Australia is fortunate to have many whale and dolphin species use our waters, making it an ideal place to participate in whale and dolphin watching. Commercial whale and dolphin watching operators form an important nature-based industry that attracts a large number of tourists to coastal towns. This industry provides important income to coastal regions as well as promoting the conservation of whales and dolphins.
To ensure that the whale and dolphin watching industry remains sustainable and the impacts of recreational boat owners are appropriately managed the Australian government has produced guidelines for whale and dolphin watching. The guidelines describe the regulations that apply in all Commonwealth waters as well as providing additional advice on appropriate behaviour when operating a boat near whales and dolphins. Complying with the guidelines and regulations will ensure that vessels will avoid adverse impacts on whales and dolphins, while providing a high quality viewing experience to their passengers.
Whale and dolphin watching guidelines
The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 have been developed in consultation with the states and Northern Territory government, industry, scientists and non-government organisations. They provide a clearly defined set of standards for all human activity around whales and dolphins, 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 also provide an easy to understand description of the regulations that apply in Commonwealth waters.
Whale and dolphin watching is regulated by the Australian government in Commonwealth waters, also known as the Australian Whale Sanctuary. The regulations apply to all people interacting with whales and dolphins, including commercial operators (tourist or otherwise) and people operating private vessels. 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). They manage most whale and dolphin watching activities and may have their own regulations regarding whale and dolphin watching in coastal waters.
Information regarding the requirements in state and territory waters can be found by following the links provided below:
New South Wales
- Approaching marine mammals in NSW - NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment
- Rules for watching marine mammals - Qld Government Department of Environment and Science
- Whale watching - National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia
- Commercial Tour Operators - National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia
- National Parks and Wildlife (Protected Animals—Marine Mammals) Regulations 2010 SA Attorney-General's Department
- Whale and Dolphin Viewing Guidelines Tasmanian Government Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment
- Water safety around marine mammals - Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning
- Stranded whales or dolphins - WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions
- Whale Watching - WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions
Species you may see in Australian waters
While there are 45 species of whale and dolphin that use Australian waters not many of these species are often seen by whale and dolphin watchers. Below is a description of more commonly encountered species, and some rarer ones that are occasionally seen because they use shallow waters close to the coast.
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Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Illustration of a humpback whale © Copyright Uko Gorter
Humpback whales are one of the most common species of whale you will see in Australian waters and are well known for their spectacular breaching behaviour. They have very long pectoral fins and obvious throat grooves. Humpback whales also have a small dorsal fin located nearly two-thirds of the way down their back, and their backs steeply arch as they dive – this is how the humpback got its name and it helps whale watchers distinguish them from other species.
Most people will see humpback whales while they are travelling along the east and west coast of Australia on their annual migration to and from Antarctic waters however they will sometimes be seen off South Australia. In some areas humpback whales are viewed while resting in relatively shallow bays, such as Hervey Bay in Queensland. Occasionally whale watchers may see a humpback whale feeding, such as off the coast near Eden in NSW.
While humpback whales appear to tolerate the presence of whale watchers it is important to note that in some situations they may be more sensitive to disturbance. This is particularly the case when adults are accompanied by young calves or when animals are feeding or competing for mates.
Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis)
Illustration of a southern right whale © Copyright Uko Gorter
The southern right whale is a large whale that is easily distinguished from others because of its broad back without a dorsal fin, wide pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye and small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its head.
In Australian waters, southern right whales migrate between summer feeding grounds in Antarctic waters to more temperate inshore waters off the coast of southern Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales in winter. Within this coastal habitat southern right whales tend to occur in very shallow water, including in estuaries and bays. They have even been known to swim into the surf zone.
When southern right whales are in shallow coastal waters they are particularly susceptible to vessel collision, as the species sits low in the water, has no dorsal fin and can be difficult to see. While this species is in our coastal waters breeding, calving and rearing of young takes place.
A large proportion of the total Australian population of southern right whales over-winters at the head of the Great Australian Bight in South Australia. These animals form part of the larger western population of this species. A much smaller population occurs along the coast of eastern South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Due to its limited numbers and slow rate of recovery the eastern population of southern right whales is very vulnerable to human-induced impacts, including disturbance from vessels, swimmers and surfers.
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
Illustration of a blue whale © Copyright Uko Gorter
Blue whales are the largest animal on earth with an average length of 24 meters and a weight of up to 136 tonnes. Blue whales have grey blue skin with white spots and a small dorsal fin set far back on their body.
