The expansive wilderness of Alaska has inspired brave adventurers, frontiersmen, poets, artists and authors for hundreds of years. In a world overcome with technology, the defiant 49th state remains largely untouched by the modern day, both on land and in the water. While Alaska’s terrain is dominated by grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and eagles, the seas surrounding the massive state belong to the whales.
Whale watching has proven to be a huge tourist draw for Alaska as several species migrate through the waters off its coastline or seek refuge in the area. With the density of whales in the region, sightings can be all but guaranteed during peak migration periods. Along with whales, visitors to Alaska are likely to catch glimpses of other wildlife such as harbor seals, ice seals, fur seals and countless species of seabirds.
When to Visit
As a general rule, whale watching season in Alaska runs from May through September. The first whales to make it to Alaska are grey whales. Pods begin arriving in April, with number increasing significantly in May and June. Beluga whales can also be spotted starting in the spring, and follow a much looser migration pattern through the summer and early autumn months.
Things begin to kick into high gear in June and July. This is when a group of approximately 500 humpback whales arrive off the coast of Alaska each year. Often weighing in excess of 35,000 kg and reaching lengths of 15+ metres, humpback whales are among the largest animals on Earth. Despite their size, these enormous creatures navigate effortlessly through the water and often give spectators quite a show by leaping out of the water and crashing back down below the depths of the ocean.
Blue whales are probably the most elusive of all the whale species off the coast of Alaska. They are usually found during July and August, though they rarely swim close to the shoreline as they prefer more open waters.
Minke whales along with orcas and various species of dolphins and porpoises often appear as added bonuses to late summer and early autumn whale watching tours. Fin whales, bowhead whales, bairds whales and even sperm whales have also been spotted off Alaskan waters, but to not appear with the same regularity as blue, grey and humpback whales.
Where to go
Each species of whale have their own favourite spots along the coast. One of the more popular locations for whale watching in Alaska is Seward. Many whale watching tours depart from Seward and make their way to Kenai Fjords National Park. These areas are well known to contain many orcas, humpback whales, blue whales and fin whales during the summer months. The fjords also offer stunning natural scenery for landscape and wildlife photography enthusiasts. If Seward proves to be too difficult to get too, multiple tours also part from the larger city of Homer, Alaska.
Nearby Prince William Sound is also home to numerous humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins and porpoises in the summer and arguably has even more scenery than Kenai Fjords. Further south from Kenai and Prince William Sound is the isolated Glacier Bay National Park. Only accessible by sea and air, this area is frequented by grey and humpback whales in the summer.
If you book a summer cruise to Alaska, you have a good chance at spotting whales. However, dedicated whale watching tours offer a better chance to see these amazing creatures up close and personal. Whale watching tours come in many forms. Daily excursions from places like Seward and Whittier are perfect if you are in Alaska over the summer and are short on time. While sightings can never be guaranteed, there is a good chance to spot grey and humpback whales on small day-long cruises. Smaller boats have the ability to get closer to whales than larger boats, so look for ships that carry less than 100 passengers.
Dedicated multi-day whale watching cruises are the best option for true wildlife enthusiasts. These cruises can be a little pricey, but the opportunity to visit multiple locations and observe several species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the wild is well worth it. Many longer cruises also combine wildlife hikes and excursions on land with whale watching, allowing passengers to truly soak in the breadth of the great Alaskan wilderness. Two to five day cruises depart from Alaska regularly and can be booked well in advance.
One final option is to book a cruise from Seattle or British Columbia to Alaska. This journey takes several days and must be booked in advance. If this option sounds attractive to you, book cruises departing around June for a chance to follow migrating whales up the coastline towards the cooler waters of Alaska.