One of nature’s most impressive – and predictable – phenomena, the annual migration of whales from Arctic waters up the Australian coastline and back again presents an opportunity for humans to get up close to the largest of their fellow mammals.
A journey that in some cases clocks in at a staggering 10,000km, this great movement of ocean giants annually sees tens of thousands of a mixture of Humpback, Southern Right and miscellaneous other whale species taking shelter in a number of bays, inlets and other rest areas on both coasts.
Using these protected areas for a combination of rest, play, and both making and caring for little whales, the whales are at their most gregarious during this time, and their leisurely and inquisitive natures makes for the perfect chance for people to get a good look at their enormous figures.
As a result, Australia is home to a cavalcade of excellent whale watching locations both from vantage points on land and via cruises and tours out to sea. If you’re looking to have a “whale of a time” this whale watching season, here are 10 of the best whale watching locations around Australia.
10. Head of Bight, SA
Image credit: Tourism SA
When to see whales: June – October
Situated in a remote location that necessitates a fair degree of travel time and effort to reach lies perhaps Australia’s best land-based whale watching destination. It requires a diversion off the main Eyre Highway for those traversing the state, yet South Australia’s excellent Whale Watching Centre combines both whale spotting opportunities and dramatic, edge-of-the-earth views that few other locations on this list can match.
Created as a joint initiative between local indigenous authorities and the South Australian government, the facility sits atop the huge Bunda Cliffs that are an outstanding view in their own right, measuring 70m high on average and providing an ideal vantage point to the waters below.
Visitors between the months of June and September will be able to pay an entry fee (currently $15 per adult at time of writing), then stroll out to a handful of dedicated viewing platforms where multiple Southern Right Whales in particularly can typically be found below.
Situated in a remote location that necessitates a fair degree of travel time and effort to reach lies perhaps Australia’s best land-based whale watching destination.
The sight of mothers and their calves playing in the waters is frequent, with the beautifully-constructed boardwalks designed to maximise viewing opportunities.
Humpback whales can also often be spotted breaching in the distance, all of which combines to make for an experience that can be enjoyed for several hours depending on your level of patience and your luck of the draw with whale numbers.
The site is also replete with plenty of amenities such as an information centre, toilets and plenty of parking, and while you’ll likely have to be planning a trip across South Australia in the first place (it’s an 11-hour drive from Adelaide and closer to the Western Australian rather than the Victorian border), the ability to enjoy an incredible outlook and wonderful views makes a diversion here well worth the effort.
Just be sure to bring a jacket along for the journey, as even in summer the winds here can sometimes be piercing.
9. Byron Bay, NSW
When to see whales: June – November
In terms of vantage and accessibility spots, things don’t get much more whale-friendly than the country’s easternmost point. Cape Byron on the northern NSW coast is an excellent whale watching destination on both land and water, with its headland not only a signature walking track (accented by its famed lighthouse) and must-visit regional highlight but a great line of sigh for whale spotting, too.
While it’s often a chore during the peak Byron Bay whale season (June – November) to get a parking spot up top, making the walk to the top of the outlook justifies the physical investment as potentially hundreds of whales can be seen atop the Cape Byron State Conservation Area.
360 degree views means increased opportunity to spot a Humpback or five, while pods of dolphins also frequent the area’s waters and add an extra dash of life to the aquatic panorama.
Cape Byron on the northern NSW coast is an excellent whale watching destination on both land and water.
Of course, distant views from atop a cliff can’t quite match getting out on the open water, with whale watching tours offered by Whale Watching Byron Bay providing an avenue for a more direct encounter. Offering tours that depart directly from Cape Byron proper results in a faster journey to get up close with the whales post haste, instead of the longer trip out to open water that some other whale watching regions require.
These Byron Bay whale watching tours also feature smaller, partially-rubber vessels that both offer uninhibited views (no fighting for viewing platform or window space), while smaller passenger numbers make for a more personalised and serene atmosphere for whale watching to boot. Whales also seem to be less intimidated by a smaller boat, as well, increasing their level of curiosity and meaning they’ll often approach even more closely of their own free will.
