Approaching marine mammals in NSW

Check how close you can legally go to a whale, dolphin, dugong or seal. The laws are to protect you and to stop you from disturbing them.

Keeping your distance

Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae breachingMarine 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.

Signs of disturbance

Disturbed whales, dolphins, dugongs and seals react with a sudden change of behaviour, including:

  • hastily diving
  • vocalising
  • 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.

If you see someone intentionally harming, touching, harassing, chasing, trying to restrict the path of a marine mammal, or getting too close, please report the illegal activity to National Parks and Wildlife on 13000PARKS (1300 072 757).

Approach distance

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.

A seal may look like it is yawning but is actually baring its teeth as a warning sign.Approach distances for seals are based on where the seal is located and if a pup is present. A seal is considered a pup if it is up to half the length of the adult.

If a seal comes towards you, you must move back to the minimum approach distance.

Approaching a seal when it is in the water

Seals are agile swimmers with strong flippers. When a seal is in the water you must keep at least:

  • 10 metres away from the seal
  • 80 metres from a seal pup
  • 100 metres for a drone (see approaching from the air in whales, dolphins and dugong section).

If you are also in or on the water and a seal approaches you, stay calm and move away slowly. If bitten or scratched, seek immediate medical advice.

Approaching a seal when it is hauled out on land

Seals haul out to rest after foraging at sea.

If a seal feels threatened, it may show aggression by yawning, waving its front flipper or head, or calling out. Seals are very agile and can move fast on land, using all 4 limbs to run. When a seal is hauled out on the land you must keep at least:

  • 40 metres away from the seal
  • 80 metres from a seal pup
  • 100 metres away from the seal for a drone.

Seals can often have injuries that look quite alarming but will heal well without needing veterinary assistance.

If you are concerned call National Parks and Wildlife on 13000 PARKS (1300 072 757), or Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia on 02 9415 3333 for the animal to be checked and monitored.

Vessels watching seals resting on the rocky shore must also keep back 40 metres or 80 metres if a pup is present. Limit the time you spend watching because it can be stressful for them. It is likely you are not the only vessel to approach them that day.

Approach distances for seals.

A zoomed in drone image of a southern right whale and her newborn calf taken from the legal height of 100 metres.

The approach distance is determined by the activity you are doing, either in the air, or in or on water, the type of animal and if there is a calf present.

The exception is when a whale, dolphin or dugong that is mostly white in colour is present. You must always stay at least 500 metres from them.

Approaching when in the water – swimmers, snorkellers and divers

If you are a swimmer, snorkeller or diver, to observe a marine mammal, you may enter the water at a minimum distance of:

  • 100 metres away from a whale
  • 50 metres from a dolphin or dugong.

If you are in the water, you must keep at least:

  • 30 metres from a whale, dolphin or dugong, including a calf.

For reference, 30 metres in length is approximately the same length as:

  • an official basketball court
  • 2 public transport buses lined up end to end.

Approaching on the water – boats and surfboards

A vessel is watercraft that can be used as transport, including motorised or non-motorised boats, surfboards, surf skis and kayaks.

If you are on the water in a vessel you are not permitted to approach a marine mammal from behind or wait in front of it.

If a calf is present, you are not permitted to enter the caution zone for closer viewing. The caution zone boundary is 300 metres for whales and 150 metres for dolphins and dugongs.

Vessels must stay 300 m or more from a whale mother and calf and must not approach from behind or wait in front of the whale and calf.

You must comply with the following approach rules:

  1. A vessel is in the caution zone when it is:
    • 300 metres from a whale
    • 150 metres from a dolphin or dugong.
  2. A vessel can move no closer than:
    • 100 metres to a whale
    • 50 metres to a dolphin or dugong.
  3. In the caution zone the skipper must:
    • post a lookout if 2 or more people are on board
    • not position the vessel ahead of the animal to wait for it
    • approach from the side at least 30 degrees to its direction of travel
    • move at a constant slow speed with negligible wake – when the waves created by the movement of the prohibited vessel are so small that if there was a boat nearby it would not move
    • only 3 vessels are permitted to be in the entire caution zone at any one time – other vessels must wait their turn, regardless of size and not drift closer.
  4. If dolphins are bow-riding, you must maintain course and speed.
  5. If a whale approaches, slow down to minimal wash speed, move away or disengage gears and do not make sudden movements.

Approach distances for whales, dolphins and dugongs.

Approaching on the water – prohibited vessels

Prohibited vessels include personal motorised watercraft (jet skis), parasail boats, hovercraft, hydrofoils, wing-in-ground effect craft, remotely operated craft or motorised diving aids like underwater scooters.

