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.

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.

The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 were developed jointly by the Australian and all state and territory governments. And these regulations are now contained in the Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017.

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. You must also not wait in front of the whale/s, or approach from behind.

A person must not enter water within 100 metres of a whale.

If you’re on the water – 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 traveling 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.

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, or watching the seas from a drone and you spot a whale then you must not encroach closer than a horizontal radius of:

  • 100m for unmanned aircraft (e.g. drones)
  • 300m for aircraft (other than a helicopter, gyrocopter or unmanned aircraft)
  • 500m for a helicopter or gyrocopter.

Aircraft are not permitted to:

  • approach a marine mammal head-on for the purpose of observation.
  • land on water for the purpose of observing a marine mammal.

Approach zone diagrams

whale-approach-height          whale-boat-approach

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 either by the EnviroLine on 1300 361 967, or contacting your local NPWS area office, or ORRCA Whale and Dolphin Rescue on (02) 9415 3333 (24 hours hotline).