Whale Watching in Sydney – a local’s guide to the epic wildlife spectacle

Sydney sprawls over one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world. With hundreds of kilometres of coastal walks and over 70 sandy beaches framed by the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Sydney is the perfect spot for whale watching.

The whale watching season in Sydney lasts from late May to early November and during this time, thousands of Humpback whales cruise past the city on their epic migration.

I have been watching whales in Sydney for a number of years, starting with university ecology field trips.  Over the years, I have tried and tested most of the whale watching spots along the coast and the majority of whale watching cruises. Here, is the guide to the best whale watching in Sydney based on my experience.

Humpback Whale migration

Each year more than 30,000 Humpback whales cruise past Sydney on their 10,000-kilometer migration between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their breeding grounds in the warm tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

READ MORE: 50 Outstanding Safari Holidays Destinations Outside of Africa

breaching humpback
Breaching humpback whale

When can you see whales in Sydney

Between May and August, Humpbacks make their way to the tropical waters and between August and November, they travel back to Antarctica. So anytime between late May and early November is a good time for whale watching in Sydney and along the NSW South Coast or North Coast.

What whales can you see in Sydney?

Sydney whale watching season is the season of Humpback whale migration. But there are other whale species you can see off Sydney. Southern Right whales are occasionally seen on whale watching cruises, as well as Common and Bottlenose dolphins.

For a more unusual adventure, you could sail much further into the open ocean on a Pelagic tour (more on this below) where you can see whales that don’t come as close to the shore as the Humpbacks. The open ocean will give you a chance to spot Minke whales, Dwarf Minke whales, False Killer whales, Melon-headed Whales and other rarities.

dwarf minke whale off sydney coast
Dwarf Minke whale

What can you see when whale watching in Sydney?

As the whales cruise along, they put on quite a show. Humpbacks are often referred to as the acrobats of the ocean because they engage in a number of behaviours that can be observed above the surface. They have quite a number of tricks up their sleeves.

READ MORE: Humpback whale migration past Sydney


Humpback whale breaching

The most dramatic of humpbacks behaviours is the breach, where the whale launches itself into the air, often becoming completely airborne.

The experts are still uncertain what causes 40-tonne whales to leap out of the water, though a number of explanations have been offered. The most widely accepted theory is that a breach is a form of communication. And considering the amount of disturbance a breach causes underwater, it seems like an effective way to get your message across.

Another theory is that whales breach to dislodge parasites from their skin, or even to shed some of the excess blubber that the whales put on during their summer-long feeding buffet in Antarctica.

Spy hopping

humpback whale head
Whale raising its head out of the water to have a better look above the surface

Whales are curious animals and occasionally they pop their heads out of the water to have a look at what’s happening on the surface. Interestingly, during spy-hopping, whales don’t use their tail flukes to stay upright. Instead, they use their pectoral fins to tread water, much like humans do.

Pec and tail slapping

Humpback pectoral fin
Pectoral fin

Quite often humpbacks lift their giant pectoral fins out of the water and then forcefully slap them on the surface. Other times they may lift their tails to slap them on the water in the same way.

Humpbacks are highly social animals and the experts believe that pec slapping can be used as a flirting technique by female humpbacks. The amorously-inclined females also release a scent, which together with the sound of the pectoral slap sends a message to the nearby males that she is ready for some attention.

On the southern migration, when the females are leading their young calves on their first journey to Antarctica, the mothers teach pectoral slapping to their young.

Fluke up dive

Whale watching in Sydney - fluke-up dive
Tail slap

After every few breaths at the surface, humpbacks take a dive for four to eight minutes. And as the whale goes into a dive it often lifts its tail fluke out of the water. Scientists often use the unique patterns of scars and barnacles on the whales’ flukes to identify individual animals.

Rolling in the water

whale rolling around in the water
Whale rolling around in the water

Another thing humpbacks like to do is to roll around just below the surface. When they do that, their pectoral fins and tail flukes rise above the surface.

Whale watching from land in Sydney

So what are the best locations in Sydney for whale watching? There are a number of vantage points along the coast, many of them lie along spectacular coastal walks.

