Meet Alaska's Wildest Residents
For many visitors to Alaska, seeing majestic animals like bears, moose and eagles in the wild is a crowning moment in their visit. Keep reading to learn more about the wild residents that enthrall locals and visitors alike.
Visitors and locals alike flock to designated bear-viewing areas like Katmai National Park, Admiralty Island and McNeil River State Game Sanctuary to see the brown bear fishing salmon out of the rivers. Kodiak brown bears can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, rivaling the largest polar bears, while brown bears in most other areas tend to be much smaller. These massive animals are capable of taking down a half-ton moose on the run. They're also highly intelligent and positively bursting with personality, which makes them very entertaining to watch.
Much more rare than brown bears, the largest polar bears can weigh in excess of 1,700 pounds, but the average male weighs 600–1,200 pounds. Professionally-guided tours out of Utqiagvik/Barrow offer the best chances of seeing this rare predator.
The smallest bear in Alaska, the relatively shy black bear, weighs in at a petite 350 pounds and is common in forested areas all over Alaska. Black bear viewing areas like the Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory near Wrangell are becoming increasingly popular.
Sure, moose exist throughout North America—but the Alaska-Yukon subspecies Alces alces gigas is the largest of them all, weighing up to 1,600 pounds and standing almost 6 feet tall at the shoulder. Believe it or not, one of the best places to see them is in the heavily wooded parks around Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. But watch out: The largest members of the deer family are famously cantankerous, and will go after you or your dog if you get too close.
Believe it or not, Denali National Park was first designated as a wilderness area to protect the resident herds of Dall sheep. It's still one of the best places to see them in the wild. Other excellent places to see these animals—best known for the massive, curled horns of the rams—include the area around Tok, and the Kenai and Chugach Mountains of Southcentral Alaska.
From a distance, it's easy to confuse Dall sheep with the enigmatic, little-studied mountain goat. But Dall sheep tend to stick to dryer inland areas, while you are more likely to see mountain goats in rugged, coastal regions of Southcentral and the Inside Passage.
The astonishingly graceful humpback whale can weigh up to 35 tons and measure almost 50 feet long. They spend their summers in Alaskan waters feasting on krill and small fish, fattening themselves up for the journey to their winter breeding grounds. Humpbacks are famous for their mysterious underwater "singing" and for acrobatic displays that include breaching, spy-hopping, lob-tailing, flipper-slapping and tail-slapping. Day cruises out of communities like Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Gustavus, Seward and Valdez are the best opportunities to see humpback whales; you might also spot them from the deck of your cruise ship or ferry.
Orcas or killer whales, sometimes called the wolves of the sea, are "only" about half the size of a humpback, averaging around 25 feet long. But they're playful, fearfully intelligent and of course deadly. They often hunt cooperatively, and have even been known to briefly beach themselves to grab a seal or sea lion from shore. Look for them throughout all of Alaska's coastal waters.
One of the cutest denizen of Alaska's wild oceans is also the largest member of the weasel family: the gregarious, intelligent sea otter. These clever animals are much larger than they appear in photos—growing up to 5 feet long and 100 pounds—and have the densest pelts on the planet. They're most at home when bobbing on their backs in a clump with other otters, staring back at the boats full of curious tourists and locals. Sea otters are common in coastal waters throughout southern Alaska, including the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park, and the Aleutian Islands.
There are more caribou than people in Alaska—an estimated 750,000. They spend their lives in herds that can measure more than 100,000 animals, traveling up to 50 miles per day as they migrate between their winter feeding grounds and summer calving and feeding areas. Both male and female caribou have antlers, which they shed every year. It's no coincidence that domestic reindeer look so much like wild caribou; they're actually the same species. You'll find caribou in small numbers as far south as the Kenai Peninsula, but the largest groups range in Interior and Arctic Alaska.
Although bald eagles have become more common in the lower forty-eight, the bald eagle populations in Alaska are something to behold. These gigantic raptors tend to congregate near food sources, so they're common in any fishing community. The highest concentrations of eagles occur during winter in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and slightly later along the Stikine River near Wrangell, as they congregate near open water to feed on salmon, herring and other fish.