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.
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.
- How whale watching is to be carried out in Commonwealth waters and the Australian Whale Sanctuary (Regulation 8.12)
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.
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.
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 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
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.
Whale watching websites in NSW
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.
The Great Barrier Reef
Whale watching in Queensland
Head of the Bight (Great Australian Bight Marine Park areas)
Encounter Coast (Victor Harbour)
Whale watching websites in SA
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
Coastal areas from Albany to the Great Australian Bight
Geographe Bay Area
Whale watching in WA
Logan's Beach, Warrnambool
Whale watching websites in Victoria
Great Oyster Bay and Mercury Passage
Adventure Bay, Bruny Island
Whale watching websites in Tasmania
* Total direct and indirect expenditure (reference: International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Report 2009, Whale Watching Worldwide.
Some behaviour you may see
The whale lifts its tail before diving, usually after arching it's back.
Pec Slap - The whale spalps its pectoral fins on the water