It’s Whale Season Again

Table of contents

Do YOU know your responsibilities?

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It’s whale season again and there are more whales arriving every day which is great for tourist operators. However, while whales are great for tourists, many other operators can and are impacted by whales in their area.

While passengers (and workers) enjoy seeing whales while on the water, operators of ferries, barges and many others have to take special precautions when operating in whale zones. Masters of vessels in these areas should have a procedure relating to navigating in whale zones in their SMS.

Whilst the safety of whales and dolphins is vital, also the safety of your vessel, crew and passengers. Colliding with a whale and to a lesser degree a dolphin, can cause serious damage to your vessel and injuries to those onboard.

There are specific requirements for operating in whale zones and undertaking whale watching activities that you must observe. These vary from state to state but all are developed off the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphine Watching 2017.

This document describes how people can observe and interact with whales and dolphins in a way that ensures animals are not harmed or disturbed. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use Queensland’s Rules for watching marine mammals.

Approach distances for whales and dolphins

Approach distances reduce the risk of disturbing whales or dolphins. They apply to boats (including kayaks and paddle boards), prohibited vessels (e.g. jet skis and hovercraft), aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft (e.g. drones), helicopters and people who are in the water.

Approach distances for dugongs only apply where a special management declaration has been made.

Approach distances are divided into caution zones and no approach zones.

Caution zones

The caution zone is an area surrounding a whale or dolphin in which boats cannot travel at speeds of more than six knots or speeds that create a wake. The caution zone extends out to 300 metres from a whale, and 150 metres for a dolphin.

No approach zones

Within a caution zone there are areas designated as ‘no approach’ zones that boats cannot enter. These are the areas closest to an animal and directly in front of and behind an animal. For a whale, the no approach zone surrounds the animal for 100 metres and extends 300 metres in front of and behind the animal. For dolphins, the no approach zone surrounds the animal for 50 metres and extends 150 metres in front of and behind the animal.

The ‘3-boat rule’

A boat cannot enter a caution zone if three (3) boats are already present within the caution zone of an animal. If there are boats waiting to enter a caution zone, boats inside the zone should ‘share the water’ by moving away after they have had an opportunity to watch a whale or a dolphin.

When a marine mammal approaches a boat

If a whale approaches a boat so that the boat is within the caution zone, the boat must not operate at a speed more than six knots or at a speed that creates a wake. If a whale approaches a boat so that the boat is within the no approach zone, the operator of the boat must turn its engines off or disengage its gears, or withdraw from the no approach zone at a speed that is less than six knots and doesn’t create a wake.

If a dolphin approaches a boat within the caution zone or the no approach zone, a moving boat can continue on its way as long as any change in speed or direction is made gradually in a way that is unlikely to disturb the dolphin, particularly if it is bow riding. The boat may even slow down or stop to watch the dolphin providing it does so in a way that does not disturb it.

When a marine mammal appears disturbed

If a marine mammal shows signs of disturbance (e.g. acting in an aggressive manner, changing its breathing patterns) a boat must withdraw beyond the caution zone at a speed that is not more than six knots so as to not create a wake.

Other situations where specific approach distances apply

Specific approach distances also apply for the following:

  • ‘prohibited’ vessels (e.g. jet skis and hovercraft): not within 300 metres of a whale or a dolphin
  • aircraft: not within 300 metres of a whale or a dolphin
  • remotely piloted aircraft (drones): not within 100 metres of a whale or a dolphin
  • helicopter: not within 500 metres of a whale or a dolphin, and no hovering above a marine mammal
  • a person in or entering the water: not within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin.

General boating regulations around marine mammals

Please follow these general rules to protect marine mammals:

  • Never restrict the path of a marine mammal or cause it to change direction.
  • Never drive a boat into a pod or herd of marine mammals causing it to divide into smaller groups.
  • Do not deposit rubbish near, make a loud or sudden noise near, or attempt to touch or feed a marine mammal, unless it is part of an authorised dolphin feeding program.

Please report any sick, injured or dead marine mammals or marine turtles by contacting the department on 1300 130 372.

Shorlink’s Recommendation

Most of us love whales and dolphins therefore we strongly recommend that you take special care when navigating through areas where whales and dolphins live or regularly travel through.

If you find yourself in a situation where a whale surfaces near you stop your vessel and turn off your engines and enjoy the spectacle of whales nearby!


Our top tip is to consider that a fully loaded semi-trailer can weigh 36 tonnes while a fully grown humpback whale weighs up to 45 tonnes.

You wouldn’t stand a chance in front of a moving semi-trailer so…

…why would you put your vessel in the way of a whale?

You can read the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching  by clicking on the link below.

Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 – DCCEEW

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