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Everything you need to know about approach zones

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Wild About Whales
Humpback whale tail slap. Photo: S.Cohen/OEH

Everything you need to know about approach zones

There's no doubt that whales are one of the most amazing wild animals you can ever see. So, if you’re in, on or above the water and you are lucky enough to see one, it can be very tempting to want to get as close as possible to them for a better look. Nothing like a bit of sticky-beaking, ey?

It’s natural to be curious, but in simple terms getting too close can put both yourself and the whale at serious risk of harm.

Thankfully, marine mammal experts across Australia got their heads together about what is deemed safe for these precious marine animals. The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 were developed jointly by the Australian and all state and territory governments. And these regulations are now contained in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Amendment (Marine Mammals) Regulation 2006.

Rules have been set for approach zones and safe distances to protect our marine mammals while allowing people to appreciate them in the wild. 

Here’s what you need to know:

If you’re in the water – swimming, diving or just enjoying the water on your own or with friends and you spot a whale, then you must stay at least 30m from the whale in any direction. 

If you’re on the water – in a powered or non-powered water vessel and you spot a whale, then it’s a different game. If you’re on a powered or non-powered water vessel such as a boat, surfboard, surf ski or kayak, then you need to maintain a distance of at least 100m from the whale/s, and 300m if a calf is present. 

For all water vessels, a distance of between 100m and 300m is established as the ‘caution zone’. In this zone, vessels must travel at a constant slow speed and leave a negligible wake. It’s also important to assess the direction that the whales are travelling in, and then plan the best course of action. 

If using a ‘prohibited vessel’ (that is, a vessel that can make fast and erratic movements and not much noise under water such as a jet ski or parasail boat) then the distance increases to at least 300m from the whale/s.

In both cases of being in or on the water, in a powered or non-powered vessel, there is also to be no waiting in front of the whale/s, or approaching from behind. 

If you’re above the water – lucky enough to be up in a plane or helicopter and you spot a whale, then you must be at a height not lower than 300 metres; within a horizontal radius of 300m for aircraft, and for helicopters and gyrocopters the distance increases to 500m. 

It’s all best explained by these two nifty diagrams from our friends at The Office of Environment and Heritage 

            Wild about Whales - App (screen 2) 

And finally – If you see a stranded, entangled or sick whale in distress, please report it immediately to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Duty Officer on (02) 9895 7128 or ORRCA Whale and Dolphin Rescue on (02) 9415 3333 (24 hours hotline).

For more information on whale watching in our national parks, visit

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