Boaties need to watch out, whales about!

The impact of recreational boats around whales and dolphins in their Australian habitats.When we released our review on the impact of recreational boats around whales and dolphins on Tuesday we expected some media coverage but we certainly weren’t expecting to be on the phone to radio stations, TV and print outlets all day!

Not that we are complaining – as the review concluded, greater awareness of appropriate behaviour around whales and dolphins by recreational boaties is needed. We also had positive feedback from most jurisdictions supporting our call for better resourcing of their enforcement officers.

As we said in our media release, most people don’t deliberately disturb whales and dolphins by driving their boats or jetskis too close, they simply don’t know the rules and the reasons behind the rules.

Most of the questions I answered from journalists yesterday were along these lines:

Are whales in danger from boaties? Or, is it really a problem?

Unfortunately yes, boaties can pose a risk to whales and dolphins. There are close to one million recreational boats in our waters and this is on the increase. Good news for some whales (e.g. humpback whales) is that their populations are on the rise too, even though they are still only just recovering from the bad old whaling days. But as the number of whales and boats increases so too does the risk of harming or disturbing the whales.

When spotting a fin, fluke or spout on the water, it’s natural to want to go and check it out. When we see such awesome creatures, we want to get as close as possible for a good look. Unfortunately, this is not good for the whales or dolphins, which is why there are guidelines or regulations in place which determine how close people should get to them.  

What are the risks to whales and dolphins?

There’s the obvious risk of physically striking them but boat noise can also be a big problem because whales and dolphins rely on sound for communicating, foraging and breeding. Even small boats can reduce the communication range of bottlenose dolphins from 26-58 percent within 50m.

Ongoing and cumulative noise can have long term impacts – imagine if your family had an unwelcome guest blasting out AC/DC 15 hours a day, everyday for four months – it would definitely cause some communication breakdowns.

What would IFAW like changed to improve this situation?

It’s pretty simple really – boaties need better education about the rules regarding whales and dolphins and why those rules are needed. Introduce questions in the boat licence tests and ensure the whale watching guidelines are prominent in boat manuals, for example.

Better resources for enforcing the rules are also needed. While most people use their common sense there are some who either through ignorance or irresponsibility do the wrong thing and cause whales and dolphins distress – to address this we need more officers in boats helping to educate boaties and stop the deliberate water hoons. We have also recommended a national hotline or website where people could report irresponsible boating behaviour to the correct authorities.

So what are the rules?

The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching state boats should not approach a whale any closer than 100m and a dolphin any closer than 50m and not directly from the rear or the front of the animal. This distance is extended to 150m for a dolphin and 300m for a whale if a calf is present. Boats should travel at slow speeds with no sudden changes of direction and no more than three vessels should be within the so-called caution zone (150m of a dolphin and 300m of a whale) at any one time. Note: Victoria has the strictest rules – boats are not permitted within 200m of a whale and 100m of a dolphin.

Finally, watch out, whales about!

The fifth IFAW National Whale Day is on in less than two weeks! On 2 June 2012 over 70 communities around the country are hosting events of all shapes and sizes to help promote responsible boating.

We’re asking people to keep watch for whales and dolphins, keep their distance, and keep speed and noise down to avoid disturbing these magnificent animals that come to our shores every year.

Get involved or for further information


Comments: 2

5 years ago

Thanks for your comment Les. As you’ll see in our report (p.21), we acknowledge that the regulations appear prominently and clearly in the NSW Boating Handbook. This is a good example of how such handbooks can be used to promote the message so kudos to NSW authorities but it isn’t a uniform practice across all states and territories in Australia which is the point we’re making more generally. We’d like to see that replicated elsewhere as well as actual questions in the licence test to ensure that not only is the information in handbooks but that people need to make an effort to ensure they learn it to pass the test and are therefore more likely to remember it when they’re out on the water.

5 years ago

Well Matt, perhaps you should take a minute or two and read the official NSW Maritime Boating Handbook 2011 - 2012 under the 'Protected Aquatic Animals' section on page 77 where it specifically highlights the correct protocol around whales...including the 'distance-off' laws. This is the actual book handed out by Maritime to prospective new licence holders to study before they sit for their boat licence. It's the official rule-book for 'all' recreational boat users.

Les Palmer. South West Rocks NSW.

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