The Great Barrier Reef is a vitally important breeding ground to about 30 species of whales and dolphins (cetaceans). The most commonly sighted whales are massive humpbacks, which migrate to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s warmer waters from Antarctica, from May to September - to court, mate, give birth or rear their calves.
Important to their continued survival are ‘nurseries’, free from any harassment.
If you use the waters of the Marine Park, you have a responsibility to help protect whales and dolphins and to keep safe distances from them.
The following legal requirements are set out in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019 and are complemented under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
When travelling to Whitsundays? Additional rules apply
- When you encounter whales or dolphins, either from a vessel, aircraft or in the water:
- You must not kill, take, injure and/or interfere with whales and dolphins - interference includes harassing, chasing and herding
- You must not restrict the path of whales or dolphins
- You must not touch or feed, or attempt to touch or feed, a whale or dolphin
- You must not enter the water within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin
- You must not approach closer than 30 metres to a whale or dolphin if you are in the water. If a whale or dolphin approaches you while you are in the water, move slowly, do not touch or swim towards it
- You must minimise noise when closer than 300 metres from a whale or dolphin.
When operating a vessel or aircraft (check safe distances diagram):
- A vessel must not approach closer than 100 metres to a whale, or 50 metres to a dolphin
- Approach the whale or dolphin only from the rear or by positioning the vessel ahead of the whale or dolphin, and always in a position that is more than 30 degrees to its observed direction of travel
- If the whale or dolphin is a calf, a vessel must not enter within a radius of 300 metres of the whale and 150 metres of the dolphin (i.e. the caution zone)
- If a calf appears causing your vessel to be within the caution zone, you must stop the vessel and turn off the engines or disengage the gears or withdraw your vessel at a constant slow speed
- If your vessel is closer than 300 metres to a whale or 150 metres to a dolphin, it must be operated at a constant slow speed, if closer than 50 metres to a dolphin, the vessel must not change course or speed suddenly
- If there are three vessels within 300 metres of a whale or dolphin, all additional vessels must remain outside a 300 metres radius from the whale or dolphin
- If a whale approaches close to your vessel, take all precautions to avoid a collision, either slow down and steer away from the animal, or place the engines in neutral and let the animal pass
- Prohibited vessels (i.e. jetskis, parasails, hovercraft, hydrofoils, wing-in-ground effect craft and motorised diving aids such as underwater scooters) must not approach closer than 300 metres to a whale or dolphin
- An aircraft must not operate below 1000 feet within a horizontal radius of 300 metres of a whale or dolphin and must not approach a whale or dolphin head on
- In addition, a helicopter must not operate below 1650 feet within a horizontal radius 500 metres of a whale or dolphin
- If you accidentally strike a whale or dolphin you must report it
- When in the Whitsunday Planning Area, there are some additional rules in relation to whales:
- a vessel must not approach closer than 300 metres to a whale in the Whitsunday Whale Protection Area
- a helicopter must not approach below 2000 feet or within 1000 metres of a whale.
Guidelines for commercial dugong watching
Australia has international, national, and state obligations to conserve dugongs.
Dugongs are listed as vulnerable to extinction at a global scale by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List Categories (IUCN 2003).
In Australia, dugongs are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as a listed migratory species and a listed marine species and as being ‘vulnerable’ under schedule three of Queensland’s Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006.
Dugongs are also listed as a protected species in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983.
Commercial tour operations will require a permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority before carrying out the activity of dugong-watching if:
- dugong-watching is advertised
- a spotter aircraft is used to locate dugongs for the purpose of watching the animals
- vessels are operated in a manner to actively search for and observe dugongs.
Commercial dugong watching involves tourist vessel operations specifically targeting areas where dugongs are commonly found in order to show these animals to paying passengers.
A limit of five permissions has been set for commercial dugong watching in the Marine Park.
Code of Practice
A Code of Practice for the Sustainable Management of Dugong and Marine Turtle Tourism in Australia has been developed by James Cook University, with input from relevant government agencies and conservation groups.
This code of practice, as well as other relevant legislation and policy, will be considered when assessing applications to conduct commercial dugong-watching.
- Permit conditions of commercial dugong-watching include, but are not limited to:
- not more than three vessels (recreational or commercial) should be within a 150 metre radius of a dugong at any one time
- the permittee must not approach a dugong closer than 50 metres while the vessel is underway or closer than 150 metres to a dugong if the vessel is moving faster than planing speed
- the permittee must maintain a distance of 50 metres between the vessel and a dugong. If a dugong approaches the vessel closer than 50 metres, the operator must ensure their gears are in neutral and, when safe to do so, move away from the dugong at a speed of no more than four knots or ‘no wake speed’ to a distance of 50 metres
- the permittee must not cause, or act in a manner to cause an adult dugong and calf to become separated, or individuals to become separated from a herd
- the permittee must not herd or intercept, or attempt to herd or intercept, the direction of travel of a dugong
- the permittee must abandon contact at signs that a dugong may be distressed or alarmed (for example: swimming at maximum speed to the point of exhaustion, dives with violent fluke slaps)
- the permittee must ensure any participant in the dugong watching program or person aboard the vessel does not feed, touch or alarm a dugong during any interaction or likely potential interaction with a dugong
- if the permittee accidentally harms, injures, or kills a dugong while conducting dugong watching, the permittee must report it immediately, that is while on site, to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's Reef Recovery section or the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing's stranding coordinator or conservation officer, and suspend all operations under the permit until the permit conditions have been reviewed. Operators should have an emergency contingency/action plan in place should an incident occur including but not limited to: identifying the extent of injury, the exact location of the incident/animal, and where safe and practical, staying with the animal until advised by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority or the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing's stranding coordinator or conservation officer.
For more information, please contact us on (07) 4750 0700.