There are four primary modes of waterborne exploration in Alaska –multi-day cruises on large and smaller ships, state ferries and day cruises.
Most large-ship cruise itineraries feature Alaska’s Inside Passage region. It’s called the Inside Passage because ships navigate a sometimes surprisingly narrow channel between hundreds of smaller islands and rocky outcroppings to the east and the mainland to the west. The channel protects ships from the rougher waters of the North Pacific Ocean, offering a smooth ride and stunning views of coastal Alaska, sharp-toothed mountain peaks, dense forest and quiet coves on either side of the ship. Whether cruising north or south, wildlife viewing isn’t limited to marine species – many sightings of birds and mammals on land are also possible from the ship. However, big ships aren’t as agile as some of their smaller cousins and thus can’t get as close to wildlife. Most, however, offer the best of both worlds in the form of optional day tours in port communities that take guests sportfishing or wildlife viewing by smaller ship, kayak, in a Bush plane or via a quiet nature hike. Either way, cruisers have ample opportunity to see many life-list species on their trips.
Smaller ships are just that – smaller. Overnight itineraries often feature different ports than the big ships visit, and sometimes even coves or bays where the big ships can’t venture due to their size. Although they are often more expensive than the big ship experience, those who choose small ships often cite the ability to get much closer to wildlife and capture better photos. Many of the smaller cruise lines offer itineraries geared toward wildlife viewing or photography (sometimes both!) and can navigate carefully toward closer sightings of humpback whales or orcas, sea lion and sea bird rookeries and even toward black and brown bears wandering the shoreline. Small ships also feature more unusual itineraries, some of which venture to the Aleutian Islands and into the Bering Sea, where bird watching is particularly good.
Much of the same can be said about the many day cruise options available in Alaska. These trips range from a couple of hours to most of the day, and are available in almost all communities on the coast. Popular destinations include Misty Fjords National Monument, Tracy Arm Fjord, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park, the College Fjords (so named because its glaciers are named after major universities) and Kachemak Bay. Although most of these day trips focus on wildlife viewing, many also feature the opportunity to watch one of Alaska’s most spectacular spectacles – massive tidal glaciers calving into the ocean. Boat captains pay special attention to where the animals are at any given time, and receive updates and tips from local fisherman and others on the water to help direct guests to the best viewing available.
The state ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway, is in some ways similar to the small-ship experience in that the boats accommodate hundreds, not thousands, of passengers and often get close to wildlife. The ships offer the ability to get on and off in both major and smaller port communities, and provide independent-minded travelers plenty of flexibility. The regularly scheduled service doesn’t allow ferries to stop for wildlife sightings, but it does keep things moving smoothly for visitors and residents alike. Regardless, sightings are still likely, and captains and other crew readily announce when wildlife is visible. All accommodate cars, RVs and even bikes and kayaks. The on-board naturalists are another nice feature. In a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, interpreters from the Tongass National Forest present lectures and offer information to passengers. Private cabins are available for overnight itineraries, although passengers also have the option of rolling out a sleeping bag in the many onboard lounges or in heated outdoor solariums.
For more information on cruising Alaska, visit travel to Alaska by sea and travel within alaska by boat.