Skip to content
Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area
The Whitsundays Islands

Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area

Information

Celebratory events or festivals
Celebratory events or festivals
Snorkelling or diving wildlife tours

Description

The Whitsunday Whale Heritage Area is as beautiful as it is unique. With 74 islands situated on the Great Barrier Reef, boasting Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet lookout, and a variety of island resorts, the Whitsundays are more than just a tropical getaway. From July to September the Whitsunday waters come alive with humpback whales!

Known as a significant calving ground for these gentle giants, mums can often be seen with new calves teaching them how to swim, dive, and even play!

In the heart of the Whitsundays, Airlie Beach, there are heaps of events for people of all ages to learn about whales, dolphins, and the Great Barrier Reef. In June, there is the Cultural Welcome Whale Event hosted by our region's Traditional Owners, the Ngaro people. This cultural event signifies the start of whale season in our region and acknowledges the deep spiritual connection our Traditional Owners have with whales. August brings the Great Barrier Reef Festival - a four-day festival with parades, markets, local informational stalls, reef workshops, immersive experiences, and a family fun day.

No matter what time of year you decide to visit the Whitsundays there is always something to do! If you are lucky enough to join us during the annual humpback whale migration, be sure to get on the water and see some whales!

For more information on our whales and events in the region, visit our Facebook page, Whales of the Whitsundays.

Motivation

The Whales of the Whitsundays project was borne out of the Whitsunday Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC). The committee members recognised there was a need for an information and education campaign about the whales that live in and visit our waters. There was also the realisation of how little scientific information we have for our region and the need for more research. Due to the regional location and the distance from any university, we knew citizen science involvement was the place to start. Again, an information and education campaign to get locals and visitors to log their sightings data was the more direct pathway to getting more information for the region. The Wildlife Heritage Area program seemed the perfect avenue to gain recognition as an important whale calving area and to help boost the region's citizen science involvement.

Boundary Map

Species or habitats

Cetaceans are a group of animals including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They are an important part of the marine ecosystem in the Whitsundays, with six species of whale and four species of dolphin officially recorded as calling the Whitsundays home. Some species, like the short-finned pilot whale, can be seen year-round, while others are migratory.  
From around June to October eastern Australian humpback whales relax and calve in the protected warm Whitsunday waters. The Whitsundays is recognised as a significant calving ground for humpback whales due to the islands creating safe and sheltered locations for mothers to give birth and start teaching their young. 

Area Features

Humpback whale - Species

Stability

The humpback whale population is increasing and has recently been removed from the Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act List of Threatened Fauna. The east Australian subpopulation of Humpback Whales was hunted to near extinction at the height of whaling, but despite that the population has made a dramatic recovery. Surveys show a long-term average rate of increase of 10.9% per annum. It was estimated in 2022 that the population has around 40,000 individuals and has overshot the previously expected carrying capacity.

Threats

The largest threat to cetaceans in the Whitsundays is climate change. While this is a global issue, it will have direct impacts on whales both due to changes in ocean temperature and ocean acidification and food source disruption as krill abundance and distribution is also highly dependent on sea conditions such as temperatures, water quality and the presence of sea ice. 

Sea level rise is also of particular concern in the Whitsundays. As sea waters rise, significant habitats, like the breeding and calving grounds around the Whitsunday Islands, are being altered at increasing pace as global emissions continue to rise.

The most localised and direct threat to whales is vessel strikes. The Whitsundays has high private boat ownership (with approximately one in nine people having a registered recreational vessel), visiting pleasure-craft, and a thriving marine tourism industry. With so many boats in the Whitsunday waters, there is a real possibility of vessel strikes over whale season. Vessels striking whales is not only a threat to the health of whales, but also is a human safety concern and has potential to cause costly damage to vessels involved.

Actions taken for protection

The Whales of the Whitsundays project has begun an information campaign to keep locals and visitors to the Whitsundays more informed about whales in our region and the threats that they face at home and beyond. We aim to create stewards for whales and other marine life in their habitats. Some big actions we have taken or are planning to take in the coming year include:

- Reinforcing distance guidelines to reduce boat strikes.

- Encouraging locals and visitors to get involved in citizen science projects that add information on our whale population so we can better understand and protect them.

- Propositioning the ADF to conduct training outside of whale season to reduce noise pollution.

- The Whitsunday Healthy Heart Project is working with local tourism businesses to measure and reduce their ecological and carbon footprint. The Whales of the Whitsundays Steering Committee is also committed to reducing and offsetting omissions associated with the project.

Community Importance

Migrating whales, like the humpback, are defined as superlative natural phenomena under the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area natural criteria. Humpback whales also play a significant role the ecology, culture, and economics of many coastal regions, like the Whitsundays.

Humpback whales are important for nutrient cycling and help to sustain life and fight climate change. They do so by what is known as ‘whale pump’ – the process of circulating nutrients from the deep ocean to the surface that phytoplankton and other small organisms need to survive.

The Traditional Owners of the Whitsundays, the Ngaro People, have deep spiritual connections with humpback whales. Historically, they have “kept an eye on the whales” and would watch them to ensure they were well and safe as they move through the area, breed, and calve in the protected island waters.

