- Where to see whales
- When to see whales
- Whale watching regulations
- Approach distances for whales and dolphins under the National Standards
- Different whale behaviours
- Commercial whale watching tours
- Whale strandings
Each year tens of thousands of people in Queensland take part in commercial whale watching tours or see humpback whales from their own boats. And now, with more humpbacks swimming within sight of Queensland’s coastline there is an even greater number of people watching these marine mammals from a headland lookout or an open surf beach.
Seeing pictures of whales on television, or reading about them in a book, can never prepare you for the sight of a living whale in the water. And 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 humbling experience.
Where to see whales
Many migrating whales travel within a few kilometres of the coastline making it possible to watch them through binoculars or spotting scopes from headlands and even open beaches anywhere along the Queensland coast.
On the water, the chances of seeing whales are much greater. This means that there is also an increased risk of boats disturbing whales as they migrate, or even separating mothers from their calves. The legal approach distances and regulations stated below are in place to minimise these risks.
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.
Whale watching regulations
A person in control of a boat must not:
- bring the boat any closer than 100m of a whale; or
- bring the boat any closer than 300m of a whale if:
- three or more boats are already closer than 300m to a whale; or
- the boat is moving in a similar direction to or behind a whale; or
- the boat is moving at more than four knots; or
- the boat is within an area of special interest for whales (i.e. that part of the Whitsunday Management Area of the Townsville/Whitsunday Marine Park identified as an area of special interest for whales in the Conservation and management of whales and dolphins in Queensland document.
- bring the boat to a position that would cause a whale to come closer than 100m to the boat if the whale continued in its direction of travel;
- if a whale surfaces closer than 100m to the boat—move the boat at more than 4 knots until the whale has moved at least 300m away from the boat;
- move or operate the boat in a way that causes the whale to alter its direction or speed of travel or its behaviour; or
- bring the boat between members of a pod of whales.
A person on a jet ski must not bring it any closer than 300m to a whale.
A person in water must not move any closer than 300m to a whale.
A person must not enter water closer than 300m to a whale.
A person in control of a fixed-wing aircraft must not bring it any closer to a whale than 300m or an altitude of 1000ft.
A person in control of a helicopter must not bring it any closer to a whale than 1km or an altitude of 2000ft.
Approach distances for whales and dolphins under the National Standards
(Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006).
A person must not do any of the following to a whale in the wild.
- deposit rubbish near a whale;
- make a noise that is likely to disturb a whale;
- make a noise that is likely to attract a whale;
- intentionally feed a whale; or
- touch a whale.
Commercial whale watching is operated under permit using skippers and crew with experience in Hervey Bay, Moreton Bay and the Whitsunday Islands.
A person must not operate a whale watching business other than under a permission granted under a permission granted under the Marine Parks Act 1982.
These are only some of the regulations which protect and conserve whales from disturbance and harm. The Conservation and management of whales and dolphins in Queensland document explains in detail the obligations of whale watchers.
When boating in the vicinity of a whale, it is worthwhile to consider that a fully-grown humpback whale weighs up to 45 tonnes—they can weigh ten tonnes more than a fully loaded semi trailer, and are far less predictable.
Different whale behaviours
Humpback whale, breach
Humpback whale, tail wave
Each encounter with a whale is unique and visitors can experience a variety of behaviours such as surfacing, blowing, breaching, fin or tail slapping or ‘spyhopping’ (prolonged above water perching or treading water in an elevated position).
I believe that the principal gift that whales offer humanity is that they are the only animals that can impress us enough to persuade us to change our minds about the importance of nature. Roger Payne (1982) Among Whales
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 slowly move away.
If you are on a boat and a whale surfaces nearby you must disengage the gears and leave the motor idling or move away at a speed of less than 4 knots until the whale is at least 300m away.
Commercial whale watching tours
Commercial whale watching tours operate in Queensland waters in Hervey Bay, Moreton Bay and the Whitsunday Islands. Other commercial tours also operate in Australian territorial waters (i.e. more than 3 nautical miles from the coastline) off the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.
In Hervey Bay, a Whale Management Area has been established to protect the whale population and to minimise harm or distress to whales directly or indirectly caused by human activities. This Whale Management Area is in effect from 1 July to 30 November coinciding with the time that the whales are present in the Bay.
More information about commercial Marine Park permits can be found on the department’s marine park permits pages.
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 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.
A stranding can be a distressing experience for people as well as the whale. Global experience shows that few stranded humpback whales can be returned to the ocean, and many rescued whales will become stranded again soon after rescue. It is sometimes the case that conservation officers and the RSPCA may need to make difficult decisions to manage the whale’s suffering.
The department’s marine wildlife strandings page provides more information and applicable operational policies.
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