Eco-friendly Dolphin Watching at Port Stephens

In February, Katherine, her parents, and I spent some time in Nelson Bay, Port Stephens on the east coast of Australia. Port Stephens is a sleepy coastal town which began life as a fishing community. Like many small coastal towns across the world, it soon succumbed to the weight of tourism when the juggernaut tour-buses and luxury yachts arrived. The marine life around the port is plentiful and dolphins are by far the main attraction. It was these incredible creatures that we’d come to see.

We try as much as we can to travel responsibly, living by the well-worn maxim “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time”. For this reason, we chose not to swim with the super intelligent mammals. We embarked on a boat tour with the company, Imagine. They were the most wonderful tour group, but we’ll get to that.


Let me say this now, Katherine adores dolphins. So much so, that her first email address was… On the day of the tour, we awoke to grey skies, misty seas, and that rain that really clings to you. (Our British readers will be familiar.) It was a little disappointing as it seems that whenever we actually book a boat tour, the weather doesn’t show up for us.

Port stephens
Should probably have been watching not taking selfies…

Today though, nothing was going to dampen our spirits. Dolphins are such beautiful, playful, and intelligent animals that we couldn’t wait to see them up close. We got ready and joyfully made our way to the marina. When we arrived however, we were greeted with an unwelcome sight. The marina was jampacked. Groups of different shapes and sizes had descended on the small dock and we began to panic that they were all on the same tour. Large crowds are not conducive to a good dolphin watching experience.

Cautiously, we made our way to dock C at Port Stephens marina to search among the masses for our boat. Halfway down the jetty, we found relief. We had discovered our small coastal cruiser, sails and all, and it only had five other people on board. Perfect! We climbed aboard, Bristol fashion, and with the tables and chairs safely bolted down, we set sail for the waters outside the port where the dolphins were resident.

Within minutes the dolphins began to crest the water, dorsal fins peeking over the small waves. They were hunting. They would come up to breathe, and then quickly dive back down into the sea grass to chase after morsels to swallow whole. It was extremely easy to spot them because each time they appeared, whether in the distance or close up, Katherine made a noise as if she was watching a fireworks display: ‘ooh’ ‘aah’ ‘look Sam they’re so cute!’; it was very funny.

Port Stephens
Dolphins were so close we could’ve touched them if it wasn’t irresponsible.

The ship’s young mate, Lisa, a local authority in dolphin welfare, informed us that the pod was female. Female dolphins travel with their calves at all times, and only female calves stay with their mother for life. The young males are told “I love ya mate, but it’s time for you to go out on your own,” she said. They then establish their own pods ranging in size from 4 to 9.

It was truly fascinating watching these graceful animals move around in the water. Sitting in the bow net of the ship, we were hovering half a metre above the ocean; close enough to be face-to-face with the dolphins. Sure enough, they swam to the front of the boat and began to play in the waves, right under our noses. Katherine and her mum were giddy with excitement.

It was quite a sight watching them try to clumsily maintain their balance on the bow net whilst they followed the dolphins movements. Later on, one of the new calves surprised us with a playful and experimental jump from the water. Even the crew were beside themselves so you can imagine our joy.

What an unforgettable experience.

Port Stephens
Getting close and personal without disturbing the family.

We don’t usually actively recommend companies we’re not affiliated with; that’s what TripAdvisor is for. On this occasion though, we were so enamoured by our time with Imagine Tour Company, that we feel we need to write a little something.

One great thing about the Imagine Tour Company, is that they leave little trace of where they have been. It’s important to observe the dolphins, to ensure their livelihood and protection, but responsible tourism requires that you don’t interfere with their natural lives in any way. This means, no swimming with them, no feeding them, and definitely no touching them.

Imagine is a relatively small outfit led by Captain Frank, a British expat formerly with the Merchant Navy, and is crewed by the mate, Lisa. They are the leading experts in Port Stephens when it comes to this pod and their passion for the job is striking. Lisa in particular is admirable. She is the most passionate animal expert we’ve ever met, and she’s self taught.

She can recognise each of the 20 dolphins in the pod just from photographing their dorsal fins and assessing the variations. Her sheer enjoyment of the job was written all over her face – particularly when she sprinted the length of the ship having realised that a new calf had been born a maximum of two days ago.

Port stephens
The brand new little calf swimming next to its mother – so cute!

Some of the other companies at the marina operate huge ships and seem much more commercial. Commercialised tours of that size don’t usually respect the animals as much as they should. They put the customer experience first in order to make more money. In our opinion, the dolphins welfare should come first regardless of how much you have paid for your tour. That’s why Imagine is such a great company, they put the dolphins first, and you still have a wonderful time.

We would definitely do a tour like that again and would avoid any experiences involving touching, swimming, or coming into direct contact with these animals.

Do you have good experiences with these kinds of eco-friendly tours?

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We're Sam and Katherine, a young British couple on the trip of a lifetime. We've navigated South East Asia on a tight budget, and we're currently based in Melbourne, Australia. South America is next on the list! Our story is a sign of the times - we met on Twitter! We've been a couple for three years now, but we're still learning about each other.
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