Imagine witnessing a massive humpback whale leap into the air against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks as you cruise azure waters. You also see the round, smooth head of a curious harbor seal peeking at you from the sea during your voyage and hear a glacier calving in the distance. Hungry gulls circle overhead looking to pick up the scraps left behind by feeding marine mammals. This is the magic of whale watching in Alaska.
Table of Contents
- Types of Whales You’ll See in Alaska
- When to Go Whale Watching
- Where to See Whales in Alaska
- Tips for an Enjoyable Excursion
- Cruise to Alaska With Windstar
Alaska draws millions of visitors every year to its breathtaking fjords, islands, mountains and forests. Many of these travelers come to Alaska hoping to watch magnificent whales and other fascinating animals in their natural habitat. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, Alaska saw over 2 million summer visitors in 2019, and about a quarter of them went on a whale watching tour.
If you’re excited to embark on a whale-watching journey in Alaska, it’s essential to know where to go and when to go. In this post, we’ll provide some of the details to help you plan an unforgettable experience.
Types of Whales You’ll See in Alaska
Various cetaceans populate or move through the waters of Alaska, though humpback whales, orcas and beluga whales are the most frequently seen. Here’s a little bit about the types of large cetaceans you might encounter during an Alaskan whale watching excursion:
1. Humpback Whales
Humpback whales can reach a length of about 60 feet and weigh up to 40 tons. These massive sea mammals migrate to Alaska once winter has passed to spend the summer months feasting on krill and small fish. Humpback whales are a favorite of whale watchers because they are active at the surface, breaching or slapping the water with their fins. According to NOAA Fisheries, whale watchers often see humpback whales during a boat tour.
One of the fascinating humpback whale behaviors is a feeding technique called bubble net feeding. During bubble net feeding, whales work together to confine their prey using bubbles. Once their prey is pushed toward the water’s surface, the whales propel themselves through the bubble net with their mouths wide open, devouring the fish — and putting on a spectacular show.
2. Beluga Whales
Beluga whales are distinguished by their white color, dome-shaped heads and various vocalizations. Known as canaries of the sea, beluga whales make a range of sounds, including clicks, whistles and chirps. These social creatures may live in small groups or, in rare cases, with hundreds of other beluga whales. They inhabit the Arctic Ocean and nearby seas, including Alaskan waters. During the summer, beluga whales are typically found in shallow coastal waters or large rivers.
3. Killer Whales
Killer whales, also called orcas, are not actually whales but are the largest species of dolphins. With their black tops and white patches near the eyes, killer whales are easy to recognize. They are highly social creatures, living in pods and using coordinated hunting methods and teamwork to capture prey. Although orcas can be found in all of the world’s oceans, they are plentiful in Alaska’s frigid waters.
4. Gray Whales
Gray whales can grow to about 49 feet long, and they have mottled slate-colored bodies. Unlike humpback whales, gray whales do not have a dorsal fin. Once common in all of the Northern Hemisphere, these large creatures can now only be found in the North Pacific Ocean.
Gray whales are mainly bottom feeders, scraping the seafloor for food. You might see a gray whale rising from the water with mud dripping from its mouth. These curious sea mammals are known to approach whale-watching boats and occasionally breach or spy-hop.
When to Go Whale Watching
In general, the best time to see whales in Alaska is during the summer. This is when whales feed in Alaska’s rich waters after migrating from the south. However, depending on the species, you may see whales any time of the year. Here’s when to visit Alaska if you’re hoping to spot a specific species:
- Humpback whales: Humpback whales migrate from their winter breeding grounds in the waters near Japan, Mexico and Hawaii to their feeding grounds extending from Washington state to the Chukchi Sea near the Arctic Ocean. You’ll find humpback whales along Alaska’s coast in the spring, summer and fall.
- Beluga whales: You can see beluga whales from mid-July through August, typically south of Anchorage. In the late fall, you might spot them swimming near the shore.
- Killer whales: If you want to see killer whales but don’t know what time of year you’ll get to Alaska, you’re in luck. Orcas hang out in Alaska’s waters all year long.
- Gray whales: Gray whales start to migrate north from the Gulf of California to the Bering Sea from late February to May, staying close to the coast. They spend their summers feeding in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.
Where to See Whales in Alaska
Alaska makes it easy for visitors to hop on a boat and get out to see whales. You’ll find exceptional tour operators in most of the state’s coastal towns, or you might create your own whale watching tour by sea kayaking or traveling on a ferry. In some locations, you can even watch whales from the shore. To help you narrow your options, here are some of the best places in Alaska to see whales:
1. Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound consists of 3,800 miles of coastline situated east of the Kenai Peninsula. Several orca pods live in the area, and you can watch humpback whales in the western portion from mid-May through September.
Although the sound contains remote areas, you can easily find starting points for whale watching tours in Whittier and Valdez. In Cordova, a small town surrounded by the Chugach National Forest, you don’t have to travel far to see marine mammals. A 10-minute drive from downtown to Orca Beach provides onshore whale watching spots. Keep your eyes peeled for sea otters and harbor seals while you’re there.
2. Inside Passage
The Inside Passage, located in southeast Alaska, is a summer haven for humpback whales. Every summer, these colossal creatures flock to the region’s channels and fjords to consume tons of krill and fish. If you want to watch humpback whales enjoy their seemingly endless summertime feast, Alaska’s Inside Passage is the place to go.