Blue whales are typically seen in deeper offshore waters where large upwellings bring krill, their preferred food, to the surface. Some of the most likely places to see a blue whale in Australian waters is off the coasts of Victoria and South Australia in an area known as the Bonney upwelling and off the Western Australian coast in the Perth Canyon.
Dwarf minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata unnamed sub sp.)
Illustration of a dwarf minke whale © Copyright Uko Gorter
The dwarf minke whale is the smallest baleen (filter feeding) whale, reaching less than 8m long. The nose of the dwarf minke whale is very narrow and pointed and it has a dark grey back and ivory white underside. The side colouration is more complex, with three dark grey fields descending from the back, white blazes ascending from the belly and a series of light grey patches, saddles and streaks.
Dwarf minke whales mostly swim alone or in pairs, although groups may form at feeding sites. Minke whales are known to be curious, often approaching boats or swimmers. In the northern Great Barrier Reef area this inherently inquisitive behaviour has led to dwarf minke whales becoming the subject of a swim-with whale program managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
The distribution of this species in Australian waters is not well understood but does extend at least from sub-Antarctic waters to waters off the northern Great Barrier Reef and north Western Australia.
Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
Illustration of a male (above) and female (below) killer whale © Copyright Uko Gorter
Killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family and are recognisable by their distinctive black, white and grey colouration. The head is rounded, they have a white eye patch, or spot located just above and behind the eye and a grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. The killer whale's belly, lower jaw and the underside of the tail flukes are white and the rest of the body is black.
This species is generally seen in groups averaging about 10 animals. While killer whales are seen in all Australian waters they are most commonly seen in coastal waters and along the continental shelf off the southern states of Australia.
Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
Illustration of a common bottlenose dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
The common bottlenose dolphin is grey in colour and grows to between 2 and 4 meters long. It has a short rounded snout, described as bottle-shaped. The large dorsal fin is slightly hooked and set half way along the body. Overall the body colour is a series of grey tones with an indistinct paler grey wash on the flanks fading into an off-white belly. This species occurs around much of Australia’s coastal shelf area and deeper offshore waters.
Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus)
Illustration of a Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are very similar to common bottlenose dolphins in appearance except that they have a more slender body and their beak is longer and more slender.
They have a broad distribution along much of Australia’s inshore coastal regions and so are the most commonly targeted species for dolphin watching. This species can occur in small resident populations within estuaries and bays and when this occurs these populations can be more vulnerable to disturbance than populations that move between bays and estuaries.
Australian humpback dolphin (Sousa sahulensis)
Illustration of a Australian humpback dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
Australian humpback dolphins are usually grey with various white scarring and dark flecking in some areas. They have a robust and medium sized body with a short, slightly recurved and triangular-shaped dorsal fin.
This species is found in waters that extend from the New South Wales/Queensland border across Northern Australia to Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth.
Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni)
Illustration of a Australian snubfin dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
The Australian snubfin dolphin is characterised by a broadly rounded head that is extremely mobile and usually has a visible neck crease. There is no sign of a beak and the mouth line is straight. The colour pattern for Australian snubfin dolphins is characteristic, with a subtle three-tone consisting of a dark cape, white abdomen and intermediate light grey to brownish grey side.
The Australian snubfin dolphin occurs only in waters off the northern half of Australia, from approximately Broome on the west coast to the Brisbane River on the east coast. This species occurs mostly in protected shallow waters close to the coast, and close to river and creek mouths.
Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
Illustration of a common dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
Common Dolphins are slender, with a long beak protruding sharply from the head. The dorsal fin is high and curves backwards.
Common Dolphins are mostly found in offshore waters, however occasionally they occur in near-shore areas. They have been recorded in waters off all Australian states and territories, but are rarely seen in northern Australian waters.
Spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris)
Illustration of a spinner dolphin © Copyright Uko Gorter
The spinner dolphin is a slender dolphin with an extremely long, thin beak. The dorsal fin ranges from slightly sickle-shaped to being erect and triangular, with males primarily exhibiting the latter shape on maturity. Spinner dolphins have a dark coloured cape extending to approximately halfway along the tail stock; light grey sides; and a white belly. The upper beak is dark in colour, while the lower jaw is white with a dark tip. Mature spinner dolphins grow up to 235 cm in length.
Spinner dolphins are known to congregate in groups of over 1000 animals, but generally the group size is less than 250. The species is very acrobatic, taking its name from its ability to leap and spin high in the air. Spinner dolphins often ride the bow wave of vessels.
In Australia, spinner dolphins occur from Western Australia, through Northern Territory waters and along the east coast from Queensland to NSW, including the Great Barrier Reef.