Explore the vast array of wildlife in the Whitsundays Marine Park.
Whales visit the Whitsundays every year on their annual migration north during the winter months. These magnificent animals can be seen from June to September, and they are a common sight frolicking amongst the islands. The warm, calm, protected waters of the Whitsundays are an ideal nursery for the whales to give birth to their calves. Whale sightings are a free bonus, and occur almost daily for most boats during these peak winter months. Humpback and pilot whales are the most common species sighted, and ‘Migaloo’ the white humpback whale has also been seen in the Whitsundays for the last few years. We ask our charterers to understand Safe Whale Watching Practices, in the Whitsunday Whale Protection Area, vessels can be no closer than 300m to a whale. Whales may approach a boat, in which case the skipper must turn the engines off immediately. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)’s website details safe whale watching practices to protect this incredible species and ensure their ongoing survival.
We love our turtles and the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef are turtle central, with six of the world’s seven marine turtle species cruising through its tropical waters. Green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly sighted species here. Some females are marathon swimmers, travelling from as far afield as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and New Caledonia.
There are 35 species of rays in the Great Barrier Reef. They are broad, flat fishes that are closely related to sharks, with thick fleshy skin and skeletons made of cartilage. Many have dangerous barbs which they will use in self-defence and can cause major damage when removed, or leave toxins behind. Fatal stings are rare since the stingray’s venom isn’t usually deadly unless delivered to the chest or abdominal area. Fortunately, they are not an aggressive species and will stick to the ocean floor or retreat is disturbed. They are easily spotted when visiting the clear waters of Whitehaven Beach; keep an eye out for their tails as they usually have their whole bodies buried except for their eyes!
The manta ray is one of the most unique encounters to have while visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Large, elegant and curious, manta rays often come into contacts with humans as they often come very close to snorkellers and divers as well as moored boats. They can grow as large at 7.6m across, and luckily, are of no threat to humans as at all as they only feed on plankton and have no barbs. These gentle giants often sit around the surface and are amazing to encounter.
Blue Spotted Stingray
Easily defined by bright blue and green spots on its dark green back, the blue spotted stingray can grow up to 47cm and feeds on foods like shrimp, crabs and worms. At the end of their tail they have two toxic barbs that they use when they feel threatened or when hunting. This usually only happens to people when they step on the stingrays, and then get stung in the feet or ankles.
The distinctive maori wrasse has thick fleshy lips and such a prominent bump on its forehead that it’s sometimes known as a humphead wrasse. The maori wrasse is a curious fish that will approach your boat, and if snorkelling or diving … don’t be surprised if you find one following you around like a faithful friend. Growing to more than two metres and weighing as much as a person, the charismatic maori wrasse is a protected species within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
A much smaller fishy friend is the clownfish … and thanks to the 2003 animated Disney film ‘Finding Nemo’, many visitors are excited to spot them on our fringing coral reefs. These tiny adorable, orange, white and black fish have a mutually beneficial relationship with sea anemones, and can live with them because of the special coating protecting them from anemones’ venomous tentacles. The clownfish can hide from potential predators while protecting the anemones from their own enemies.
Giant clams are extraordinary molluscs, which can grow to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 200 kilograms. They feature a pretty ordinary exterior but a stunning luminescent mantle, the fleshy part protruding from the shell, which is like a human fingerprint, no two clams have the same mantle pattern or colours. These wild technicolour effects actually come from algae living within the clam’s tissue. In the wild, the world’s largest bivalve mollusc lives for around a century.
The graceful dugong, or sea cows as they are sometimes called, graze on seagrass which forms meadows in sheltered coastal waters. Early explorers and sailors believed that they were mermaids because of their streamlined bodies and the large teats at the base of the flippers of the female dugong. The status of dugong populations in an area can be used as an indicator of general ecosystem health. Dugongs are more closely related to elephants than to other marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, but their closest living aquatic relatives are the manatees.
The bottle nose dolphin can be seen all year round in the Whitsundays, these intelligent animals are playful and family oriented marine mammals that never fail to delight. Dolphins feed off small fish with occasional squid, crab, shrimp and other small animals. They work in a school to maximise the harvest, surrounding their prey and hearding them just like a sheep dog working their flock. Dolphins search for prey primarily using echolocation, which is similar to sonar. They emit clicking sounds and listen for the return echo to determine the location and shape of nearby items. Dolphins also use this sound for communication, including squeaks and whistles, emitted from the blowhole and also by body language, such as leaping from the water or slapping their tails on the surface.
These are just a few of the locals you are most likely to meet on your charter holiday cruising around the Whitsunday Islands.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s most incredible natural wonders blessed with the outstanding beauty of the world’s largest coral reef stretching some 2300 km. The reef is teaming with marine life and comprises of over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays and hundreds of unique tropical islands with some of the worlds most voted beautiful beaches. Because of its natural beauty, the Great Barrier Reef attracts around 2 million visitors a year.
The Great Barrier Reef is host of one of the most diverse groups of marine life in the world and is home to over 130 species of rays and sharks.