You might begin your journey in Juneau, which is Alaska’s premier whale watching port. According to NOAA Fisheries, Juneau is home to approximately 20 whale watching businesses. Tour operators leave from Auke Bay Harbor, which is just minutes north of Juneau International Airport. Juneau’s visitors consistently see humpback whales on tours. Less commonly, you may also spot orcas.
You might choose to venture to Point Adolphus, located on the tip of Chichagof Island across from Glacier Bay National Park. Point Adolphus is a renowned whale-watching spot and popular birding site. This is where currents from other passages form a high concentration of food for humpback whales and other marine animals. You can access the area with a tour service for a day trip or organize a sea kayaking adventure.
3. Turnagain Arm
For a chance to see the endangered beluga whales of Cook Inlet, head to Turnagain Arm. Turnagain Arm is a waterway located off of Cook Inlet south of Anchorage. You may see belugas from mid-July through August moving through Turnagain Arm, especially before and after high tides. Head to Beluga Point, which is a rocky crag overlooking the waters of Turnagain Arm, located along the scenic Seward Highway. If you find beluga whales swimming close to the shore, listen to their unique vocalizations as they pass by. Keep your eyes open for orcas as well — predators of belugas whales.
Seward is a picturesque port city situated on the Kenai Peninsula. From Seward, you can take a boat tour of Resurrection Bay — an extraordinary location for viewing wildlife. Resurrection Bay is a deep fjord and magnet for marine mammals. During the summer, you may see feeding humpback whales or orcas on the prowl. At any point in time, you may witness a sea otter floating past you on its back or a harbor seal gazing at you from the water.
If you want to roam on your own, consider sea kayaking through Resurrection Bay and exploring its wild coves, beaches and islands.
5. Kodiak Island
Kodiak Island, situated in the Gulf of Alaska, is Alaska’s largest island. It may be best known as a bear-watching destination and home to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s also a place to see whales.
Every spring, gray whales migrate past Kodiak Island on their way to the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Some remain in the waters surrounding the island for the summer before heading south in the fall. You can take a boat or kayaking tour from the island for a chance to see gray whales passing by on their migratory journey. If you don’t want to hit the water, you can also whale watch from the shore. One whale watching spot to check out is Pasagshak Bay, where you may find gray whales rolling in shallow water sucking up mouthfuls of sediment.
Sitka is a scenic city and borough situated on the outer edge of the Inside Passage. Due to its closeness to the Pacific Ocean, marine mammals are drawn to the area’s waters during the summer, including migrating humpback whales. You can even see humpback whales roaming near Sitka in the fall and early winter as they move south. You might take a boat tour of Sitka Sound, where humpback, gray and killer whales feed in the protected, nutrient-rich waters during the summer. To whale watch from the shore, head to Whale Park located a short distance from downtown. Whale Park offers overlooks, viewing shelters, fixed binoculars and a hydrophone so you can listen live to whale sounds.
Tips for an Enjoyable Excursion
Cruising through Alaska’s pristine wilderness on a whale-watching expedition is an unforgettable experience, regardless of the animals you encounter. Still, there are ways to prepare so you can make the most of your whale watching trip and have the best experience possible. Here are a few tips:
- Check the weather forecast: To help you select the best day for your whale watching excursion, check the weather forecast first. Bright but cloudy days are ideal for whale watching because it’s easier to see the water’s surface.
- Look out for other wildlife: As you wait to spot a whale, keep your eyes open for other wildlife. There are so many different animals and birds to see in Alaska that you’d be missing out if you only looked for whales.
- Don’t forget your binoculars: Make sure you have a pair of good binoculars with you to increase the chance of a sighting. You can also use them to scan the shore for bears, seals, mountain goats and many other types of Alaska’s animals.
- Know the signs: Know what signs to look for before you embark on your voyage. If you see birds circling over a specific spot in the water, blows, oil slicks or large splashes, a whale might be close by.
- Think like a whale: If you see a whale dive, consider the direction it was moving. Whales usually do not appear in the same spot after diving. Knowing a little bit about how whales behave and think will help you look at the right place at the right time.
- Dress in layers: Even during the summer, the weather can get chilly in Alaska, especially if you’re out at sea and there’s a light wind. Consider bringing a waterproof jacket and hat to adjust to temperature changes and ensure you’re comfortable during your excursion.
- Wear sunscreen: Water reflects and magnifies sunlight, so it’s easy to get sunburned during a whale watching trip. Keep your skin protected with sunscreen, and make sure to bring some along. Bring sunglasses, too, so you can protect your eyes as you scan for whales.
- Pack your camera: You’ll probably want to remember some of the sights you’ll see during your journey, so bring your camera with extra batteries or a charger. You might bring a zoom lens if you want a good shot of a whale.
- Bring snacks: Whale watching tours typically last two to four hours. Bring some snacks with you to feel satisfied and energized. Also, remember to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water while you’re on board.
- Be patient: If you see signs of a whale near the surface of the water, be patient and allow time for the whale to surface. In the meantime, relax and enjoy Alaska’s stunning scenery.
Cruise to Alaska With Windstar
Alaska is a feast for the eyes, whether you’re scanning the waters for whales or letting the landscape fill you with awe. If you’re excited to visit Alaska to go whale watching or explore its unspoiled beauty, let us know. At Windstar Cruises, we sail guests to Alaska’s top whale-watching destinations, including the Inside Passage. As you journey with us through Alaska’s fjords, you’ll also have opportunities to look for whales and other wildlife while on board. Our small, uncrowded ships take guests where large vessels can’t go, bringing them closer to the unexpected.