Below are some of the most popular locations, and you can find the full list of vantage points in Sydney on wild about whales website. You can even download an app to your phone to be up-to-date on the latest whale sightings.

Royal National Park

My all-time favourite coastal walk in Sydney is Bundeena to Marley beach track. It follows the dramatic cliffs of the Illawarra coastline and provides endless opportunities for spotting whales. Another good spot is the lookout at Wattamolla.

Whichever spot you choose, spend some time scanning the ocean for the whales’ blow and you will be surprised how close they come to the shore.

Getting there: To reach the coastline of Royal National Park, catch a train to Cronulla and then a ferry to Bundeena. From Bundeena ferry wharf it’s a short walk to the National Park. Alternatively, you could drive to Wattamolla and take a stunning coastal walk to Curracurrong Falls.

Cape Solander, Kurnell

Located within the Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Cape Solander is probably the most popular whale-watching spot in Sydney. This is where Sydney’s official whale watching count takes place each year.

There are information boards at the lookout with all kinds of information on humpback whales and their migration. And if you prefer to watch for whales on the go, take the clifftop track to Cape Bailey Lighthouse.

Getting there: Catch a train to Cronulla and then local bus 987 to Kurnell. Then it is a 2.8km scenic walk from the bus stop to the lookout.

Fairfax Lookout, North Head

The North Head is one of the headlands that mark the boundary between Sydney harbour and the open ocean (the other headland is, unsurprisingly, the South Head). It towers 80 meters above the ocean and you can see the whales coming for miles.

Lying within the North Head Sanctuary, the Fairfax lookout can be reached by the short and easy Fairfax walk through coastal shrubland. The views from the top sweep over the dramatic bluff of the South Head and the endless expanse of the ocean.

Getting there: Catch a ferry to Manly and then bus 135 from Manly Wharf to North Head.

Barrenjoey Lighthouse Headland, Palm Beach

About 50 kilometres further north, Barrenjoey Headland in Kur-rin-gai Chase National Park is home to the northern beaches’ most famous landmark – the Barrenjoey lighthouse.

The walk to the lighthouse along the Smugglers track is a little steep, but once you reach the top, the sweeping views over Palm beach, Central Coast and the Pacific Ocean are more than worth it.

Getting there: Take L90 bus from Wynyard

Gap Bluff, South Head

Lying opposite the North Head, the South Head is the second sentinel guarding the entrance to Sydney Harbor. The headland can be explored along a well-used footpath from Watson Bay.

The best whale watching spot on the headland is the Gap Bluff – the rocky bluff with panoramic views of the North Head, northern coastline and even the city.

Getting there: Take a ferry to Watsons Bay.

Humpback whales
Whale spotting from the shore

Whale watching cruises in Sydney

While it is great fun to spot whales from the coast, nothing compares to watching a 40-ton animal jump out of the water within a few meters from you. This is why whale watching cruises are one of Sydney’s most popular tourist activities.

The best time to go whale watching in Sydney is during the southern migration when females return to Antarctica with their young calves. If you are lucky, you may witness a mother teaching her calf to breach. The lesson usually consists of a few breaches by the mother followed by a series of breaches by the practicing calf.

Pelagic cruises

For serious enthusiasts, there is something else entirely. Also departing from Rose Bay, Sydney Pelagic & Nature Watching Tours offer full-day adventures to Brown’s mountain – an underwater mound 15 nautical miles off the Sydney coast.

These tours don’t concentrate on the migrating humpbacks but head out further into the open ocean where it is possible to see different species of whales. I have seen Dwarf Minke whales & False killer whales on these pelagic trips as well as Common and Bottlenose dolphins and Sea lions, not to mention a number of species of Albatross and other pelagic birds.

Sydney, of course, is not the only place in Australia to see Humpbacks in Australia. Port Stephens on NSW Central Coast is among the top 10 whale watching destinations in Australia. In Queensland, Hervey Bay whale watching is considered one of the finest wildlife experiences in the country.

