Our Research


Since 2007, we have been working with Prof Robert Harcourt and Megan Kessler at Macquarie University on an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded grant to investigate the effectiveness of the current Australian whale watching guidelines in minimising whale watching impacts on humpback whales.

Whale watching regulations that use vessel approach distances to minimise impact on the animals are one of the most common management tools in the whale watching industry.

Although there have been numerous studies examining whale responses to vessels using opportunistic observations of encounters between vessels and whales, there are few empirical studies that test whale responses to specific approach distances. Such studies are important to determine whether approach distances are the most appropriate management tool for different cetacean species at different stages of their lifecycle. This study investigated the responses of a migrating population of humpback whales (Megaptera Novaeangliae) to different vessel approach distances as the whales travelled to their breeding grounds (northern migration) and as they returned to the feeding grounds with calves (southern migration). Once the results of this research have been analysed, we will be able to make recommendations on the appropriateness of the current whale watching regulations in minimising impact on the whales off Sydney.

The research also involved Whale Watching Sydney passengers and shore based whale watchers.

Whale watchers were surveyed to investigate their views on the importance of minimising whale watching impacts on whales compared to aspects of the whale watching experience. Any differences between shore and boat based whale watchers are being investigated. This research will help us to understand what aspects of the whale watching experience are important to our customers and make sure your whale watching experience matches that. We’ll also be able to provide information to the industry and managers of shore based whale watching locations on how to improve whale watcher satisfaction.

Anthropogenic noise in the marine environment is increasing and there is strong evidence that increased noise can lead to displacement, disturbance and call masking in cetaceans.

One industry trend that we are aware of is to use commercial fish finding sonar systems, which are inherently noisy, to track whales underwater during commercial whale watching operations is increasing. Before we consider using this type of technology we want to be sure that we wouldn’t be having a negative impact on the animals. This component of the study investigated the impact of using a fish finding sonar in the vicinity of humpback whales during commercial whale watching operations.


Humpback whale watching off Sydney is becoming more and more popular both through commercial operators such as Whale Watching Sydney and in the recreational sector.

More whale watchers are also watching animals on the migrations both to and from the breeding grounds. This means more frequent whale watching now occurs from May to November each year and focusses on all age classes, including calves. This aspect of the study is comparing commercial and recreational vessel compliance with key features of the whale watching regulations between two years, 2007 and 2010. The findings of this research will inform whether additional management measures are required to ensure compliance with whale watching regulations off Sydney.

The research also collected data to investigate relationships between the annual migration path and oceanographic features. Apart from the high purely scientific value, this information will have a direct application on predicting the whales path each day and thus should help reduce boat travel and search times, leading to a smaller ecological footprint and a better experience for whale watchers.

As part of the research project we are also supporting Macquarie University’s research in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Swimming with humpback whales is a growing industry that provides important revenue for the Kingdom of Tonga. However the sustainability of this industry has been questioned. The research investigated whether different approach techniques from boats and swimmers could minimise impacts on the animals. Animals move away more quickly in response to a loud splashing approach compared to quiet approaches and approaches by a boat significantly increased the level of whale activity. These results suggest that managing swimmer behaviour around whales, particularly ensuring quiet approaches, will contribute to the ability of the industry to minimise disturbance of the animals and support the industry’s sustainability.

The following papers have been published from this research:

  • Kessler, M. and R. Harcourt (2010)

    Aligning tourist, industry and government expectations: A case study from the swim with whales industry in Tonga. Marine Policy 34: 1350-1356. Read More
  • Kessler, M. and Harcourt, R. (2012)

    Management implications for the changing interactions between people and whales in Ha’apai, Tonga.
    Marine Policy 36: 440-445. Read More
  • Kessler, M., Harcourt, R. and Heller G. (2013)

    Swimming with whales in Tonga: Sustainable use or threatening process?
    Marine Policy 39: 314-316. Read More
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