Keeping your distance
Marine mammals are unpredictable and may unexpectedly lash out or try to get away if feeling threatened. People have been seriously injured after disturbing marine mammals who were resting or nurturing their young.
All animals need rest to survive. A humpback whale with her newborn calf wallowing in the protection of a sheltered bay or a fur seal hauled out on a beach after foraging at sea, are resting.
If you approach too closely, the animal will no longer rest. It will be keeping a watchful eye on you and may suddenly try to defend itself or go somewhere else, using up much needed energy reserves.
Going too close can cause animals to panic. Alarmed fur seals hauled out on rocks may panic stampede to get away, resulting in serious injury to adults and death to trampled pups.
Southern right whale mothers resting close to shore are known to aggressively keep intruders away from their calves or move on to another location, resulting in the young becoming weak from exhaustion as they try to keep up.
Marine mammals are protected in New South Wales. For many people, the sight of a seal or whale is still a novelty. Their populations are slowly recovering along the NSW coast after being hunted almost to extinction 2 centuries ago.
Despite the best intentions of curious onlookers, repeated and frequent disturbances put animals on edge and affect their health, wellbeing and survival. You can help them in their recovery by keeping back and allowing them to seek suitable places to rest undisturbed.
For your safety and the welfare of marine mammals, you should keep your distance. Intentionally harming, touching, harassing, chasing, trying to restrict their path, or getting too close, is illegal.
Signs of disturbance
Disturbed whales, dolphins, dugongs and seals react with a sudden change of behaviour, including:
- hastily diving
- changes in breathing patterns
- sudden change in body posture or positioning
- a sudden change in direction
- a change in swimming speed
- aggressive behaviour such as tail splashing, head lunges and charging
- protectively moving between you and their young.
An approach distance is the closest you can lawfully go to a whale, dolphin, dugong or seal to watch it safely and without disturbing or harassing them, so they can live naturally and without interference.
Scientists, including veterinarians, helped to develop the Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017, which outlines the approach distances for New South Wales. These are based on The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 and also includes seals.
Remember, if a marine mammal approaches you, slowly move back to at least the minimum approach distance. Never chase it; try to touch it or restrict its path. On a rare occasion, a National Parks and Wildlife Service officer may ask you to move back beyond the minimum approach distance if they see an animal is still distressed and behaving as if it is disturbed.
By observing the following approach distances, you can have a safe and enjoyable time while helping to keep our wildlife wild.