You’ll have to sacrifice a slight degree of comfort compared to bigger whale vessels (be prepared to get a bit wet when boarding), however the uniqueness of the environment and positive effect this has on the whales makes the sacrifice worth it.
Combine all the aquatic life on offer with some great views of the coast and some of its icons from the water (including glimpses of the Cape Byron Lighthouse), and you’ve got a solid all-round sightseeing experience that makes it a must-do if you’re travelling to Byron Bay during whale season.
8. Phillip Island, VIC
When to see whales: June – November
A popular destination for both family trips and rev-heads during its annual MotoGP event, Phillip Island off the coast of the Victorian mainland also serves as a viable whale watching destination during the winter months.
While whale numbers here aren’t typically as dense as other Australian whale watching locations, it’s the combination of other marine life – as well as ruggedly scenic coastal landscapes – that make whale watching around Phillip Island unique.
The island is a hotspot for animal encounters in general, as it’s home to a number of dedicated attractions for everything from koalas to farm animals, highlighted by its signature Penguin Parade of Little Penguins making their way ashore of an evening. Whales simply add another dimension to this wildlife haven, as from June to August both Humpbacks and Southern Rights as well as Orcas/Killer Whales can be found dwelling in its surrounding waters.
While whale numbers here aren’t typically as dense as other Australian whale watching locations, it’s the combination of other marine life that make Phillip Island unique.
Visitors to Phillip Island can try their luck spotting whales from the shore with binoculars in hand, as each of Cape Woolamai, Pyramid Rock, Surf Beach and the viewing areas of The Nobbies all offer potential glimpses of the creatures, with the wooden boardwalks of the latter in particular offering a highly accessible vantage point.
For those wanting to get out on the water, Wildlife Coast Cruises offer extended 4-hour “winter whale cruise” itineraries that will see you circumnavigating Phillip Island, with the chance to not only see the aforementioned whales and dolphins, but also massive Albatross in the skies and the island’s famed colony of seals at the aptly-named Seal Rocks sunning themselves on the stone.
These whale watching tours run on weekends only and depart from Philip Island’s Cowes Jetty, providing an interesting commentary and overview on Philip Island’s geography and wildlife throughout.
For those after a whale watching adventure that comes with a bevy of other animal life along the way – and which can be extended into a nice little multi-day excursion for the family – a trip to Phillip Island during winter ticks all the boxes.
7. Brisbane, QLD
When to see whales: June – November
Queensland’s capital is fortunate to have one of the densest playgrounds of marine life outside of the Great Barrier Reef relatively close to its doorstep – one which doubles as a favoured destination of countless humpbacks during whale season.
The Moreton Bay Marine Park is renowned for its aquatic diversity, as it’s home to a mixture of reefs and seagrass that draws in a wide array of other ocean dwellers to compliment the whales and help make a whale watching adventure all the more exciting.
Residents and visitors such as pods of dolphins, rays, large sea turtles, and even the occasional dugong are drawn to this rich underwater environment, so even on the rare days of low whale numbers visiting the area can still prove rewarding. The warm, tropical waters of the park are a massive drawcard for whales in particular, with the bay serving as a temporary warm respite from their extended migratory process.
Queensland’s capital is fortunate to have one of the densest playgrounds of marine life outside of the Great Barrier Reef relatively close to its doorstep.
Whales in the Brisbane region can be spotted from land on North Stradbroke Island and Moreton Island itself with the aid of binoculars, while launching points for guided whale tours of the Marine Park can be reached via a roughly 30 minute drive from the Brisbane CBD. The ports of both Redcliffe and Pinkenba serve as departure points on the mainland, as well as from Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island proper.
This choice of departure points also brings along with it a choice of whale watching tour operators, as each of Brisbane Whale Watching, Tangalooma Whale Watch Cruises, and Whales in Paradise offer itineraries out to see the whales between June and November.
The high quantity of whales that pass through the area (up to 20,000 individual whales can pass by Moreton Island per year) also means that each of these operators offer a “whale sighting guarantee” so that, on the ultra-rare occasion you don’t see any whales, you’ll be able to go again on a different day completely free of charge.
