Nature conservation

Native animals

Approaching whales and dolphins in NSW

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Amendment (Marine Mammals) Regulation 2006 (the Regulation) has been introduced to protect marine mammals such as whales and dolphins while allowing people to appreciate them in the wild. Download the Regulation (npwAmendMarinemammalReg2006.pdf, 150KB).

Why has the marine mammals Regulation been introduced?

In October 2005, The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 were released. The Commonwealth, states and territories agreed to introduce consistent regulations for marine mammal protection in all jurisdictions so the same rules applied across Australia. These regulations are contained in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009.


Approach distance—see figures 1-3 (referred to as 'prescribed distance' in the Regulation): a distance beyond which a vessel or person may not approach a marine mammal.

Caution zone: a distance of between 100 m and 300 m from a whale and between 50 m and 150 m from a dolphin. In the caution zone, vessels must travel at a constant slow speed and leave a negligible wake.

Negligible wake: wake that does not create waves big enough to make nearby boats move.

Prohibited vessels: these are vessels that can make fast and erratic movements and not much noise underwater, so there is more chance they may collide with a marine mammal. Such vessels include personal motorised watercraft like jet skis, parasail boats, hovercraft, hydrofoils, wing-in-ground effect craft, remotely operated craft or motorised diving aids like underwater scooters.

Vessels: these are watercraft that can be used as transport including motorised or non-motorised boats, surfboards, surf skis and kayaks.


 Approach distance for whales, 300 metrese if calf is present, otherwise 100m. Boats should approach slowly.

Figure 1: Approach distances for whales

 Approach distances for dolphins, 150m if calf is present, 50m if only adult. Slow approach for boats.

Figure 2: Approach distances for dolphins 

How close can vessels and aircraft get to whales and dolphins?

Aircraft height restricitions when approaching whales and dolphins. 300 metres for aeroplanes, 500 metres for helicopters, no hovering.

Figure 3: Height restrictions for whales and dolphins

Vessels must always travel at a safe speed which will enable them to stop in time to avoid distressing or colliding with an animal. This speed cannot be expressed as a maximum number of knots as it will vary according to circumstances and conditions. In the caution zone, the speed must be constant and slow, and leave a negligible wake.

For details of how to minimise wake from a vessel visit NSW Maritime website or phone 131 256.

First, assess the direction the animals are travelling in then plan a course so your vessel will not cut across their path, or put the vessel directly in front of or behind them. Approach the caution zone at an angle of not less than thirty degrees from their direction of travel at a steady constant speed, being aware of changes in animal behaviour or direction.

If there is a calf in a group (defined as half the length of the adult of the same species), it is illegal under the Regulation to enter the caution zone.

How can people tell when a whale or dolphin is distressed?

  • irregular changes of direction or in swimming speed
  • hasty dives
  • changes in breathing patterns
  • aggressive behaviour such as tail slashing or forceful 'trumpet blows'.

Whales and dolphins sometimes approach vessels, or dolphins may ride the bow wave (it is an offence under the Regulation to encourage them to do so). In these situations, do not suddenly change speed or direction in the case of a whale. Slow down, engage neutral and wait until the animal has moved beyond the approach distance. Then, travel at a constant slow speed until you leave the caution zone.

In NSW, dolphins also live in coastal rivers and it is necessary to maintain the approach distance from them. However, if the river is not wide enough to enable a vessel to remain 50 m from the closest dolphin without threatening the safety of the vessel or its passengers, move the vessel away from the dolphin as soon as possible at a constant slow speed. Avoid colliding with the dolphin or travelling through a pod.

Whale watching in NSW

Find out which national parks offer the best whale watching spots, and see what you should do out on the water to give whales the 'personal space' they need.

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Page last updated: 23 December 2014