These vessels are prohibited because they can make fast and erratic movements and not much noise underwater, so there is more chance they may collide with a marine mammal.

If you are approaching a marine mammal using a jet ski or other prohibited vessel you must have negligible wake and stay at least 300 metres from a whale, dolphin or dugong.

Approaching from the air – aircraft including drones

To observe a marine mammal from the air, you must approach it from behind, not hover over it and not land on the water to observe it. The pilot must also comply with Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requirements.

The approach distances for different types of aircraft are:

  • 100 metres for drones (also known as RPAs and UAVs)
  • 300 metres for fixed-wing aircraft
  • 500 metres for helicopters and gyrocopters.

The approach distance for aircraft is the height above a marine mammal and the horizontal distance away from it.

Drone approach and departure around a whale, dolphin, dugong or seal

If you go closer than the approach distance, you have entered the no-fly zone. The no-fly zone for aircraft over a marine mammal can be imagined as an approach distance cylinder.

The no-fly zone for a done based on the marine mammal approach distance

The 'no-fly zone' is shaped like a cylinder and moves with the whale, dolphin, dugong or seal. A drone can fly a minimum of 100 metres vertically over, and 100 metres horizontally around a marine mammal. A drone is not permitted to cut through the no-fly space. The aircraft is not to scale. Based on NSW Biodiversity Conservation Regulations (2017).

A drone pilot needs skill, understanding of the regulations and environmental awareness to lawfully approach a marine mammal. The drone pilot must always be in visual line of sight with the drone, not create any hazards and not cause harm to wildlife.

Listen for wildlife distress calls. If birds are disturbed, the pilot is advised to abandon the flight for 5 minutes, land and consider an alternate launch site or wait until birds of prey have left the area, or nesting birds have resettled, then try again.

Seek permission to launch from the landholder or land manager and follow all instructions. Do not launch from or fly over a national park without permission.

Never feed marine mammals

What may seem harmless fun, a photo opportunity, or a convenient way to dispose of fish scraps can put people at risk and may have a fatal outcome for a seal. Like a dog, a seal may seek out an easy feed and become demanding. It may bite or snap if teased with food or if regular feeding has come to be expected.

If you are fishing and a seal approaches, bring in your line until it leaves, or slowly move to another location. Don't turn your back or try to scare it away or it may try to defend itself.

It is illegal to intentionally feed marine mammals. They are wild animals and hunt for their food from the natural environment.

Keep your dog restrained

With marine mammal populations slowly recovering in New South Wales, there is an increased chance that you will come across one when walking on a beach, rocky shore, break wall or jetty. Keep your dog on a leash to avoid an unexpected encounter. This will reduce stress for the animal and reduce the chance of your dog being bitten. Dogs can transfer diseases to seals and vice versa.

When to call for help

NPWS large whale disentanglement team freeing a humpback whale off Corindi

Entangled whale, dolphin or seal

If you see an entangled animal:

  1. Watch from a distance, do not approach or enter the water or attempt to disentangle it.
  2. Immediately report it to:
  3. Note the time, your location, the whale's direction of travel and speed.
  4. Observe from a safe distance to:
    • look for injuries and identifying marks
    • take photographs of the entangling material to help rescuers bring the most suitable gear to remove it
    • try to keep watch until help arrives.
Stranded young adult humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Sawtell Beach

Stranded, sick or abandoned

  1. If you see a marine mammal on a beach that appears stranded, sick or abandoned, immediately report it to:
  2. Give precise location details, with distances and directions from the closest beach access or a prominent headland.
  3. Do not enter the water, go between the animal and the shore, or try to push it back out to sea.
  4. Never use a fin, flipper or tail as a handle to restrain, hold or push.
  5. Avoid the eyes. mouth and blowhole.
  6. Do not stand near or over the tail of a whale or dolphin, as a sudden reaction from the animal may result in you being struck with great force.
  7. While waiting for help to arrive:
    • if it is a seal it is most likely hauled out and just resting after foraging at sea
    • keep at least 40 metres away
    • do not approach it even if it appears injured.

A seal is fast on land and may bite. If feeling threatened, it may show aggression by yawning, waving its front flipper or head or calling out.

If it is a dolphin or small whale, keep back to reduce its stress, keep others back and keep the noise levels low. Ask the National Parks and Wildlife Service or Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia responder how you can assist them while you are waiting. Whales and dolphins have lungs, so can survive out of water for some time.

If asked to assist by a trained rescuer, watch out for your safety and that of others. The water can be cold and the animal heavy and unpredictable. Give plenty of space and keep noise to a minimum.