What to Do When Your Fishing Charter Becomes an Unintended Whale Watching Voyage

Whale watching can be a worthy maritime excursion in itself, and yet there is also a good chance of encountering a whale while out on the water for another purpose.Humpback whales use Australia's eastern coast as a migratory route for a good portion of the year (largely heading north from June to August, and then returning south from September to November). A fishing charter could very easily encounter a migrating whale, and while it can be a captivating experience, it's not without its risks. Would you know what to do if the fishing charter you were on happened to come across a whale?

A Safe Distance

Ideally the skipper will have spotted the whale while it's still at a safe distance. The skipper will then either cut the engines or reduce speed. You might also be instructed to immediately bring in your fishing lines.


Whales utilise what is known as a cetacean surfacing behaviour, also known as a breach. This is when they come to the surface to take in air. While only the blowhole might be briefly exposed, a humpback whale has the ability to throw its entire body out of the water with great power. It can be dangerous when a whale attempts to breach directly beneath the boat, and serious injuries have occured when this has happened. If the skipper suspects that a whale might be passing directly underneath the boat, then appropriate action will be taken. This can include:

  • Retracting the propellers from the water on vessels where this is possible (this prevents injury to the whale and damage to the boat's propulsion).

  • Instructing all passengers to take a firm grip on any handrails until further notice.

  • Instructing passengers to put on their life jackets in instances where it can be possible to be knocked overboard.

Hopefully the whales will maintain a safe distance from the boat, and when it's appropriate to do so, the skipper will reactivate the engines in order to increase this distance.

The Waiting Game

All you can do is wait and enjoy the experience when you encounter a whale while out on a fishing charter, hoping that while the whales might surface around the boat, none of them do so directly underneath the boat. If the engines must be disabled for a reasonable period of time in order to allow the whales to safely pass, your return could be delayed. Of course if you have mobile phone reception, you can call or message your friends and family to inform them of the new estimated  arrival time to prevent them from worrying. Otherwise you can ask to use the ship to shore radio that will be onboard.

While unintended whale watching might interrupt some fishing charters, it's a remarkable sight to behold… just as long as the whale doesn't get too close!