Watching marine mammals

    A close encounter with a humpback whale is a gift that only that animal can give. (source: Tourism and Events Queensland)

    A close encounter with a humpback whale is a gift that only that animal can give.

    Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

    You need patience to make sure that seeing a whale is much more than a fluke (source: Tourism and Events Queensland)

    You need patience to make sure that seeing a whale is much more than a fluke.

    Photo credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

    The experience

    With almost 7,000 kilometres of coastline, Queensland provides the ideal setting for a wild marine mammal encounter that few other places in the world could rival.

    From migrating humpback whales to lesser known snubfin dolphins, more than 30 species of marine mammal live in or visit Queensland waters making marine mammal watching from land or sea one of the most rewarding experiences that nature has to offer.

    Will you see one?

    Seeing a marine mammal in the wild is never guaranteed. But you never know–if it happens it will be worth the effort.

    If you do see a whale, dolphin or dugong, be patient and watch. Let the animal behave naturally, as if you weren’t even there. And if you are really lucky (but don’t expect it!) you may become the ‘watched’ and not the ‘watcher’ and be presented with the ultimate ‘gift’ of having a wild animal coming so close it can look you in the eye. All the while you’ve done nothing but just wait and watch, and show a little respect. Pushing into an animal’s space will only frighten it–and you’ll be breaking the law.

    The etiquette of watching

    Psychologists have long known that natural settings and wildlife can be the basis of powerful, moving experiences. There is even research specifically investigating the ‘wild animal triggered peak’ experiences that people have had through close encounters with whales and dolphins. This research found that these experiences had certain qualities that made them special.

    The main quality that made these encounters special was that they were initiated by the animal– the animal came closer and the person watching felt like the animal was there to watch them!

    The other important element is to actually have the experience. This means to use your own senses (see, smell, and listen) rather than filter what you’re seeing through an electronic device like a mobile phone camera. A photograph is a great memento of an experience but not a very good replacement for one so capture the memory first then capture the image.

    I have seen people on a boat, centered in the glowing circle of blue sky, blue sea, and pastel islands for a few precious minutes of their lives, miss all that happened just next to them because the camera had to be wound or the lens wouldn’t focus at the right time. So, instead of leaving with something seen fully with the eyes open, they have only the frustration of the missed picture, which, if achieved, would only have given them a small gray speck on a tiny square of plastic and would never have given the rose-blown memory of whale breathing or the great crash as she plummets back into the sea. The picture would never give them her eye, looking squarely and cleanly into theirs, as creature gazed at creature, companions under the sun.

    The Delicate Art of Whale Watching (Joan McIntyre, 1982).


    The best way to watch whales, dolphins and dugongs from a moving boat is with the naked eye and a reassuring horizon in the background. While binoculars and spotting scopes will bring an animal into closer view, they are more comfortable to use from solid land.

    As a rule of thumb, while the greater the magnification of a telescope or binoculars means a marine mammal will appear closer, it also narrows the field of view making it harder to search for and keep track of an animal, particularly if it is diving regularly and moving through an area.

    Binoculars with good magnification and a good field of view e.g. 8x50 or 10x50 are ideal for scanning and finding an animal while spotting scopes with higher magnification, 15X or more, mounted on a tripod can zero in on and keep track of a moving animal. A locking handle on the scope means the animal can be kept in view and others can share the sighting without having to find where the animal is first.