Tourists have long been attracted to the region, with over 40% of the Great Barrier Reef visitation leaving from the Whitsundays. Whales add to the economic value of the Whitsundays and their presence offers a significant boost to the regional economy.

Wildlife Watching Guidelines

In Australian waters all cetaceans are protected under the Australian Whale Sanctuary. Furthermore, set out in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 2019: You must not kill, injure, and/or interfere with whales and dolphins (there are no porpoises found in the GBR) - interference includes harassing, chasing, and herding; You must not restrict the path of whales or dolphins; You must not touch or feed, or attempt to touch or feed, a whale or dolphin; You must not enter the water within 100 metres of a whale or within 50 metres of a dolphin; You must not approach closer than 30 metres to a whale or dolphin if you are in the water and if one approaches you, you are to move away slowly; and You must minimise noise when closer than 300 metres from a whale or dolphin.

The Whitsunday Whale Heritage Area also overlaps the Whitsunday Whale Protection Area. Due to the Whitsundays being a significant calving ground for humpback whales, approach distances have been increased to lessen human disruption. Within the Whale Heritage Area, boats must stay at least 300 metres from whales and helicopters must not approach below 1000 metres.

Fact 1

As of 2023, it was estimated that over 40,000 humpback whales travel up the east coast of Australia each year to enjoy the warm waters over winter before heading back to Antarctica in summer.

Fact 2

The Whitsunday is known as the heart of the reef because over 40% of visitors access the Great Barrier Reef from the Whitsundays.

Fact 3

Female humpbacks reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 10 years. They produce a single calf every 2 to 3 years. Once the mother is pregnant, she will travel to the warmer waters of north Queensland to have her calf. A humpback whale calf is between 10-15 feet (3-4.5 m) long at birth and weighs up to 1 ton (907 kg). It nurses frequently on the mother's rich milk, which has a 45% to 60% fat content. The calf is weaned to solid food when it is about a year old.

Criteria

1. Cultural Importance Of Wildlife

Indicator 1.1 Cultural heritage linking people to cetaceans demonstrates significant understanding and ongoing respect for cetaceans and habitats.

Indicator 1.2 The presentation and interpretation of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans is respectful, sensitive, and benefits those living and working in the Whale Heritage Area.

Indicator 1.3 Efforts are in place to continually revive, reimagine, and enhance the presentation and interpretation of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans.

Indicator 1.4 The community regularly monitors the impact of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans and takes action to strengthen that impact based on the latest evidence.

Criteria

2. Respectful Human-Wildlife Coexistence

Indicator 2.1 The community collaborates to ensure the protection of cetaceans through research, nature conservation, regenerating biodiversity, and safeguarding individual animals from harm.

Indicator 2.2 The community raises awareness about the protection of cetaceans, including ways for everybody to help contribute to solutions.

Indicator 2.3 The community influences the protection of cetaceans through strategies based on practical, scientific, or traditional knowledge.

Indicator 2.4 The community recognises that there may be clashes of interests and values related to the protection of cetaceans and has strategies in place to resolve them as fairly as possible.

Indicator 2.5 The community supports and implements sustainability and environmental initiatives that have a positive impact on cetaceans and  local wildlife.

Indicator 2.6 The community regularly monitors the health and protection of cetaceans and adopts strategies based on the latest evidence.

Criteria

3. Responsible Wildlife Tourism

Criterion 3: The community providing wildlife experiences within the Wildlife Heritage Area utilises collaborative management and ongoing research to put the needs of wildlife before commercial interests. 

The area proposed for the Whitsundays Whale Heritage Site includes a group of 75 islands with fringing reefs and a vibrant tourism industry. The area provides jobs and recreational opportunities for the Whitsundays community. Cetaceans are a part of the marine ecosystem of the area and a highlight if spotted on any visit into the proposed Whale  Heritage Site. Activities currently occurring in the area include boating, fishing, snorkelling, jet skiing, hiking and camping. Please note that these activities are controlled in the area and some are restricted to zones as per the marine park zoning maps and WPOM. 

The Whitsunday Plan of Management clearly states (pg. 49) that whale watching as part of a tourist program is prohibited inside the Whale Protection Area. During whale season, many tour operators have chance encounters while on their regularly scheduled tours and in these circumstances, they behave accordingly under the rule and regulations of approach distances outlined in the Plan of Management until the whale(s) move on and they can resume their regular schedules.  

Two operators in the Whitsundays that advertise Whale Watching tours: Paradise Explorer and Whale Watching Whitsundays conduct their product outside of the Whale Protection Area.

Criteria

4. Steering Committee

The Terms of Reference for the Whales of the Whitsunday steering committee.

Media release quoting open SC membership and involvement

Steering Committee membership showing 2 Traditional Owners from the community.

Grant submission for project that engages community not typically associated with conservation.

Management Plan

Management Plan File

Overview

Title
Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area
Level
Designated
Name Location
The Whitsundays Islands
Name Species Group
Cetacean
Country
AUS
Back to Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area