Finding whale watching deals in Sydney

Many of the tour operators often offer good deals on the whale watching cruises. Go Whale Watching, for example, often has a 50% off deal for bookings made via their website.

Another good source of deals for whale watching cruises in Groupon. There are always a few options available during the humpback migration.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you would like to take more than one cruise with the same company, and I recommend you do that to see a wide range of whales’ behaviour, check with them for the best deal they offer to the returning customers.

Preparing for the whale watching cruise

To get the most out of your time on the ocean, you will want to make sure that you are as comfortable as you can possibly be. And with the unpredictable weather and sea conditions, there are two main things you will need to cover

Seasickness tablets

There is nothing worse than getting seasick and missing all the action. If you suffer from seasickness, don’t forget to take the tablets, like Travacalm before you board the cruise. Also, follow the advice of the fellow Sydney blogger Lyn Lindfield at The Travelling Linfields and check the sea conditions, including wind speed and wave height prior to heading out to see.

Warm clothes

While Sydney winters can be surprisingly warm and sunny, it is usually quite windy out in the open ocean, so it is best to bring a warm jacket on a cruise with you. Especially if you prefer sitting at the front of the boat.


While you pull on your winter woollies, don’t forget to put some sunscreen on your face. It may not feel like it when you are on board, but a few hours’ of exposure to the blazing Australian sun can be quite unkind to your skin.

Whale watching helicopter flights in Sydney

For a truly ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, consider taking a helicopter flight and watching the whales from above. This is the most amazing way to see the whales, simply because you are able to see the entire animal from the air.

For the best deal on the flights, book directly with Blue Sky Helicopters via their website. The one-hour flights start at AUD $500.

Humpback whale facts (Australian migratory population)

  • Size: Adults – up to 18m; Calves – 4m to 5m at birth
  • Weight: Adults: up to 50 tonnes; Calves: 2 tonnes at birth
  • Gestation: 11 to 11.5 months
  • Pectoral fin: Up to 5 meters long and weighs 1 tonne
  • Cruising speed: 8km/h
  • Blow pattern: Small and bushy, up to 4m
  • Feeding grounds: the Southern Ocean and Antarctica
  • Breeding grounds: Tropical Queensland & the Great Barrier Reef
  • Whale watching season in Sydney: Late May to Early November
  • Migration length: 10,000 km return – it is the longest mammalian migration on earth
  • Population size: 30,000 individuals
  • Population growth: 10% per year
Whale watching in Sydney - a local's guide to the epic wildlife spectacle

34 thoughts on “Whale Watching in Sydney – a local’s guide to the epic wildlife spectacle”

  1. Wow these whale photos are so stunning! I would be so happy if I captured even just one of these!

  2. I’ve lived in Sydney for 18 years now, and have wanted to do this for FOREVER! And haven’t! This just makes me want tot do it more! Beautiful pictures too!

  3. I’ve been to see blue whales in Sri Lanka, and that was an incredible experience. Especially as everyone else got so seasick during the journey out to see them that I practically got the view to myself ;) Sydney looks like a wonderful place to see humpback whales too! The small boat companies you’ve recommended seem to be quite ethical too, which is great :)

    • Lol, poor people that got sick, but lucky for you! I am yet to see the Blue whales. The whale watching operators in Sydney are generally all ethical. They’ve been doing it for a while now and know how it works. And to make sure everyone adheres to the rules, the national parks rangers do spot checks of the boats from the shore. And in turn, the whales are relaxed and often approach the boats closer than they are ‘allowed’ to :)

  4. I’ve learnt a few whale facts today. Thanks. We were lucky enough to see a couple if whales when sailing off Barrenjoey. They weren’t close but one came up to check us out.

  5. I had the most beautiful experience last year of swimming with these humpbacks in Tonga. It was the most incredible experience of my life! They are such magnificent animals :)
    I didn’t you know you can also see them from Australia, but seeing their migration path, I guess it makes sense! Next on my bucket list is seeing killer whales :D

    • Awww, swimming with them would be absolutely incredible. We had a pod of Killer whales pass Sydney about a month ago. I think they even made it into most of Sydney newspapers.

