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Cairns Whale Watching on The Great Barrier Reef

Whales on The Great Barrier Reef: it's pretty much a dream come true! When some of the largest mammals on the planet make their way to the largest coral reef system on the globe, it's a true symphony of nature.

Hoping to try whale watching in Cairns? Our Cairns whale watching guide will give you the low down on the whale season.

Whales on The Cairns Great Barrier Reef

Although the Great Barrier Reef may be famous for Nemo and his pals, it is also home to a rather bigger marine specimen: the whale. As a matter of fact, 35% of the world's whale population breeds on The Great Barrier Reef!

Each year, whales make their annual migration from the frosty Antarctic and journey a whopping 8,00KM to their destination of the tropical Great Barrier Reef. With significantly warmer waters and safe breeding grounds up for the taking, whales travel to the Great Barrier Reef to find a mate or to give birth to calves.

These giant leviathans travel in packs that are lead by a young males, followed by adult breeding whales and finally pregnant females and calves.

Humpback whales are the most common type of whales to spot on the Great Barrier Reef and it is estimated that around 2,000 of them journey to the reef off Cairns each year.

A highlight of the yearly Cairns whale season is the possibility of spotting Migaloo, the iconic albino humpback whale.

When is whale season in Cairns?

cairns whale watching whales breaching off cairns great barrier reef
Two humpback whales breach on-route to the Cairns outer Barrier Reef

The Cairns whale season runs between May and September, with minke whales making an appearance from May onward and humpback whales beginning to appear in the following months.

Around 2,000- 20,000 whales make their annual migration from the Atlantic to warmer waters in the Cairns Great Barrier Reef.

You are most likely to see whales between June and September off the Cairns' Great Barrier Reef.

Where's the best place to spot whales?

whales off sunlover reef cruises cairns great barrier reef pontoon cairns whale watching
Guests at our Moore Reef pontoon are treated to a humpback whale show.

Humpback whales are often spotted between Cairns and the Outer Great Barrier Reef and on the Great Barrier Reef itself.

Between June and September, it's not uncommon to spot a humpback whale on-route to our Moore Reef Outer Barrier Reef pontoon. Humpback whales are most commonly seen between Cairns and Fitzroy Island and our guests are often treated to the sight of breaching whales during their Great Barrier Reef experience.

As shown above, humpback whales have also been spotted on Moore Reef itself.

Dwarf minke whales are often spotted on the Outer Great Barrier Reef and tend to start been spotted from May onwards.

Minke Whales in Cairns

Minke whales may be the second smallest of all baleen whales, but that doesn't make them any less exciting! As a matter of fact, these whales are known for being quite playful and inquisitive.

These marine mammals can be identified by their dark grey top and contrasting white band on their belly and on each flipper. They can easily be distinguished from humpback whales by their smaller dorsal fin and they are about half the size, measuring around 7.8 metres.

These interesting creatures have no teeth and feed by filtering water through their baleen, consuming small fish, plankton and krill.

Dwarf minke whales are one of the rarer Great Barrier Reef guests, with around 200 sightings per year. Will you be lucky enough to spot one?

Humpback Whales in Cairns

humpback whales on cairns great barrier reef
(Photo Credit: Troy Maine) A pair of humpback whales put on a playful performance on route to Sunlover Reef Cruises' Moore Reef Pontoon

The humpback whale is truly a Great Barrier Reef icon! These gentle giants are the fifth largest animal in the world, reaching up to 15m in length and weighing the same as eight full grown African elephants!

A protected-species, these once endangered marine giants have a strong population increasing by 11% every year. Now there are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales in Aussie waters.

Humpback whales know how to put on a show and spectators are often treated to blowing, breaching and tail slapping. Male humpback whales even produce 'songs' to attract females during the mating seasons. These literal symphonies of nature can last 20 minutes and the same song is often repeated again for hours and hours.

Humpback whale behaviors to look out for:

  • Bubble netting- humpback whales literally blow bubbles to trap their prey. Look out for bubbles on your next reef trip!
  • Tail slapping- slapping their tail on the surface of the water is often an aggressive display. It is also a mode of communication between whales.
  • Blowing- a vapour cloud emerging from the water as the whale clears its lungs.
  • Breaching- when the whale jumps almost fully out of the water, making a huge splash!
  • Spy hop- humpback whales often sneak up from under the water, eventually surfacing vertically. Just like a spy!

Migaloo The White Whale

If marine life were celebrities, Migaloo would be an a-lister. This all-white albino whale was the only all white whale until 2011, when a smaller all-white calf was also spotted and consequently dubbed MJ (Migaloo Junior).

He was first spotted in 1991 and Byron Bay, Australia's most Easterly point. Each year, he makes his migratory journey to the Great Barrier Reef and is often spotted off Cairns!