The Whitsundays, Australia


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.

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. With their exceptional skill in boat building and navigation, the Ngaro people were able to thrive in this marine environment.

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.

At a glance

Where is it:

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


The Whitsundays Candidate Site 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.

What makes the Whitsundays a Candidate Whale Heritage Site?


Each Whale Heritage Site has a unique route to meeting the criteria set out by the WCA. Check out some of the highlights from the Whitsundays Candidate site:

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.

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 local authority and communities of the Whitsundays are also working hard to achieve the EarthCheck Sustainable Destination certification. They are currently going through the process and hope to achieve the EarthCheck Bronze Benchmarked status by the end of June 2023.

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.

Collaborative efforts between the community, Traditional Owners, farmers and fishers, industry, science, tourism, and government has resulted in the Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership, a partnership where these stakeholders are able to work together for healthy rivers and Reef in the Whitsundays.

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.


Who is leading the process locally?


Whitsunday Environmental 

Little Fish Tourism Development Consulting

Progress Towards Certification

  1. Application submitted and Candidate status awarded.

2. Engaging with key stakeholders and local community.


  1. Steering committee being formed.


  1. Working on final application.
  1. Final application submitted and under review.

Images credits: First header (Tourism Whitsundays); Second header (Debra Duggan, Red Cat Adventures); Third header (Tourism Whitsundays); Humpback whale (Max Lissenden, Unsplash); Whale art installation-Festival 2022 (Olivia Brodhurst); Hill Inlet-Whitehaven Beach aerial (Tourism Whitsundays); Sailing-paddle boarding in Whitsunday Islands (Tourism Whitsundays); Humpback whale breaching (Debra Duggan, Red Cat Adventures).