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The Whitsundays

 

The Whitsunday Islands, situated in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, represent a truly remarkable region of global importance. Comprising 74 picturesque islands, the area is internationally recognised as a site of abundant biodiversity and protected as part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The Whitsundays are a significant region for resident and migratory cetacean species, particularly during the months of May to September. This is when humpback whales, having journeyed from Antarctic waters, come to the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays to nurse their young and regain their strength over the winter before returning to the Antarctic in the summer. Recognising the importance of this area for these marine mammals, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBFMPA) designated the waters around the Whitsunday Islands as a Whale Protection Area, providing the abundant cetacean populations with increased protection from human pressures.

The Whitsundays’ unparalleled location and unique biodiversity make them the perfect entry point for visitors seeking to explore the world’s largest coral reef system and its many treasures, fuelling a vibrant, sustainable tourism industry.

KEY FACTS

Location

  • Region – Oceania
  • Country – Australia
  • Area/State – Queensland

Cetacean species

  • Common minke whale
  • Dwarf minke whale
  • False killer whale
  • Short-finned pilot whale
  • Sperm whale
  • Humpback whale
  • Australian humpback dolphin
  • Australian snubfin dolphin
  • Common bottlenose dolphin
  • Common short-beaked dolphin

When to see them

  • All year round

    The Destination

    Location

    The Whitsundays Candidate WHA boundary follows the existing Whale Protection Area of the Whitsundays, defined by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

    The Australian Whale Sanctuary includes all Commonwealth waters, from the three nautical mile state waters limit out to the boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    Four species of dolphin and six species of whale have officially been recorded in the Whitsundays. Some species, like the short-finned pilot whale, can be seen year-round while others are migratory. The biggest influx of the year happens between June and October with humpback and dwarf minke whales passing through during their winter migration. Humpback whales are the most sighted during this period, with an estimated 40,000 individuals making the journey north. The Whitsundays is of particular importance to humpbacks and has been recognised as a calving ground because the islands create safe and sheltered locations for mothers to birth.

    Cetacean Heritage

    These islands have a rich cultural heritage as the traditional home of the Ngaro Aboriginal People, also known as the ‘Canoe People’, for over 9000 years. The Ngaro People also share close connections through bloodlines, culture, and Country with the Gia and Juru Peoples.

    Due to colonialism, significant traditional knowledge and connection to (sea, sky, and land) Country has been lost. Fortunately, the people are strong and enduring. Recently, Ngaro Traditional Owners have started the process of bringing previously lost or unshared songs and stories to the wider community. One song, which is about whales, has lyrics but the music and rhythm has been lost. Traditional Owners are in the process of considering re-writing the music and continuing the tradition of passing knowledge on to the next generation through song. With their exceptional skill in boat building and navigation, the Ngaro people were able to thrive in this marine environment.

    The annual Cultural Welcome Whale Event signifies the start of whale season in the Whitsundays and acknowledges the deep spiritual connection that Traditional Owners have with whales.

    Things to do

    • Visit Airlie Beach to find a variety of events for people of all ages to learn about whales, dolphins, and the Great Barrier Reef!
    • In June, join the Cultural Welcome Whale Event, which is hosted by the Whitsunday region’s Traditional Owners, the Ngaro people.
    • If you’re visiting in August, enjoy 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! For more information on whales and events in the region, visit Whales of the Whitsundays on Facebook.

    Achieving Whale Heritage Area status

    Each Whale Heritage Area has a unique route to meeting the Wildlife Heritage Area criteria. Check out some of the highlights from Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    In 2009, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority zoned a Whale Protection Area in recognition of the Whitsundays being a significant calving ground for humpback whales. Within the protection area, approach distances for all air and sea-based vessels were increased to provide added protection for whales. This added distance directly benefits new mums who are given added space to care for their calves with less human interference and a lesser probability of strike. Check out the current regulations around whales in the Whitsunday Whale Protection Zone. Education and citizen science campaigns aim to raise awareness and create stewards for whales and all other marine life in the Whitsundays.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    In August each year, the Whitsundays come alive with the Great Barrier Reef Festival, when whales and all other marine life are celebrated. Handmade marine life lanterns light up the streets during the lantern parade; “marine biologist for a day” reef trips allow interested individuals to see what it’s like to explore the reef as a scientist; and environmental workshops and presentations give everyone the chance to learn about and celebrate this unique location and how to protect it.

    In 2023, the first annual Welcome Whale Event was held in the Whitsundays. It was designed and presented with Traditional Owners and included a Traditional Welcome to Country, a Smoking Ceremony, an Indigenous dance ceremony welcoming whales to the region, stories from Traditional Owners about their connection to whales, the opportunity to participate in creating a traditional whale art piece, traditional songs, video and audio of whales presented with the whale watching guidelines, and more. This is an annual event at the start of whale season for the Whitsunday community to get more involved in cultural heritage and their own linkage to whales.