The option also exists on warmer days to get out into the water yourself, as the famed Tangalooma Wrecks just off shore of Moreton Island serve as one of the most popular snorkelling spots in the South-East QLD region. Visitors can strap on fins and snorkel gear and paddle out to the wrecks for a look at their coral, resident fish, the occasional (passive) Wobbegong shark, and various other marine residents.
6. Port Stephens, NSW
When to see whales: May – October
As one might expect from a destination renowned as a coastal getaway on the mid-NSW coast – particularly for residents from Newcastle which lies around a 40 minute drive away – Port Stephens’ beaches and their inherent marine life are one of its major drawcards. Boasting some lovely stretches of waterfront with far fewer crowds than some of Australia’s bigger seaside destinations, it’s the region’s sheltered bay and its inhabitants of the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park that make a visit here a standout.
Aquatic adventures thus play a large part in the itineraries of visitors and locals alike, and while the likes of kayaking, jet boating, parasailing, fishing and other persuits are all popular here, cruises to see marine life remain a signature highlight. While Port Stephens is perhaps more famously renowned for its high numbers of dolphins – it’s home to a resident Bottlenose colony numbering around 140 which call the region home – whale watching is no slouch here, either.
The Port Stephens region offers a range of quality land-based viewing points from which to see whales during a rather long whale watching season between May and November each year, with various locations along its foreshores as well as the summit walk of Tomareee National Park all offering potential glimpses of Humpbacks and Southern Rights breaching.
While Port Stephens is perhaps more famously renowned for its high numbers of dolphins, whale watching is no slouch here, either.
High whale numbers (nearly 12,000 per year which pass by the region) and an extended whale watching season on the NSW mid-coast combine to offer plenty of chances for visitors to embark on whale watching tours too, with whale watching trips typically departing from the nearby launch point of Nelson Bay around a 10 minute drive away from Port Stephens proper.
Both Imagine Cruises (smaller boat) and Moonshadow Cruises (larger vessel) offer guided whale watching tours during the region’s whale season, with both offering the potential to get a great look at its signature dolphins as well.
The dolphins’ abundant numbers means you’ll almost always see a pod swimming alongside the wake of the boat, while the Marine Park’s conditions house a wide range of whale species such as Minke whales, Sei whales, Killer whales and others in addition to the typical Humpbacks and Southern Rights.
Add in a healthy dose of bird watching and a shorter travel time due to the whales’ proximity to shore, and you’ve got an excellent all-rounder whale watching destination in Port Stephens.
5. Sunshine Coast, QLD
When to see whales: August – October
The extended stretch of sun and sand that is Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is home to a number of different coastal suburbs that offer direct access to the water, with both Mooloolaba and Noosa serving as launching points to get up close with its whales between July and November. It’s another part of QLD that sees heavy whale numbers, with around 15,000 of the giants passing this region and often visible from land-based viewing spots at, Point Perry, and Mounts Coolum and Emu.
Whale watching’s popularity on the Sunshine Coast and its high spotting opportunities has also led to variety in terms of whale tour options, with multiple tour operators including Noosa Bluewater Charters, Sunreef, Sunshine Coast Afloat and Whale One all offering different whale watching itineraries. This mix of whale tour options leads to competition and solid pricing for visitors looking to embark on a cruise, with frequently good deals available in the lead up to whale watching season.
Choice of tour largely comes down to your preferred mixture of departure point (Noosa or Mooloolaba), price, and vessel size, with everything from larger luxury catamarans to smaller and more personalised tours available from the above operators.
It’s another part of QLD that sees heavy whale numbers, with around 15,000 of the giants passing this region.
In terms of whale watching offerings, there’s a key point of differentiation that help sets the Sunshine Coast apart from some other destinations: the ability to actually swim in the water alongside whales via Sunreef’s Australia-first “swim with the humpback whales” experience.
Conducted with a strict eye towards eco-friendliness and the interests of the whales, the whale swim allows passengers to pull within a legal distance of the whales, don a wetsuit, and hold on to a floating line attached to the boat while submerging to see the whales truly “up close”.