  6. My first experience with whale watching was off the coast of California. You never forget seeing a whale break through the surface for the first time! Loved it so much that I went again in Vancouver, this time to see a pod of killer whales. It was fascinating because even from the boat you could tell that each one had a different personality. Whale watching is an incredible way to experience nature!

    • I know what you mean about different personalities. We once had a pair of juvenile humpbacks and one of them would breach after every dive, while the other one hasn’t breached at all. I would love to see a pod of Killer whales!

  7. I am an avid fan of any kind of animal spotting in the wild. We once went all the way to Alaska, partly to see whales. We were disappointed and then within a couple of weeks of returning to Sydney we did a whale watching cruise here which was just fabulous. Between travelling and moving and life kind of getting in the way I haven’t managed a cruise for a couple of years so I am definitely about due. I am going to save this post to refer back to when I manage to find a spare day. As someone who gets terribly seasick can I offer a bit of advice to your readers. There are websites which will tell you the expected wave heights on any given day. Captain Cook Cruises used to have a link to one on their site. It could be still there. Check wind conditions and wave height for the day you intend to go out. It can get very rough outside the heads in Sydney.

    • This is a fantastic idea, thank you, Lyn! I will add a note to the post. Funny enough, I never found out whether I get seasick or not – I tend to take a tablet just in case each time I go out to sea :).
      I would love to go whale watching in Alaska – I’d like to see them feed.

  8. I have been Whale watching once in Merimbula in Aus! I remember being totally amazed when the whale came up beside the boat and it was literally longer than the boat! I had no idea about the movement patterns. I think the breach makes sense to be sending a message to all of the other species underwater! Haha! Good tip on the sea sickness tablets – my sister got sea sick and missed the whole experience in Merimbula! Great post!

    • I haven’t made it to Merimbula yet, but I hear it’s some of the best whale-watching spots in the country. The whales seem to be particularly active when they reach the continent after travelling through the open ocean between Antarctica and Australia, so there is a lot of breaching, spy-hopping and all kinds of other observable behaviour.

  9. So much great information about whales and their migration habits. I’m kicking myself for not having headed out to the coast to watch the whales migrate past Sydney before. But I have done a whale watching tour in Tasmania which was fascinating :)

  10. I love watching whales. I go on cruises every year to watch these beautiful mammals. This is definitely a very comprehensive guide I have seen.

  11. This is beautiful! I had the great fortune of seeing whales in Perth – I couldn’t believe how close they were breaching to our ferry to Rottnest island! I never actually expected to see any ?
    Can’t wait to get back and see some more!!

  12. I will love to go whale watching in Sydney! Here is California, we are able to see gray whales when they migrate from Alaska to Mexico (and when they are going back). I have been to the birthing lagoons in Mexico. The experience was one of a kind.

    • I would love to see gray whales! I try to go whale watching wherever I go. The birthing lagoons in Mexico sound absolutely amazing. We have some calving sites along the Australian coast as well, but I haven’t visited any yet.

  13. I’ve seen quite a few whales and never get sick of seeing them. I agree, Cape Solander is a great place to see them. I grew up in the Sutherland Shire and would see them often when I would go fishing with my dad in the area. Thanks for the comprehensive post.

  14. Having grown up in the Sutherland Shire we would often go to Cape Solander to see the whales. It is good to see there are so many more places to see the whales from.

  15. This is wonderful! I love whales and whale watching. Here in California we observe the gray whale migrations during winter. I have been to the birthing lagoons in Mexico. That was an amazing experience. I have seen other type of whales too. It would be great to see other species in other parts of the orld.

  16. Wow!!! This is really incredible. I would love to experience it one day :)
    It’s also interesting how many different moves they make in the water.

  17. Wow! your pictures are incredible! You’re post is so informative too, I really love your descriptions of the different behaviours. I love going whale watching, last time I did this was in Mexico, with grey whales. Now I want to go to Sydney to see humpbacks.

  18. I love Whale watching. I never thought of doing it in Sydney, I’ve only seen them off the coast of Queensland. Thanks for sharing!


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