    Working Towards Sustainability

    There are many sustainability initiatives carried out by businesses, members of the community, and the local authorities in the Whitsundays, including multiple EcoBiz certified businesses and some of the highest numbers of Eco Tourism Australia certified tourism businesses in the country.

    The Whitsunday Regional Council has partnered with EarthCheck to become a Sustainable Destination. As part of the Whitsundays’ bid to achieve EarthCheck Sustainable Destination certification, the council is operating the Whitsunday Healthy Heart Project (WHHP) to decarbonise the region. The project not only looks at the council’s carbon footprint, but also engages the tourism sector. The WHHP has formed partnerships with over 37 local businesses, including island resorts and marinas, to help them understand their carbon footprint and set decarbonisation targets.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    Various monitoring programmes exist throughout the region, including active reef restoration programmes, coral larval reseeding, seagrass monitoring, water quality monitoring and more, while ad hoc sightings data is also collected through the Eye on the Reef App.

    Cetacean sightings are recorded through the Eye on the Reef App and there are huge opportunities and a real drive to increase these, and other research mechanisms, to better understand and protect these marine mammals in the area.

    In 2023, the first pre-whale season event brought together tourism operators, with a focus on skippers, to engage with them about their added responsibilities during whale season. There were presentations from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority about the distance guidelines, Eye on the Reef sightings reporting, and more. The event was very successful and is planned to be expanded in the future to engage more of the community.

    Being in regional Queensland without a direct university connection means most of the data collected in the region comes from national parks and citizen scientists. Engaging the community to input their sightings of cetaceans into Eye on the Reef has large implications for a better understanding of what is going on in the marine environment.

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are:

    • Whitsunday Environmental
    • Little Fish Tourism Development Consulting

    Actions and Recommendations

     As part of the designation process, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set out a series of actions and recommendations for the area to complete before or by the end of Year 1 of WHA designated status.

    Action 1

    Management plan

    It is clear that the management plan demonstrates a long-term commitment to protecting cetaceans and has realistic goals for the next three years. However, the judges consider it important to include a timeframe for the proposed actions, so it’s possible to measure and review progress each year. The WCA will expect to receive the updated management plan before the end of June 2024.

    Recommendation 1

    Cetacean protection

    It is clear that the community influences and raises awareness about the protection of cetaceans, including ways for everybody to help contribute to solutions. However, the judges are aware that the Whitsundays area hosts one of the largest competitive large yacht regattas in the southern hemisphere each year. This regatta coincides with the humpback whale breeding season. Many of the yachts competing are large and, increasingly, fast. The risk of boat strikes and disturbance to whales needs to be carefully considered, and management actions implemented to mitigate these risks during Year 1 of designation. These risks will be exacerbated if/when hydro-foiling yachts become a part of the regatta. These yachts (and their support “chase” boats) can travel at speeds in excess of 30 knots, and the risk of harm to both whales and the crew of the vessel is high should there be a collision.

    Recommendation 2

    Responsible Practices and Enforcement

    While strong regulations are in place, and efforts are made to educate, promote, and enforce responsible interactions with cetaceans, the judges are concerned with the fact that this region has the highest private boat ownership in Queensland and with the potential of these boats engaging with watching and swim with whales and dolphins illegally.

    Although they recognise that the steering committee is aware of this fact and has already incorporated it into their management plan, the judges think that extra attention should be given to this concern and actions implemented during year 1.

    Recommendation 3

    Environmental sustainability

    The judges appreciate that the Lantern Parade is one of the most popular events of The Great Barrier Reef Festival and that anyone in the community is welcome to participate. They raised concerns about the appropriate use and disposal of the lanterns and recommended that no lantern should be sent out to fly away as part of the activity and all lanterns must be discarded ideally through recycling facilities, or solid waste facilities if this is the only option. If there is currently no appropriate system in place for lantern disposal, it would be important to look into it and have some actions stated in the management plan.

    Image credits: First header (Tourism Whitsundays); Second header (Debra Duggan, Red Cat Adventures); Third header (Tourism Whitsundays). Things to do image: Whale art installation-Festival 2022 (Olivia Brodhurst). Humpback whale breaching (Debra Dugga, Red Cat Adventures); Hill Inlet-Whitehaven Beach aerial (Tourism Whitsundays); Chalkie the white whale (Wayne Fewing); Hayman Island, Dolphin Point (Tourism Whitsundays); breaching humpback and humpback dorsal fin (Gordon Simmons).