Seeing – and hearing – the whales from their natural point of view is a moving experience, and one that has proven a hit with partcipants since its inception a couple of years ago. It’s a bucket-listy option in addition to the Sunshine Coast’s overall high quality standard whale watching experiences.
4. Sydney, NSW
When to see whales: May – November
Australia’s largest city ranks as one of the beautiful harbour cities of the world, yet all that water surrounding Sydney and providing it with its lovely coastal location isn’t just for show – it’s also home to a variety of marine life, not the least of which are the whales which can be seen each year during their annual migratory season from May to November.
As with many other locations, the whales can be seen from a few select sections of shore and from some higher cliffs or coasts, with a number of headlands that jut out into the ocean serving as viable viewing points in the greater Sydney area. Both the Botany Bay and Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Parks have such sweeping ocean views, and the popular Bondi to Coogee Walkway offers potential sightings (as well as one of the state’s best walks in and of itself).
Tour-wise, residents of and visitors to Sydney will be spoiled for choice, as the city’s size provides a handful of top-notch whale cruise options on board some of the most state-of-the-art whale watching vessels in the country. As with other busy markets, competition breeds both good service and reasonable pricing, with all of Captain Cook Cruises, FantaSea Cruises, Oz Whale Watching, Whale Watching Sydney and Manly Whale Watching (the only one which departs from a non-Circular Quay location) viable choices for a tour.
Tour-wise, residents of and visitors to Sydney will be spoiled for choice, as the city’s size provides a handful of top-notch whale cruise options.
Expect to pay as little as $79 per adult for a Sydney whale watching tour – a relative steal compared to some other more remote locations – with seasonal specials often popping up. Keep your eye open for savings of anywhere between 10-20% off throughout the season that lasts from roughly the middle of May to the end of November.
It’s the backdrop that helps give Sydney’s whale watching a unique flavour, too, as there’s simply something magical about seeing these giants of the ocean breaching and playing alongside some of Australia’s most recognisable landmarks on the occasions they are found within Sydney Harbour itself.
The lucky photographer who finds themselves with a snap of a whale launching out of the water with the Sydney Opera House in the background will have a keepsake that few other destinations can match.
Departure points for most whale watching in Sydney are either Circular Quay or certain other points of Darling Harbour, as well as Manly in the Northern Beaches district. Whale watching serves as the ideal winter activity in Sydney once you’ve done some of its more token tourist attractions.
3. Gold Coast, QLD
When to see whales: May – November
While it’s perhaps more commonly known for its exceedingly popular family attractions and ever-present nightlife scene, the Gold Coast is far more than a two-trick pony, as the holiday hotspot’s natural offerings rank amongst the best in the country as well. Home to over 70km of beaches from the upper Tweed in the south to Main Beach in the north, and with plenty of popular and highly accessibly lookout and tour departure points dotted throughout, the Gold Coast ranks as another prime Queensland whale watching destination.
The Gold Coast also offers one of the longest whale watching seasons of any single destination in Australia, and large, shallow bays and inlets coupled with warm waters make it a favourite destination for the whales to linger with their calves. Expect a number of anywhere around 12,000 – 15,000 whales per year to pass by the Gold Coast over the course of the five-month whale watching period.
Those wanting to save some coin and spot whales from land will have plenty of potential vantage points from which to do so depending on their location; Point Danger at Duranbah (near Coolangatta) is a famed year-round lookout point, while both Kirra and Burleigh Hill also deliver solid sightlines to the water.
The Gold Coast also offers one of the longest whale watching seasons of any single destination in Australia.
And, of course, the Gold Coast’s highrises’ upper floors serve as veritable viewing towers in and of themselves should you be staying in holiday accommodation during whale season.
As may be expected of a travel hotspot, multiple tour operators are available for whale watching cruises that depart from such easily reachable locations like Surfers Paradise, Marina Mirage, Sea World and Coolangatta; there is plenty of choice on offer here for aspiring whale seekers.
From tour operators offering multi-million dollar vessels brimming with high-tech solutions such as 3D whale animation technology, to the old-world charm of viewing the whales aboard more simple ships, the Gold Coast’s whale watching options are many and varied and include the likes of Coolangatta Whale Watch, Gold Coast Whale Adventures, Sea World Whale Watch and Whales in Paradise.
