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Whale watching is a eco-tourist's dream and you don't want to miss out. Many species tend to be plentiful only in particular areas and only at certain times of the year so a little planning is essential. Remember, there are many ways of watching whales depending on how close they are to land. You need only organise your trip for air observations, underwater viewing and from boats.

Most commercial operators have a high success rate for sightings because they know when and where the whales can be found. So where can you go to see these wonderous animals?

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Guidelines for Cetacean Observation

Guidelines for Cetacean Observation cover interactions between people and cetaceans in the wild during recreational observation activities and have two main aims:

  • to minimise harmful impacts on cetacean populations by ensuring that the normal patterns of daily and seasonal activity of whales and dolphins are maintained in the short and long-term; and
  • to ensure people have the best opportunity to enjoy and learn about the animals through observation that is successful for people and cetaceans alike.

Guidelines apply to everybody interacting with cetaceans - commercial operators and the general public alike.

Guidelines apply to all whales, dolphins and porpoises (all members of the Order Cetacea). This includes those predisposed to bow riding or close approaches, as the principles for allowing cetaceans to choose to interact apply equally to these species.

Before you go whale watching check to see if there are 'Whale Watching Guidlines' in your country as some nations still have no rules. If you take a tour your charter captain should know the rules. If not there are some common-sense rules we can all observe.

Understand the important distinction between you moving toward a cetacean, and a cetacean moving toward you. Guidelines usually refer to active approaches by people, and so stipulate how far you are allowed to move towards a cetacean. When you reach that distance, you should stand off and wait. Sometimes a cetacean will move towards you and will come much closer than you are permitted to actively approach it. This situation is not in conflict with the guidelines. You are allowing the cetacean to determine whether it wishes to interact or not.

To reduce possible adverse effects on the animals while allowing reasonable approaches for viewing, these guidelines establish a caution zone. The caution zone is the area within 300 metres for baleen whales and large odontocetes, or 150 metres for dolphins. If observing groups containing both whales and dolphins, the 300m caution zone applies.

How do you know if a cetacean is disturbed?

Determining when cetaceans are disturbed can be difficult. Disturbance can show itself in behavioural and/or physiological changes and can be less obvious than expected. In general, cetaceans move more slowly than vessels and so have limited options to avoid interaction when confronted by a vessel. The following reactions often, although not always, indicate that a cetacean is disturbed:

  • attempts to leave the area or moves away from the vessel quickly or unexpectently
  • regular changes in direction or speed of swimming
  • hasty dives
  • changes in respiration patterns
  • increased time spent diving compared to time spent at the surface
  • changes in acoustic behaviour
  • certain surface behaviours such as tail slapping, and trumpet blows

Changes in behaviour like those described above may not appear to be detrimental in the short term. The long-term consequences, however, are not yet well understood, but could be significant. Additionally, the effects may be minor in isolation, but may become significant in accumulation, for example if the number of whale watching vessels increases.

How to approach in a boat

When within the caution zone of a cetacean, move at a constant, slow ('no wake') speed. The caution zone is the area within 300m of a whale and 150m of a dolphin.

Do not approach closer than 100m to any whale.

Do not approach closer than 50m to any dolphin.

Allowing a vessel to drift within the approach limits specified for cetaceans due to wind, currents or forward momentum constitutes an approach and should not occur.

If cetaceans show disturbance activities, withdraw immediately at a constant slow 'no wake' speed to the outside of the caution zone.

Exercise additional caution when observing pods containing calves. It is advisable not to approach within the caution zone when observing calves or pods containing calves.

Do not approach very young calves or pods containing very young calves (ie. foetal fold calves). Foetal fold calves can be identified by the presence of pale lines on the sides of the body. Use binoculars to determine whether foetal fold calves are present.

Should you mistakenly approach such a pod, withdraw immediately at a constant slow 'no wake' speed to the outside of the caution zone.

Where possible, post a dedicated lookout in addition to the skipper, when approaching within the caution zone of a cetacean.

Approach cetaceans from parallel to and slightly to the rear. Do not approach from directly behind. Alternatively, position your vessel outside the caution zone ahead of and to the side of the animals' path of travel, and allow them to approach you. Do not intercept the path of travel or approach from head-on.

Try to position your vessel downwind of whales to avoid engine fumes wafting over them.

Avoid sudden or repeated changes in direction or speed when within the caution zone. This will decrease noise and the risk of collisions.

When stopping to watch cetaceans, place your gear selector in neutral, and allow the motor to idle without turning off; or allow the motor to idle for a minute or two before turning off. This prevents abrupt reductions in noise which can startle the animals.

Avoid excess engine use, gear changes, manoeuvring or backing up to cetaceans. These produce sudden, large changes in underwater noise levels which may startle, annoy or drive cetaceans away.

Avoid the use of bow or stern lateral thrusters to maintain position. Thrusters produce intense cavitation (air bubble implosion)noise underwater.

Avoid having more than three boats within the caution zone at one time to prevent crowding of the cetaceans.

Do not box cetaceans in, cut off their path or prevent them from leaving. This is particularly important when more than one vessel is present. Vessels should position themselves adjacent to each other to ensure the cetaceans have large open avenues to leave the area. Be sure not to box cetaceans in against the shore. Vessel operators should coordinate their movements around cetaceans by radio contact where possible.

Cetaceans should not be pursued. Do not drive into or through a group of cetaceans.

When leaving cetaceans, move off at a slow 'no wake' speed to the outer limit of the caution zone for the closest animal before gradually increasing speed. Avoid engaging propellers within the minimum approach distance, but if necessary to do so, take extreme care.

Cetaceans will sometimes approach a vessel more closely than the specified approach distance of their own accord. Except in the case of dolphins or other small cetaceans which may approach the vessel to bow ride, place the engines in neutral and let the animal(s) come to you; or slow down and continue on course, avoiding potential collisions; or steer a straight course away from them.

When dolphins or other small cetaceans approach a vessel to bow ride, vessels should not change course or speed suddenly. A vessel should not be brought within the caution zone for dolphins, faster than a 'no wake' speed, in an attempt to encourage bow riding.

If a cetacean surfaces in the vicinity of your vessel when you are in transit for a purpose other than watching cetaceans, take all care necessary to avoid collisions. This may include stopping, slowing down, and/or steering away from the animal.

Obey any additional restrictions on approach distances or other requirements for particular species or areas.

If commissioning a vessel for cetacean watching, it would be preferable for the vessel to incorporate the following features:

  • have good access for passenger viewing to minimise the need to constantly reposition vessel for viewing
  • be manoeuvrable at low speeds to minimise the need for increased revolutions to position the vessel
  • have low windage in relation to draught to minimise effects of wind on position.

Ref: Australian National Guidelines for Cetacean Observation

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