By being aware this Whale Migration, you can enjoy nature at its best!

We are so lucky in Australia to have such a wonderful coastline and waterways at our door step. Similarly, we are very lucky to share this environment with the unique marine life that inhabits our coasts and with winter approaching, these remarkable marine highways that run up and down our coastlines are about to get a whole lot busier.

Marine mammals (including whales, dolphins and seals) are widely distributed throughout the Southern Ocean. Coming into winter, whale species, in particular, start making their long-distance seasonal migrations. This is a journey that will take them from the Antarctic regions in the Southern Ocean up to the northern waterways of Australia. The reasons for this are usually associated with seasonal changes in the availability of food and ocean currents. As these animals are mammals, they also require warm-water birthing grounds for their young and for reproduction. In Australia, Queensland and northern WA offer perfect places for Humpback whales to migrate to, while in the southern states, we see the Southern right whales come in close to our shores to have their calves.

We have some 45 species of whales and dolphins plus seals found in Australian waters. With this privilege comes responsibility. Along with more public awareness and conservation over recent years, it is increasingly more likely that we will see or even encounter a marine mammal in its natural environment while out on the water. We all need to protect these mammals from harm, so that we can enjoy them in the future. Below are some guides and tools to keep in mind if you are lucky enough to have an encounter with a migrating whale, a dolphin or seal in your area;

Responsible Marine Mammal Watching on the water starts with you.
As most of us know, our laws protect marine mammals in Australian waters. By following the simple rules and guidelines published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, this is a step towards safer activities on the water. They apply to both recreational and commercial boaters/vessels.

The basics you should know and respect for vessels both powered and unpowered:
1. Operate your vessel so that it does not disrupt the normal movement or behaviour of the mammal. Slow speed (no wake) from 300 meters.
a. Whales; you must stay at least 100 meters away (300 meters if they have a calf). This is called the no approach zone. The caution zone is 300 meters from the mammal.
b. Dolphins: you must stay at least 50 meters away (150 meters if they have a calf). This is their no approach zone. The caution zone is 150 meters.
c. Seals; you must stay at least 40m away on land (80 meters if they have a pup) and no closer than 10 meters on or in the water.
2. Cease contact with the mammal if it shows any signs of distress.
3. Do not scatter or separate a group of mammals

Approaching a Whale or Dolphin for Viewing;
1. Vessels should approach mammals parallel and slightly to the rear of the mammal.
2. Vessels should not enter the no approach zone.
3. Vessels should not wait in front of the direction of travel of the mammal/s.
4. When stopping to watch mammals either place your vessels engine in neutral or allow the motor to idle for a minute before turning it off.
5. Vessels should avoid repeated attempts to interact with mammals if they show signs of disturbance.
6. No more than three vessels are allowed within the caution zone at any one time.
7. Vessels should operate at no wake speeds within the outlined zones and when leaving the area.
8. Jet ski craft must stay at least 300 meters away.
9. Finally, should a whale or dolphin surface in the vicinity of your vessel when you are travelling for a purpose other than whale and dolphin watching, take all care necessary to avoid collisions. This may include stopping, slowing down and/or steering away from the mammal.

To minimise potential impacts on these visiting marine mammals in our waters, vessels should comply with the approach distances and operating procedures. For full details on these please visit

Knowing some typical whale and dolphin behaviours can help you to understand them before you have an encounter. By learning a little it could result in an enhanced and safer experience;
• Breaching is when the whale or dolphin leaps out of the water.
• Head lunge or chin slap is not as energetic as a breach however this is when the whale partial comes out of the water creating a slash almost as dramatic as the breach.
• Tail slapping is when they lift their tail out of the water and slap it repeatedly on the surface. This could be a distress action so be aware!
• Tail swiping like the tail slap, the mammal’s tail will come out of the water, but will swipe sideways.
• Pectoral slapping is common with the humpback and is when they use their pectoral (or side) fin to slap the surface.
• Spy hopping is when the mammal pokes it head out of the water to take a look around or to see what is happening nearby. They have good eyesight in and out of the water!
• Distressed mammals may show the following behaviours; irregular changes of direction or swimming speed, hasty dives, changes in breathing patterns, aggressive behaviour such as tail swiping, slapping or forceful blows.

Watching and observing marine mammals while you’re out on the water in their natural environment is an exciting and rewarding experience. However, it is important to remember that our actions can sometimes disturb these gentle mammals. This is why the Australian Government has worked with state and territory governments, non-government organisations and the whale and dolphin watching industry to develop the National Whale and Dolphin Watching guidelines. Please be aware that these guidelines do get updated from time to time and it is important to stay up to-date.

Unfortunately, from time to time a whales and dolphins may become stranded, injured or entangled in nets and other marine debris as more whales migrate up and back down our coastlines each year. For the safety of both people and animals, you must avoid interacting with these mammals unless under the guidance and approval of the relevant Australian Government, state or territory management authority. However, as you could be the first person on the scene of a situation, you could play an important role.

If you come across a situation where a mammal needs assistance while out on the water, or it is being disturbed or harassed, please phone the ORRCA 24-hour hotline on 02 9415 3333 to report it.

ORRCA is a volunteer organisation established in 1986 to assist the National Parks and Wildlife Service with stranded whales and dolphins. Since that time, ORRCA’s responsibility has increased to include seals and dugongs. Once a call is logged, ORRCA will put an action plan into place to assess the situation. Your support and communication in this type of situation is invaluable and could save a marine mammal’s life.

With a little preparation and knowledge, being more marine mammal aware this winter could provide you with rewarding and potentially amazing sights while out on the water! Enjoy this migration season, which starts to heat up in June.

Image: Copyright © Wayne Reynolds, ORRCA Inc. 2017

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