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Australia Whale and dolphin watching country profile

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching

The whale watching industry has expanded nationally and attracts large numbers of tourists to coastal towns around Australia. From the late 1960s, the number of whale watchers in Australia has continually risen, with over 1.5 million people watching whales in 20081. Forty five species of whales and dolphins live in or migrate through Australian waters. The vast coastline of Australia includes many different types of coastal habitat and there are opportunities to watch whales from land, by boat, or from the air.

Target species, peak times of year and locations:

Dolphin watching tends to occur all year round and is focused on six species. Most whale watching activities are based around the migration of southern right and humpback whales each year from June until November and May until November, respectively. The species most often observed during whale and dolphin watching activities are listed below. Information on these species is available at

The Australian Government has conducted extensive research to identify and define Biologically Important Areas  for marine mammals and other marine species. Visitors who are interested in learning about specific habitats for different whale and dolphin species can use an interactive map to explore what these habitats are for different species (click on “whales” or “inshore dolphins” on the menu bar on the left and use the “+” drop down menu to select the desired species). 

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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.

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Queensland  MAY - NOVEMBER

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. 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. the arrival of the humpback whales is celebrated at the Hervey Bay Whale Festival, with concerts, street parades and displays
  • 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 and some operators are licensed to offer swim-with whale programmes at this site.

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South Australia JUNE-SEPTEMBER

  • 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.
  • Portland: Blue whales can be present off the coast of Portland between November and May.

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Western Australia AUGUST-NOVEMBER

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.  Peak months for this species are March-May.

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Victoria MAY – OCTOBER

  • Logan’s Beach, Warrnambool: The three hour drive from Melbourne to Logans Beach in Warrnambool along the Great Ocean Road, allows opportunities to view southern right whales and their calves in a nursery area close to shore. Whales are visible from a viewing platform on the sand dunes or in Lady Bay in Warrnambool. A further 1 1/2 hours along the Great Ocean Road to it is sometimes possible to see  blue whales, humpback whales, southern right whales, bottlenose dolphins and Australian fur seals during boat –based tours from Cape Nelson near Portland.
  • Port Phillip Bay:  dolphin watching is also available in Port Phillip Bay, offshore from Melbourne.

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  • 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.

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Regulations and guidelines

The management of whale watching in Australia is a multi-jurisdictional arrangement between the Australian Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and state and territory governments. Most jurisdictions have laws that prohibit people from killing, injuring and trading cetaceans as well as protecting them from interference (harassment, chasing, or herding).

National guidelines:

The National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017:

  1. Provide information to commercial operators and the general public on how they can watch whales and dolphins safely in Commonwealth waters
  2. Encourage a consistent approach to whale and dolphin watching across all jurisdictions
  3. Make recommendations to state and territory governments in relation to additional management measures to be applied in situations where there is a need to better protect either whales and dolphins or people.

Each government in Australia applies the Guidelines through their various laws and regulations as best suits the situation of the particular jurisdiction. It is the responsibility of the whale and dolphin watching industry to be aware of the laws that apply.

The Guidelines replace the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005. They have been developed in consultation with the state and territory governments and relevant stakeholders, such as the whale and dolphin watching industry, to ensure they are applicable across all Australian waters.  

The Guidelines contain detailed information on how to approach whales and dolphins by boat, by air, or in water (swimming with whales or dolphins). The two diagrams to the right provide examples of guidelines for approaching whales (top) or dolphins (bottom) in a vessel.  Longer distances and greater caution are required when calves are present. 

Similar diagrams are provided for approaches by air, and detailed guidelines are provided for how to interact with whales and dolphins that are stranded/in distress and the very few occasions where swimming with or feeding of whales or dolphins is permitted under strictly regulated permits. In general, swimming with, touching or feeding dolphins is prohibited by law throughout Australia. 

Please consult the Guidelines if you are considering participating in a whale watching experience in Australia as a tourist, an operator or a manager.

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Australian Government regulations

The Australian Government regulates whale and dolphin watching in Commonwealth waters (i.e. waters greater than three nautical miles from the shore). Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), the Australian Whale Sanctuary has been established to protect all whales and dolphins found in Commonwealth waters. Within the Australian Whale Sanctuary, those undertaking whale watching activities must comply with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2000, which support the EPBC Act, and the National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 (the Guidelines).

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 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:

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Research on whale watching in Australia

Several studies have been conducted in Australia on the potential impact of whale watching activities on their target populations of whales or dolphins.  A full review of scientific literature describing impacts of whale and dolphin watching throughout Australia was conducted by Macquarie University in 2013 and is available for download here2.  Examples of studies that are reviewed include:

  • A study of the effects of boat-based whale watching on humpback whales off of the coast of New South Wales, concluded that whales showed some behavioural changes around whale watch vessels. While these were not deemed to be severely negative impacts, the authors urged a cautionary approach, especially around groups of whales with calves3
  • A study of dolphin behavior in the presence of tour boats off the coast of Bunbury, West Australia showed that time spent resting and feeding decreased and traveling increased when tour boats were present.  The authors conclude that these and other short-term behavior changes require managers to exercise a precautionary approach in limiting the duration and number of vessel encounters, particularly with resident groups of dolphins that may be exposed to the same tour vessels on a regular basis.4

Swim-with whale tourism is becoming more popular in Australian waters. To determine the best way to manage this activity the Western Australian state government commenced a trial in August 2016 in the Ningaloo Marine Park, focusing on humpback whales. An interim report prepared at the end of the 2016 whale watching season found that the activity did not cause sustained impacts to humpback whales5 and maintained the risks to swimmers within acceptable limits.  The trial will finish at the end of the whale watching season in November 2017 [with a final report to follow].  

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Show / Hide References
  1. O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H. & Knowles, T. Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits, a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. 295 (International Fund for Animal Welfare, 2009).
  2. Harcourt, R. Final Review of Scientific Literature Describing the Impacts of Whale and Dolphin Watching. 82 (Macquarie University, New South Whales, 2013).
  3. Stamation, K. A., Croft, D. B., Shaughnessy, P., Waples, K. A. & Briggs, S. V. Behavioral responses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to whale-watching vessels on the southeastern coast of Australia. Marine Mammal Science 26, 98 - 122 (2010).
  4. Arcangeli, A. & Crosti, R. The short-term impact of dolphin-watching on the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in western Australia. Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology 2, 3-9 (2009).
  5. Sprogis, K.R., Bejder, L., Christiansen, F., 2017. Swim-with-whale tourism trial in the Ningaloo Marine Park, Western Australia. Report to the Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia. Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA, p. 49.

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