Whales and dolphins are iconic species that hold a special significance for many users of the Great Barrier Reef. For some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, such as the Woppaburra people of the Keppel Islands, the whale (Mugga Mugga) is the clan totem that connects them to their ancestral land and sea country as well as to their ancestors.
Other whale and dolphin species reported from the Great Barrier Reef include Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, Australian snubfin dolphins, spinner dolphins, pan-tropical spotted dolphins, false killer whales, killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, sperm whales and various beaked whales. The Longman's beaked whale is known only from a single recorded stranding in Mackay.
The humpback is protected in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and is listed as vulnerable under both the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and Queensland's Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006.
Large-scale whaling in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s were thought to have reduced the population of humpback whales in the Great Barrier Reef Region from around 25,000 animals to between 200 to 500 individuals.
Without the pressure of whaling (which ceased in the early 1960s), humpback whale populations are recovering throughout the world, including the population that migrates each winter to the Great Barrier Reef Region. The population of ‘east Australian’ humpback whales was as low as 500 animals when whaling ceased. The population in 2008 was estimated to have been more than 10,000 animals, half of the estimated prewhaling population size.
Humpback whales come from Antarctic waters to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area from May to September to calve and to build up strength over the winter before they return to the Antarctic in summer.
Because of their status, and the fact that Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area waters are nursery areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is committed to ensuring that all whales are able to use the Great Barrier Reef waters without being pressured by human interference.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service collaborate to ensure whale and dolphin watching is conducted in a manner that allows people to see and appreciate these magnificent creatures while minimising the risks to both the animals and the human observers.
The Operational Policy on Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park compliments measures addressed in Queensland’s Nature Conservation (Whale and Dolphin) Conservation Plan 1997 to address risks to these animals.
The Commonwealth Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, provides for conservation of humpback whales through the Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans, the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Minke whales are regular reef visitors, but little is known of their migration path through the Great Barrier Reef. Recent research suggests the Ribbon Reefs, north of Cairns, are an important area for these creatures, particularly around May-July when individuals are regularly encountered by dive vessels in the area.
While not exhibiting as spectacular displays as the Humpback whales, Minkes often exhibit a great deal of curiosity around boats and divers, making them a popular animal with the fortunate few who meet them in the wild.
While all species of dolphin are protected in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, there are two species that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority currently considers a high priority for management.
The Australian snubfin dolphin (formerly known as the Irrawaddy dolphin) and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin are two species that live in the inshore waters off the Queensland coast.
There is concern that the population numbers of these species throughout the waters of northern Australia are in decline. As these dolphins often inhabit waters in areas where there are high levels of human activity, they may be vulnerable to impacts from activities such as boating, netting and poor water quality.
Research is currently underway on the population status, biology and potential threats to both these species.