Marine mammals you might see

The art of wildlife watching is more than just ticking names off on a list. Wildlife watching can involve seeing a common animal a hundred times, but you may never see it behave the same way twice. Or it may mean glimpsing something unusual and unidentifiable–a mystery. Or even looking for, but not always finding, something rare and elusive. To complete your wildlife watching experience is to then share what you’ve experienced with others—and honing your skills so you know more and see more next time.

With this in mind, a cross-section of some of Queensland’s unique marine mammals is introduced below to help you make the most of the time you spend looking for them.

    Humpback whales

    These are the most regularly sighted whale in Queensland waters, following the coastline on their northern and return migratory path to the Antarctic between May and November each year. They can be seen along parts of the eastern coastline from beaches and headlands as well as the water.

    For more information check out the humpback whale profile.

    Dwarf minke whale

    Smaller than a humpback, and without its large pectoral fins, the dwarf minke whale is best known for the winter sightings of small groups on the outer edge of the northern Great Barrier Reef. It is distinguished from all other whales by its colouration and banding, particularly its white pectoral flippers edged in black.

    Orcas (killer whales)

    Orcas migrate long distances–attracted to places where prey is most abundant. They prey on humpback whales so it’s logical that they visit Queensland waters where increasing numbers of humpbacks come to give birth. The sighting of a pod of orcas is actually a good indicator that the humpback whale population is again part of a functioning ecosystem, healthy enough to support this large predator.

    Southern right whale

    A large black baleen whale with distinctive whitish growths on its head, called callosites, that differ between individuals. It also has short, rounded pectoral fins, but no dorsal fin. This distinguishes it from the humpback whale. Its blowhole is divided so when it exhales it sends out a distinctive V-shaped spray into the air. The southern right whale typically doesn’t come far enough north to enter Queensland waters but with its population increasing there has been a small number of sightings off southern Queensland in recent years. Keep watch and you might be surprised.


    Dugong are associated with areas of seagrass along the Queensland coast. Moreton Bay is a stronghold and supports a large population often sighted from boats. Seeing them from land is much harder but is possible with effort and a pair of good binoculars. They keep a low profile in the water and surface every few minutes to breathe–often showing little more than their nostrils and the top of their heads.

    Inshore dolphins

    Three species of dolphin occur in Queensland’s coastal waters, with the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin being the most commonly seen, catching waves on surf beaches, feeding in the waters off rocky headlands, or even riding the bow waves of fast moving boats.

    The other two inshore dolphins–the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the Australian snubfin dolphin–are much rarer. The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin has a patchy distribution along the Queensland coast preferring shallow coastal waters, bays and estuaries. They can be confused with bottlenose dolphins but are paler grey or sometimes pinkish with a smaller, low-profile, triangular dorsal fin. For more information on this species check out the species profile.

    The Australian snubfin dolphin was only described as a species in 2005. Rarely seen, this species is worth looking out for as any sighting is significant and worth reporting to the department. With its rounded head, lacking the ‘beak’ found in other dolphins, and its small rounded dorsal fin, the snubfin dolphin will not be easily forgotten once sighted. It occurs as far south as central Queensland, inhabiting estuaries, rivers and bays. Check out its species profile for more information.

    Common bottlenose dolphin

    This species prefers deeper waters but can also be seen close to the coast. It is similar in appearance to the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin but generally larger.

    Fur seal

    Fur seals are usually found in temperate waters but juveniles occasionally reach southern Queensland. In recent years they have been seen in Moreton Bay and the shallow water off Scarborough and on North Stradbroke Island.

    Please be reminded that anyone who comes across a seal that has come ashore to give them space to rest and recover. Intervention is considered a last resort as a result many factors including the risk of zoonotic disease transfer. In most cases, the seals will depart of their own accord.