Approaching marine mammals in NSW

The Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017 protects marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals while allowing people to appreciate them in the wild.

Why do we have marine mammal approach distances?

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) off Sea Acres National ParkDue to the popularity of whale and dolphin watching activities the Commonwealth developed The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017. 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 aimed at reducing disturbance to marine animals, ensuring their welfare is maintained.

In NSW, these regulations are contained in the Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017.


Approach distance (referred to in Section 2.3 of the Regulation): a distance beyond which a vessel or person may not approach a marine mammal. These differ depending on the marine mammal in question. Table 1 details the defined approach distances.

Table 1: Declared approach distances for marine mammals in NSW

Type of marine mammal When you are on a prohibited vessel When you are on a vessel other than a prohibited vessel When you are swimming* When you are on land
Whales  300m 100m 30m  
Predominantly white whales  500m 500m 30m   
Dolphins and dugongs 300m 50m 30m  
Adult seals and sea lions in the water 10m 10m 10m 10m
Adult seals and sea lions hauled out on land 40m 40m 40m 40m
Seal and sea lion pups when on land or in the water 80m 80m 80m 80m

*distances apply when you are already in the water. You must not enter the water within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin or dugong.

Caution zone: a distance of between 100 metres and 300 metres from a whale and between 50 metres and 150 metres from a dolphin or dugong. In the caution zone, vessels must travel at a constant slow speed and leave a negligible wake. No more than two vessels are permitted in the caution zone. Prohibited vessels are not permitted within the caution zone for any marine mammal.

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. These vessels are not permitted within 300 metres of any whale, dolphin, or dugong.

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

Height restrictions for whales, dolphins and dugongs

Figure 1: Height restrictions for aircraft in the vicinity of whales, dolphins and dugongs

Figure 1. outlines the height restrictions for aircraft when in the vicinity of marine mammals. Unmanned aircraft (e.g. drones) are permitted to get as close as 100 metres to a marine mammal. 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 distances for whales

Figure 2: Approach distances for whales

Approach distances for dolphins and dugongs

Figure 3: Approach distances for dolphins and dugongs

Vessels must always travel at a safe speed which will enable them to stop in time to avoid disturbing 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 13 12 56.

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 the animal's direction of travel at a steady constant speed, being aware of changes in animal behaviour or direction. Where there is more than one person present on the vessel a lookout must be posted.

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 300 metre caution zone.

Should a calf approach a vessel and encroach within the caution zone, the person operating the vessel must immediately stop the vessel, and either:

  1. turn off the vessel's engines, or
  2. disengage the vessel's gears, or
  3. withdraw the vessel from the caution zone at a constant slow speed.

If an animal appears disturbed any vessels in the caution zone must immediately withdraw at a constant, slow speed.

  • 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. 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.

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.

Protection of native animals

All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, but not including dingoes, are protected in NSW by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.