Commonly feared and unjustly pursued, sharks are a lot less of a threat than what most people think. Often cautious of people, they have been given a bad reputation. While there are dangerous species of sharks, most are non-aggressive, shy, and quick to flee.
There are several species of shark that you may encounter in the Whitsundays, most being non-aggressive and great to see while snorkelling. Most species of sharks that frequent the reefs are not a danger to divers, and are often more afraid of you than you are of them. See our current recommendations for Shark Safety.
Whitetip Reef Shark
This is the most frequently spotted shark in the Whitsunday Islands and is non-aggressive towards humans. They have a slim build, and have a defining white tip on several of their fins. They are agile swimmers and only grow up to 2m, which allows them to swim inside caves and ledges for protection. Although they are nocturnal and hunt at night, lucky snorkelers may spot them during the day. Their diet consists of small bony fish, octopus, crab and lobster and they can live up to 25 years.
Blacktip Reef Shark
Distinguished by black markings on the tips of its fins, the blacktip reef shark is the second most frequently spotted shark in the Whitsundays. They are one of the only species of shark that will actually breach the water when hunting, aiming for small fish like sardines, herrings, gropers, rays and even smaller sharks.
‘Wobbegong’ comes from the Aboriginal word for shaggy beard, named for their shaggy appearance. They are bottom dwellers that blend in very easily with their surroundings and can be very hard to spot. Bites from wobbegongs can be nasty and are always inflicted when an unsuspecting diver or snorkeller steps on them, so take extra care when stepping on the ‘sands’ of the reef!
Named for the striped pattern found on juveniles, tiger sharks are large and are second to the great white in human attacks. They have been known to eat anything and everything, with contents such as books, tires, jewellery, and clothing being found in their stomachs. Fortunately for snorkelers and divers, these guys usually like to stay in the deeper waters, so you are very unlikely to encounter them when you’re snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef.
Distinguished by heavy body shape, short, bluntly rounded snout and small eyes. Colouration is pale grey, grey-brown to very dark steel-grey above, and creamy-white below. Fins generally have faint dusky edges, but are not strongly marked. In juveniles, the rear edge of caudal fin has a black edge, but this fades with growth.
They frequent shallow, Inshore waters, bays, estuaries and riverine freshwater reaches and coastal waters in tropical regions and often stray into brackish and fresh water—all places where humans can be found. In areas where the sharks can’t see very well, they may mistake humans for other prey.
Marine stingers may be present in the waters of tropical Queensland year round, with the higher risk season during October – May. During this period, jellyfish are prevalent in the waters around the mainland, islands and have occasionally been found out on the reef.
Taking simple precautions to minimise risk you can safely and comfortably swim in all parts of the Whitsundays region. When taking part in any snorkelling, diving, or swimming activity protective ‘stinger suits’ will be available to all customers.
Please see Surf Life Saving Queensland for more information.
If you are stung, Whitsunday Regional Council provide vinegar to treat stings at each of the beaches on the Whitsunday Coast and all tour operators should carry vinegar too. Pour vinegar liberally over the affected area and seek medical attention urgently. Call 000 for an ambulance.
There are two main types of ‘stingers’ in the area, the Irukandji Jellyfish and the Box Jellyfish. Please see this Irukandji Information Sheet for additional information.
The less common Box Jellyfish are typically large, with substantial bodies and numerous tentacles on each corner. Different species reach different sizes, ranging from approximately 10 – 30cm tall. The body is transparent, and usually difficult to see in the water. Box jellyfish stings cause immediate severe pain, often likened to an iron or hot oil burns. The tentacles are often left on the skin, and will cause additional stinging if not neutralized by vinegar. Severe box jellyfish stings will have a “ladder-like” appearance, and will “frost” the skin. Substantial stings covering half of one limb can be fatal.
Please note: If you do happen to get stung by one of these “stingers”, do not by any means rub the sting area. Apply vinegar immediately and seek medical attention urgently. Dial 000 for an ambulance. Do not re-enter the water.
Irukandji are a group of small jellyfish whose stings can cause serious illness in previously well humans. While caution is necessary, there have only ever been three recorded deaths from Irukandji stings and if prompt medical treatment is received, a full recovery usually occurs within 24 – 48 hours. Irukandjis are rare, but the stings can be life-threatening. It is worth taking some simple precautions so that you can enjoy your holiday with peace of mind. All Irukandji species have small, box-shaped bodies, with a single tentacle on each corner (a total of 4 tentacles). Different species reach different sizes ranging from only 1cm tall. The body is transparent and usually impossible to see in water. The initial sting from most Irukandji species is quite mild, feeling like sea lice or a mosquito bite. There is often no mark, or perhaps small red “goose pimple” marks. Often, Irukandji stings will sweat profusely in the immediate sting region only. Irukandji Information Sheet
While research is still active in developing accurate prediction methods for Irukandjis, one or more of the following conditions appear to contribute to heightened risk:
- Calm water, especially in sheltered bays
- Height of summertime
- Warm water temperature
- Sandy beaches with low wave action
- Proximity to river-mouth
Note that it is still possible to get stung during the following conditions:
- Open water
- Out of season
- Bad weather eg south-easterly conditions