Whales underway again-but don't get too close

With more than 30,000 humpback whales heading south along the New South Wales coast-many with new calves in tow-people are being urged by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and marine mammal rescue organisation ORRCA (Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia) to keep a safe distance.

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching

OEH Conservation Branch Director Richard Kingswood said for people boating, swimming or operating aircraft including drones, the approach distance regulations are there to keep you and the whales safe.

"It is crucial whales have the space they need to care for their new calves and be able complete their migration to the Southern Ocean," said Mr Kingswood.

"It can be tempting to want to get close, but adult humpback whales can grow to 40 tonnes or the size of ten elephants and mothers are very protective of their young.

"For anyone swimming in the ocean, remember you must not enter the water within 100 metres of any whale, and if a whale comes within 30 metres of you in the water, you must move slowly to avoid startling it, and must not touch or move towards it.

"Boat owners are reminded to be familiar with approach zone regulations before they head out onto the water.

"Vessels including powered and unpowered boats, surfboards, and kayaks need to maintain a minimum distance of 100m from a whale, operating at a constant slow speed and minimise noise if they are within a 'caution zone' of 300m. Jet skis, parasails, hovercrafts or remotely operated water craft must not approach with 300m from a whale at any time.

ORRCA Vice-President Shona Lorigan said that as a threatened species, humpback whales need to be protected.

"No one should harass, pursue, or attempt to feed whales, and vessels must not restrict their path," said Ms Lorigan.

"If a whale shows signs of disturbance-which may be changes in direction or speed, diving or breathing patterns, and aggressive behaviour such as tail slashing or trumpet blows-the vessel must exit a caution zone at a constant slow speed.

"Mother and calf pairs need additional care and that's why they have increased protection. If a calf is present, a vessel must not come within 300m and must immediately stop the vessel if a calf approaches within this distance," she said.

The approach distance regulations also apply to aircraft, including drones.

"Given their growing popularity and advancing technology, specific approach distances for unmanned aircraft such as drones were introduced when the new Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017 came into effect on 25 August 2017," said Mr Kingswood.

"Unmanned aircraft must not come within a height of 100m and a 100m horizontal radius from whales.

"The approach distances remain a height and horizontal radius of 300m for an aircraft, or 500m for a helicopter or gyrocopter, with those lucky enough to be up in the air directly or remotely, urged to remember that aircraft are not permitted to hover over a marine mammal, or approach them head-on or land on water for the purpose of observation."

To find out more about safe approach distances, whale watching vantage spots along the NSW coast, and to download the free Wild About Whales smartphone app to log and view whale sightings, go to 2017 NSW whale watching season - Wild About Whales.

People can report incidents involving possible breaches of the approach regulations providing as much detail as possible, including any images, to the NPWS Environment Line on 131 555.

Stranded, entangled, or sick whales should be reported to the ORRCA Whale and Dolphin Rescue on 02 9415 3333 (24 hours hotline).