Whether it is from a remote headland, in a small private "tinnie", or aboard a large and luxurious commercial vessel, whale watching can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. Supplemented with expert commentary, it can also deliver powerful messages about marine conservation, global environmental awareness and whale protection.
Commercial whale watching is still expanding internationally, and is estimated to be worth in excess of 2 billion dollars annually. More than 120 countries, even whaling nations Japan, Norway and Iceland, have thriving whale watching industries.
But whether as a result of self-interest, over-exuberance or carelessness, our whale watching activities can be detrimental to whales.
In Australia cetaceans are protected by state, territory and federal legislation. In general, state and territory governments have responsibility for waters out to three nautical miles, and the federal government for the remainder, out to 200 nautical miles. There are some variations such as waters related to Marine Protected Areas and offshore territorial waters and islands.
Because of growing public interest in whale watching and its potential to stress and injure whales, most jurisdictions also have specific laws and regulations relating to whale watching.

               Those going whale watching need to familiarise themselves with the rules about approach distances and methods

In Australian waters for example, whales are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). But the Australian Government has also developed Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005.

In Queensland specific whale watching rules are built into the Nature Conservation (Wildlife Management) Regulation 2006. Similar legislation is in place in other states/territories as well.
There is for the most part reasonable consistency between the Australian and state/territory legislation and management instruments.
Many cetacean species can be found in Australian waters, ranging from dolphins to blue whales, and different species can require different types and levels of protection.
In the case of humpback whales for example, their annual migrations along the east and west coasts of Australia bring most of the individuals and pods relatively close to shore, and this proximity results in inevitable incidental encounters between whales and humans. It also provides the opportunity for humans to opportunistically or intentionally encounter whales, and this forms the basis of the humpback whale watching industry.
Sustained and increasing public interest in whales and the growing number of recreational (private) vessels and commercial whale watching vessels in coastal waters have the combined potential to impact negatively on individual whales and whale populations. This can include:
  • Disruption of behaviour (migrating, nursing, mating, feeding).
  • Displacement - being forced offshore/inshore to avoid harassment.
  • Noise - interference with communication and social behaviour.
  • Stress (especially in the case of vulnerable individuals such as pregnant females)
  • Separation (mothers from calves).
  • Boat-strike injury from hulls and propellers.
  • Increased direct mortality - larger vessels, vessels at high speed.
  • Reduced breeding success.
Effective public education and a well planned and managed commercial whale watching industry can play a major role in avoiding or minimizing these impacts.

 If whales appear to avoid your vessel, leave them be

The AWCS supports responsible, sustainable whale watching. Here are some elements of a best-practice management model:

  • Timely public information/education programs in whale watching locations (e.g. during whale migration season).  
  • A program of compliance monitoring and enforcement in relation to both recreational and commercial whale watching activity.
  • A positive relationship between commercial operators and the relevant management authority.
  • A pro-active, inclusive, conservation-minded industry association.
  • High standard, accurate education/information programs aboard commercial whale watching vessels.
  • Commercial operator cooperation and participation in gathering information/data useful for the management of the species and the industry.
  • A well designed commercial whale watching Permit system and an efficient renewal review process.
  • Realistic limits on the number of permitted commercial operators.
  • The establishment of stakeholder consultative groups in commercial whale watching locations.
The AWCS also opposes whale-swim programs because of the potential for stress to whales and the disruption of their natural behavious, especially in the case of mothers and their new calves. There is also a real risk of injury to the people in the water with them. Unfortunately, the Newman Government in Queensland in 2014 announced its support for whale-swim programs, belatedly introducing a poorly designed set of guidelines without any consultation with NGOs or qualified, experienced humpback whale researchers.

The IWC and Whale Watching
Since 1993 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has taken a close interest in whale watching, despite the protestations of Japan and its pro-whaling allies. The IWC now has a “Standing Group on Whale Watching”. This Group reports to the Commission through the Conservation Committee, and includes members of the IWC’s Scientific Committee.
Participation on Group is open to any nation that is a member of the IWC.  Australian of course is represented.
The Group has developed the “Five Year Strategic Plan for Whalewatching: 2011-2016”. This Plan was endorsed at the 2011 IWC meeting and the Scientific Committee provided recommendations for further development at the meeting in 2012. One of the projects in the Strategic Plan is the development of a web-based Whale Watching Handbook. The Strategic Plan can be found on the internet at:


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