The Gold Coast’s whale season runs from mid-May through to November, with humpbacks and the occasional Killer Whale making up the bulk of its numbers of migrants.
2. Dunsborough, WA
When to see whales: September – December
The extensive Western Australian coastline plays host to one of the world’s longest whale watching seasons, and as a result there are multiple excellent whale watching spots from which to choose – including the likes of capital Perth and neighbouring Fremantle and Rottnest Island, and as far as Albany in the south all the way up to Broome in the north.
That’s a coastal distance of over 3,000km that often sees the whales sticking to the coastline; a boon for whale watchers on both land and sea. Dubbed the “Humpback Highway”, this stretch sees upwards of 30,000 whales per year, which has been a dramatic increase from their days numbering in the hundreds merely several decades ago.
While there are thus countless opportunites to see whales in WA, special credit needs to go to the town of Dunsborough and its surrounding Geographe Bay, which serves as one of the primary points of shelter for whales making this epic trip.
The coastal location of Dunsborough’s Lighthouse makes for a prime ground-based viewing point to peer out into the ocean.
Having been named Western Australia’s “Top Tourism Town” over a decade ago due in large part to the contibution of its whales, Dunsborough sits around half an hour from popular regional hub Margaret River and which the whales through by as they move from Cape to Cape (Leeuwin to Naturaliste).
The coastal location of Dunsborough’s Lighthouse makes for a prime ground-based viewing point to peer out into the ocean, and it serves as a popular whale watching lookout in the region. While humpbacks form the usual staple of its whale population, the region is further notable for being a sighting point for the immense (yet elusive) Blue Whale – the largest living creature on Earth.
Whale watching tours in the region are provided by long-running operator Naturaliste Charters between May and December each year, aboard their spacious and fully-equipped whale watching vessel that serves as a major lure for curious whales that are typically in a playful mood while resting in the Bay.
Mother-and-calf pairings are also exceptionally common here, and it’s a joy to see the nuturing attitude the parents have to their offspring up close.
1. Hervey Bay, QLD
When to see whales: July – November
If there’s any one destination on this list that hangs its hat on its excellent whale watching opportunities, Queensland’s Hervey Bay is likely it. There are a number of reasons for this; while its whale numbers are not strictly as extensive as other whale destinations, they stick around the Hervey Bay / Fraser Coast region for a longer period than other spots; there’s a huge range of whale tour options to select from; and it’s one of only two locations that offer “swim with the whales” experiences.
The sheltered conditions provided by the natural barrier of the enormous sand bank of Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Marine Park create an idyllic resting ground for the whales, serving as antural pit stop during their migration. As the whales recharge their energy here, it’s also more common to see some of the amazing acrobatic activity the humpbacks demonstrate as opposed to other spots which they’re just passing by.
It’s due to this combination of factors that Hervey Bay has earned its reputation as Australia’s unofficial “whale watching capital”, and has helped create a robust and award-winning whale watching industry as a result.
It’s due to this combination of factors that Hervey Bay has earned its reputation as Australia’s unofficial “whale watching capital”.
Hervey Bay is home to the widest choice of whale watching tour options of any destination in the country, with itineraries on anything from small and more intimate sailing-style vessels to full-blown and ultra-modern multi-decked catamrans equipped with all the latest tech.
Companies such as Blue Dolphin Marine Tours, Freedom Whale Watch, Quick Cat II, Spirit of Hervey Bay, Tasman Venture and Whalesong all offer their own individual positives, with variations such as departure times, tour length, vessel size and amenities, number of viewing decks and more all serving as selling points depending on your individual tastes.
Standalone tours and bundles that include visits to Fraser Island, or whale swim experiences to be immersed alongside the whales (with Quick Cat II) are additional options to consider when booking a whale tour here.
In terms of shore-based viewing opportunities, Hervey Bay may be a little lacking, although those exploring Fraser Island may catch glimpses of blowholes expelling from its eastern beaches or on the barge or ferry trip over from the mainland.
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