Alaska Whale Watching: Where to Go & Planning Tips
Visitors are drawn to Alaska for our big sights - towering mountains, vast landscapes, massive brown bears, and the giants of the ocean: whales. Seeing whales for yourself is a spectacular experience that engages the senses. You’ll witness fascinating whale behavior like breaching, spy hopping, and fin slapping. You’ll hear the sounds of whales breathing at the surface of the water, their massive bodies crashing against the water when they breach, and if you’re lucky – you may even hear them communicate (some tour boats carry onboard hydrophones that pick up sounds underwater so you can hear their vocalizations). You’ll smell the ocean air and feel the cool sea breeze on your face. All of these sensations make for a truly unforgettable whale watching experience in Alaska.
Why Is Alaska a good place for whale watching?
Alaska is surrounded on three sides by water, from the waters of the North Pacific Ocean along the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska, around the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, and up to the Chukchi and Beaufurt Seas in the Arctic Ocean. Over a dozen species of whales can be seen in this vast range of coastal and marine ecosystems. Every spring, thousands of humpback whales and gray whales travel from the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico to spend the summer months feeding in Alaska’s nutrient-rich waters – making Alaska one of the best places on earth to view whales in the summer months. Other species like orca whales call Alaska waters home year-round.
What species of whales are in Alaska & when can you see them?
Alaska’s oceans and coastal regions are prime habitats for over a dozen species of whales – from one of the smallest whale species in the world: the all-white beluga whale that grows 11-15 feet long, to the largest animal on the planet: the blue whale, measuring up to 100 feet long. Here’s a breakdown of Alaska’s whale species and which ones you’re most likely to see:
Most Commonly Seen: humpback whale, orca whale
Less Commonly Seen: gray whale, beluga whale, minke whale, fin whale
Least Commonly Seen: Baird’s beaked whale, blue whale, bowhead whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, narwhal, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, sperm whale, Stejneger’s beaked whale
These large baleen whales are one of the most commonly seen species in Alaska. The flukes, or tails, of humpbacks have distinct patterns that make it possible to identify individual whales. The most impressive humpback sightings involve breaching, when whales leap out of the water, and bubble net feeding, where groups of whales work together to release columns of bubbles to trap small fish and krill and then open their giant mouths at the surface of the water to capture their meal. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Humpback whales begin arriving in Alaska waters from Hawaii in the spring and start heading south again to warmer waters in the fall. The best time to view humpback whales in Alaska is May through September, when the greatest number of whales are in the area to feed on plankton and krill in Alaska’s nutrient-rich waters.
Best areas to view humpback whales: waters outside of Juneau, Sitka, and other Inside Passage communities, Kenai Fjords National Park, Prince William Sound, waters around Kodiak Island and the Barren Islands, eastern Aleutian Islands.
Intelligent and highly social, these black and white mammals are the largest member of the dolphin family. They are also called killer whales and are distinguished by their dorsal fins that can grow up to six feet tall. Orcas travel in pods of up to about 40 animals and have a complex matrilineal social structure led by the elder female of the pod.
There are three different types of orcas in Alaska, based on their prey and habitat: resident, transient, and offshore. Resident orcas feed only on fish and tend to stay near coastal areas, while transient orcas feed on marine mammals like seals, porpoises, and sea lions and have a larger range. Offshore orcas are elusive and are found primarily in the open ocean, feeding on sharks and fish. While in Alaska, you’re most likely to see resident orcas since they live closer to coastal areas. They can be seen year-round.
Best areas to view orcas: waters outside of Juneau and other Inside Passage communities, Kenai Fjords National Park, Prince William Sound, Kachemak Bay State Park, waters around Kodiak Island, Aleutian Islands.
Gray whales are the first migrating whales to reach Alaska each spring. Swimming slowly from their winter breeding grounds in Mexico’s Baja California, these amazing animals have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth — up to 14,000 miles round trip! They spend their summers feeding in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas before heading back down to warm waters in the fall. In Alaska, you typically won’t see gray whales breach or spy hop, but you may see them spout or raise their fins or flukes while they’re feeding.
Best areas to view gray whales: The best places to see gray whales are along their migration route, before and after they reach their northern feeding grounds. You may see gray whales heading north along Inside Passage and Southcentral waters from mid-March to April, with the best viewing opportunities in Sitka, Seward, and Kodiak.
How to View Whales in Alaska
It should be no surprise that the best way to view whales in Alaska is on the water. However, you can choose your adventure level when it comes to whale watching opportunities. The most popular way to view whales is aboard a whale watching day cruise or charter from coastal communities in the Southcentral, Inside Passage, and Southwest regions. Whale watching day cruises range from half-day to full-day and operate on a wide variety of boat sizes, from small boats holding a handful of passengers to large, stable catamarans that can accommodate a couple hundred passengers.
Whale watching day cruises offer the benefits of heated cabins for comfortable viewing, outdoor viewing decks, and experienced captains and crew that are experts at spotting whales. Some cruises feature onboard meals along with park rangers or naturalists that provide narration during the cruise. In addition to whales, you’ll see other wildlife including Steller sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, birds, and porpoises. Some day cruises also visit tidewater glaciers in remote fjords and bays. Cruises typically run from June through September, though some cruise companies offer shoulder season cruises March – May and October.
Visitors exploring Alaska on multi-day cruises and the Alaska Marine Highway ferry also have excellent opportunities for viewing whales along the route. Whales can be seen right from the ship or ferry, and many cruises offer additional whale watching excursions on smaller vessels.
Kayaking tours are an exciting way to blend an adventurous activity with wildlife viewing. Some tours depart right from port communities, while others take you out by water taxi to remote bays, fjords, and coves for a day of paddling. Tours are available for a wide range of ages and experience levels and offer incredible up-close views of Alaska’s marine wildlife and coastal landscapes.
Some species like beluga whales, humpbacks, and orcas can be seen right from shore. Keep your eyes peeled at lookouts, parks, and trails along the shoreline around coastal communities such as Juneau, Sitka, Gustavus, Seward, Cordova, Kodiak, and Nome. If you’re traveling along the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage in mid-summer, keep an eye out for the white domes of beluga whales as they cruise the area feeding on fish.
Best Places in Alaska for Whale Watching
Juneau is the best place to view whales in Alaska’s Inside Passage region. Humpback whales can be seen in the waters outside of Juneau from April through November, with peak viewing time from June through September. A wide variety of tour options are available, from private charters to small boat tours to larger catamarans, with tours usually lasting 3-4 hours. During peak season, there are so many humpbacks in the area that many companies offer guaranteed whale sightings. Orcas are also commonly seen in the Juneau area.
The top destination for whale watching in Southcentral Alaska is Seward. Day cruises from Seward explore the beautiful, rugged coastline of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. Half-day and full-day cruise options are available, with longer cruises traveling into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park to view massive tidewater glaciers. Humpbacks can be seen in the area from April through October with peak viewing time from May through August. Orcas are also commonly seen any time of year, with peak viewing time from May through June. Gray whales can be seen during their spring migration from March through May.
Kodiak is the best destination for whale watching in Southwest Alaska. A variety of whale watching trips are available from Kodiak, from private charters to multi-day boat trips that focus on bear viewing and whale watching. Gray whales can be seen along their migration route in April. Humpbacks are in the area from June through October, and orcas can be seen at any time.
Alaska: AKA Your Next Adventure
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