Location and species

Port Stephens and its unique bay and pristine coastal waters and volcanic islands is in New South Wales (NSW) Australia, just two and a half hours drive north of Sydney. It’s a scenically beautiful region which offers a chance to see dolphins all year around and Humpback Whales, fur seals and Minke Whales from May to November. Port Stephens is known as the Dolphin Capital of Australia with a resident population of around 90 Bottlenose Dolphins inside the bay and hundreds of Common Dolphin just offshore. Winter is mild over here with daytime temps seldom dropping below 18 degrees Celsius and summer temps at sea hovering around 25 degrees.

The port itself is a flooded volcanic river valley formed 300 million years ago with two large rivers exiting through the bay into the South Pacific Ocean. The Worimi colonised the port 12,000 years before Captain Cook sailed past and named this stunningly beautiful place after Sir Phillip Stephens. It’s a whale watchers paradise and it’s also a haven for bird watchers with the 5 main offshore islands hosting an array of seabirds. At least 4 species of Albatross are regularly encountered offshore and Broughton Island is home to the northernmost colony of Little Penguin, which can only be found in Australia and New Zealand. The bay itself is more than double the size of Sydney Harbour and the entire coastal region including the Bay and its rivers and lakes is within Australia’s Marine Park System. In fact at 98,000 hectares it is the largest Marine Park in NSW. Additionally, more than 50% of the coastal area is protected within both the Tomaree National Park or the Myall Lakes National Park and there are some great land-based viewing points in the Park for those landlubbers who don’t want to venture out to sea.

Cetacean watching

There are three main companies offering a variety of cruises with cetaceans. Imagine Cruises, which has advanced Eco tourism accreditation and operates a large 16 metre sailing cat with seating for up to 47 offshore plus a super fast 12 metre cat offering seats for up to 20 which is particularly good for folk who don’t want to be offshore for too long. Dolphin Swim Australia offers a totally unique in-water swim opportunity with Common Dolphin and has teamed up with Imagine for this once in a lifetime experience. Moonshadow TQ Cruises has 6 large vessels that offer a range of dolphin and whale cruises and all the companies are family owned and work well together in a friendly environment to find the animals which are the focus of these ecocruises. There are also several good vantage points along the coast where whales can be seen daily throughout winter and spring without having to take to sea. All whale and dolphin watching cruises have guaranteed sightings so if you miss you get to come back for free and there is a wide range of accommodation and great seafood restaurants available in the villages of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay.

Regulations

Australia does have required minimum approach distances to whales and dolphins and all the operators in the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park have government permits to conduct our businesses. It is however quite common for dolphins to approach the vessels much closer than regulations suggest as this is simply their nature and that type of interaction is permissable.

Over 20 years of operation none of the above operations have shown any significant impact on the larger animals as far as we are aware. However, the effects of climate change could start to impact on the larger cetaceans if krill dies off due to acidification of the Antarctic waters.

Cetaceans and the community

Port Stephens’ residents all love dolphins and whales! In fact, every year residents and visitors gather on one of our beaches to make a giant human whale and last year we had over 900 people join together to make the biggest human Humpback Whale in the world – 100 metres long! We are a visitor-based economy and whales and dolphins are very much the primary focus, with several resident pods of Bottlenose and Common Dolphin able to be seen all year and visiting whales throughout winter and spring (May to November).

It’s all about whales and dolphins in this village! Our populations of various animals are either stable or steadily recovering from the bad old days of whaling. It might sound odd but there is a kind of collective community love of our whales and dolphins which transcends commerce.

Conservation and research

Port Stephens is arguably one of the most visually scenic of all Australia’s coastal regions and unique in New South Wales with its cluster of volcanic offshore islands and coastal peaks. We have been very active with the conservation of the animals we rely upon for our income. Our operators created the first “Code Of Conduct” for operators before Australia adopted its current set of regulations and we continue to sponsor research on the two main species of dolphin in the region. Many of us lobbied 10 years ago for the creation of a very large Marine Park and over 50% of our coastal land mass is National Park. We are close to Sydney, Australia’s largest city (just 2 1/2 hours easy drive north) and we have a regional airport called Newcastle Airport.

Lead Applicant: