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Whale watching

Whale watching tours are run in 119 countries with an estimated 13 million participants generating in excess of 2.1 billion dollars annually.

In Queensland each year tens of thousands of people take part in commercial whale watching tours or see humpback whales from their own boats. Now, with the increasing humpback whale population, there are more humpbacks swimming within sight of Queensland’s coastline and an even greater number of people watching these marine mammals from a headland lookout or open surf beach.

Seeing pictures of whales on television, or reading about them can never prepare you for the sight of a living whale in the water. When the chance comes to see one of the largest living things that has ever swum in the ocean it can be a powerful and memorable experience. 

Where to see whales

It is possible to see migrating humpback whales from vantage points such as headlands and even open beaches in some areas along the Queensland coast, aided by the use of binoculars or spotting scopes.

On the water, the chance of seeing whales is much greater. This means that there is also an increased risk of boats disturbing whales as they migrate, or separating mothers from their calves. Legal approach distances and regulations are in place to minimise these risks, and so you can watch whales in safety.

When to see whales

Generally humpback whales are off the Queensland coast between late Autumn and late Spring. They turn south in July and August with about a quarter of the population entering Hervey Bay where they create a unique whale watching opportunity between August and October. An added feature of watching whales on their southern migration is the chance of seeing mothers with their newborn calves.

The best time to see whales is when the conditions are calm. This is most likely to be in the morning before any wind picks up and wave height increases.

Watching whales from a headland in the late afternoon light can also be spectacular as changing colour and angle of the light highlights their breaches and blows.

Give whales some space

The key to watching such a large animal is to give it the space it needs to behave naturally. This means the best whale watching experience is when the watcher becomes more like a part of the scenery, giving the whale the freedom to behave as it likes—and maybe swimming closer to you. A whale that feels disturbed will spend less time at the surface and is more likely to move out of the area. Other signs that a whale may be disturbed include when a whale:

  • moves away from a boat
  • regularly changes swimming speed or direction
  • shows sudden changes in behaviour
  • dives suddenly
  • changes breathing patterns
  • dives more often (rather than staying at the surface)
  • acts aggressively (e.g. tail slaps).

It is particularly important to watch for these signs where there are mothers and calves. Disturbances can interfere with the calf’s feeding or cause it to swim away from its mother.

At the first sign of any disturbance, move your boat away.

Legal approach distances have been established to ensure whales are not harassed. This gives whale watchers the best chance to see a whale naturally and allows the whales to continue on their long migration undisturbed.

The art of whale watching

Humpback whale, breach

Humpback whale, breach

Humpback whale, tail wave

Humpback whale, tail wave

The magic of whale watching comes from treating each encounter with a whale as a one-on-one experience. Firstly, what makes these encounters unique is that you are never quite sure when or where a whale will surface. When it does surface, will it be alone, will it blow, will it breach, fin or tail slap, or will it spyhop beside the boat?

Added to this is the fact that each whale has its own unique markings so there is the possibility of learning to recognise a few individual whales by the patterns on their flukes and pectoral fins. With the aid of a pair of binoculars you may find that if you can identify an individual whale it will be more interesting to watch it over a longer time than to try and watch a larger number of whales all at once.

On occasions the watcher can become the watched. Whales can approach boats creating the rare and unforgettable opportunity to look an intelligent animal in the eye while it in turn is looking at you. This is a special wildlife watching experience where the animal takes the lead and interacts with you—and one you will always remember.

Remember, if the whale shows any sign of being disturbed, or there is a risk of separating a mother from her calf, you should share the water and slowly move away.

If a whale comes toward your boat so that the boat is within the ‘no approach’ zone, you are required to stop the boat and turn the engines off, disengage the gears, or withdraw to an area outside the no approach zone at a speed not more than six knots that does not create a wake.

If a whale comes toward your boat so that the boat is within the ‘caution’ zone, the boat must not operate at a speed more than 6 knots or at a speed that creates a wake.

Whale strandings

As humpback whale numbers increase, it is likely that the number of strandings will also increase. If you see a stranded whale, alive or dead, please report it immediately by calling the RSPCA Qld on 1300 ANIMAL and follow the advice of wildlife officers.

While you wait for experts to arrive, take care of your own health and safety. Whales are powerful creatures, so keep away from the head and tail. They also may carry zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can be transferred from animal species to humans, so avoid touching the whale. For hygiene reasons, stand upwind of the blowhole and don't inhale the fishy-smelling vapour from the blow.

Do not try to push the whale back into the water as this will add to its suffering. Do not stress the whale. Keep quiet and calm and ensure that dogs and small children are kept well away from the whale.

New marine mammal legislation

New legislation concerning whales, dolphins and dugongs was introduced on 10 May 2013. Information on the changes, including frequently asked questions, is available.

Last updated
2 July 2013