people understand that their actions may disturb these wild animals, and show them how to minimise any effect they may have while whale or dolphin watching. The guidelines apply to waters from three nautical miles out.

Remember - keep a safe distance

Do not disturb!

What is the basic rule when near whales and dolphins? Remain quiet and do not try to feed or touch them.

  • Be alert and watch for whales and dolphins at all times.
  • When in a vessel, do not approach closer than 100m to any whale or 50m to any dolphin.
  • The caution zone for vessels is the area within 300m of a whale and 150m of a dolphin. No more than three vessels are allowed within the caution zone at any one time and vessels should operate at no wake speeds within this zone.
  • Approach whales and dolphins from parallel to and slightly to the rear - not from directly behind or head-on.
  • When leaving whales or dolphins, move off at a slow (no wake) speed to the outer limit of the caution zone (300m) from the closest animal before gradually increasing speed.
  • Keep a lookout and avoid disturbance to mother whales or dolphins and their calves. Mother and calf will be close together and the calves are sometimes difficult to see.
  • If there is a sudden change in whale or dolphin behaviour, move away immediately at a slow steady pace.
  • Whales and dolphins sometimes form social groupings and may approach your vessel - if this happens place the engine in neutral and let the animal(s) come to you; or slow down and continue on course; or steer a straight course away from them.
  • Do not get into the water if you see a whale or dolphin. If you're already in the water do not disturb, chase or block the path of a whale or dolphin and if possible, return to your vessel or the shore.

graphic of dolphin watching permitted distances

graphic of whale watching permitted distances

 

Note - approach distances for permitted vessels may be regulated under state and territory laws and may differ from those given above.

Where to see whales and dolphins in the wild

Australia is fortunate to have a number of great whale and dolphin watching sites. There are numerous whale and dolphin watching operations around Australia that offer excellent opportunities to see animals in the wild. There are also many land-based sites where whales and dolphins come within metres of the coastline. Land-based whale and dolphin watching is an inexpensive way of seeing these magnificent animals in their natural environments.

Remember - keep a safe distance

Remember that Whale Watching Guidelines and Regulations exist for both your safety and the safety of whales and dolphins. It is important not to disturb whales and dolphins in their natural environment.

Map of whale watching sites around Australia

Map of whale watching sites around Australia

Whale watching sites around Australia
Check the map of Australia to see some of the great whale watching locations around Australia. Please be aware that these are just some of the locations and species you can see around the coastline.
View whale watching sites around Australia (PDF - 453 KB)

Whale watching sites by state

Report a sighting

If you see a whale or a dolphin in an area where they usually don't occur you could notify your local ranger or parks office.

New South Wales - Queensland - South Australia - Tasmania - Victoria - Western Australia

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New South Wales

 

Cape Byron
Tweed Heads to Cape Byron is recognised as a prime location for observing migrating humpback whales.

Coffs Harbour
The coastal waters in the vicinity of Coffs Harbour provides good opportunities for observation of migrating humpbacks travelling both north and south, calving events have also been reported in the area.

Jervis Bay
Bottlenose dolphins are seen throughout the year at Jervis Bay. The cliffs around the Bay also provide great opportunities for land based observations of humpback whales from June to December.

Port Stephens
Bottlenose dolphins can be found in these waters.

Twofold Bay
Waters within the bay are visited annually, although in low numbers, by humpbacks and southern right whales. Blue whales are also sometimes sighted outside the bay. Humpback whales have been observed feeding within the bay.

Whale watching websites in NSW

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Queensland

 

The entire Queensland east coast is a great location to see many species of whales and dolphins. For example the humpback whale can be found along almost the entire Queensland coast during their migration season between July and September (Morgan 1992). The areas around Cairns and the Ribbon Reefs are important for dwarf minke whales which can be encountered between May to August.

Hervey Bay
Hervey Bay Marine Park is a great place to see humpback whales, where year after year these whales return from early August to the end of October.

Moreton Bay
Moreton Bay was once a whaling station due to the amount of humpback whales passing the area. Today Moreton Bay has moved from a whaling station to a whale watching station.

The Great Barrier Reef
Whales are seen regularly in the Great Barrier Reef. Some species live all year in these warm tropical waters and others migrate through the Reef each winter from the colder southern oceans. The most commonly sighted species are humpback and dwarf minke whales.

Whale watching in Queensland

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South Australia

 

Head of the Bight (Great Australian Bight Marine Park areas)
Incorporating waters within the South Australian Great Australian Bight Whale Sanctuary and Great Australian Bight Marine National Park, and Commonwealth Great Australian Bight Marine Park. This is an important calving and mating area for southern right whales, especially close to shore in the South Australian marine park, and offers exceptional land-based whale watching opportunities.

Encounter Coast (Victor Harbour)
This is an important area for viewing of southern right whales and their calves between May and September. The area offers exceptional land-based whale watching opportunities within a short distance from metropolitan Adelaide and attracts tens of thousands of people annually.

Whale watching websites in SA

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Western Australia

 

The entire Western Australian coastline provides opportunities to see humpback whales on their annual migration from Antarctic waters to the warm waters around northern Australia.

Waters off the NW coast north of Cape Leveque
This area is important for humpback whale calving and breeding. The peak period is mid-August to mid-September, however, the species can be seen in the area between about July and October.

Coastal areas from Albany to the Great Australian Bight
These are important breeding areas for southern right whales and also for viewing humpback whales and possibly sperm whales.

Perth waters
These waters are an important temporary rest area for southward migrating humpback whales between September to late November, when they can be seen in the area with great regularity. Southern right whales are also being seen in increasing numbers in Perth metropolitan waters as their populations slowly recover from commercial whaling.

Geographe Bay Area
Blue whales are being sighted in increasing numbers in this area as the species slowly recovers from the impacts of commercial whaling.

Whales and dolphins

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Victoria

 

Logan's Beach, Warrnambool
Logan's Beach is an area where southern right whales come to calve and usually remain between June and October. It is a prime location for viewing these whales from land.

Whale watching websites in Victoria

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Tasmania

 

Great Oyster Bay and Mercury Passage
Humpback and southern right whales are observed frequently in the region during the migrating season. Southern right whales have been known to remain in the area for extended periods.

Adventure Bay, Bruny Island
This area is Tasmania's most predictable area for sighting southern right whales. Stays of 1-5 weeks have been recorded and calving confirmed in the area.

Whale watching websites in Tasmania

* Total direct and indirect expenditure (reference: International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Report 2009, Whale Watching Worldwide.