Seeing whales in their natural habitat is an incredibly moving experience. If you’re searching for a vacation destination where you might spot them in the wild, you’ll have many options. But the best whale watching in Alaska also means being surrounded by some of the world’s most dramatic scenery.
Why should you visit Alaska? Often referred to as “The Last Frontier,” Alaska offers vast untouched wilderness areas, breathtaking scenic beauty, a wealth of outdoor adventure, and abundant wildlife.
Enjoy everything from world-class fishing, hiking, and paddling to watching wildlife, including bears, moose, bald eagles, and whales.
Many people picture endless ranges of snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and ice fields, with Alaskans bundled up in warm parkas when envisioning the scenery.
But the warmer months bring color to the landscapes, including lush meadows bursting with wildflowers while streams meander through. Look up to see puffy clouds floating among patches of blue while a bald eagle soars by searching for a meal below.
Alaska also has an interesting and varied history that includes Alaskan Natives, Russian fur traders, and gold miners. You can learn more about it at the many cultural heritage centers and museums in big cities as well as some of the smaller towns.
America’s 49th state is truly one of the most pristine places you can visit. It’s unlike anywhere else in the country. In fact, it feels more like a nation of its own.
For wildlife lovers, there’s no better place to go, especially if whales are on the top of your list. Here you will find some of the best whale watching in the world
Top Whale Watching Site in Alaska
While Denali National Park is famous for its land animals, you’ll find plenty of places off the coast of Alaska to spot marine mammals, including whales. If whale watching is a priority, you’ll want to consider these top options.
If you’re flying into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport as so many do, you might be searching for whale watching in Anchorage. The closest place to the big city is Turnagain Arm on the Kenai Peninsula, a waterway off Cook Inlet just south.
Reaching it requires a drive on what’s been called one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of roadway in the country Seward Highway. On one side is the Turnagain Arm shoreline, and on the other, the 3,000-foot-high mountains in Chugach State Park.
By heading to Beluga Point, a rocky outpost that juts into the water, you might see the white whales swimming close to the shore. It’s one of the best places to see beluga whales in Alaska. You’ll want to come before or after high tides, between mid-July and early September.
If you spot them, listen for their unique vocalizations and you’ll know why they’re called the “canaries of the sea.” Keep watch for one of the other Alaska whales that often pass through: the orcas. Also known as killer whales, they’re the largest member of the dolphin family.
Juneau and the Inside Passage
If you want to plan your trip around the very best place for whale watching in Alaska, the answer is arguably Juneau. Located in the southeast region of the state, there are so many whales that seeing them on an excursion is guaranteed.
One of the things that makes it such a prime spot is the proximity to multiple different waterways. It sits on the Gastineau Channel and the cruise port is just a short drive from Auke Bay, while Lynn Channel lies just beyond.
The many deep waterways, plus the islands they’re home to, provide dozens of places for the whales to hang out.
It’s also cheap and easy to hop on a short flight to Glacier Bay National Park from here.
The park hosts a wildlife cruise that will bring you to see all sorts of birds like puffins, land, and marine mammals, including whales. It’s also a great opportunity to get up close to glaciers.
Icy Strait, in Alaska’s largest Native Tlingit village of Hoonah, is a 20-minute flight or a 3.5-hour ferry ride from Juneau. It’s another popular departure point for whale-watching tours in the region.
Whether you’re just off the shores of Juneau around Auke Bay, further north or south, you’ll discover that summer is a haven for humpback whales. The colossal animals flock to the waterways of Alaska’s Inside Passage every season to consume tons of fish and krill.
The baleen whales have to migrate to the southern region of the Pacific during the winter where the water is warmer. For adult humpbacks, that means they must consume a massive amount of food to sustain themselves.
For those who want to watch them enjoy their massive feast, the Alaskan capital is the place to go. There’s a good chance you’ll witness lunge feeding. The whales do this at high speed with their mouth open. Their throat expands several times its normal size so they can take in a huge mouthful of water with their prey. Then, the water is forced back out with their tongues and they swallow the rest.
If you’re very lucky, you could catch Alaska humpback whales while they’re bubble-net feeding. This complicated, highly synchronized activity reveals the depth of their intelligence. One whale typically leads, diving deep then rising up again toward the surface.
From deep below, it starts to blow air, creating bubbles that confuse and trap fish above. The rest of the “team” follows, corralling them in with a cumulative fence of bubbles. The whales then gather inside the bubble net, rising to the surface with their mouths open wide.
The Views and Other Wildlife
Another benefit of whale watching from Juneau is that you’ll usually enjoy views of glistening glaciers like Mendenhall Glacier against a backdrop of sawtooth-peaked mountains.
Plus, not only can you see Alaska whales, but there’s a long list of other possible wildlife sightings. Keep an eye out for harbor seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters, Dall’s porpoises, and land animals like black bears, brown bears, and moose. Look up and you’re likely to spot bald eagles too.
Most boat tours guarantee at least one whale sighting while you’re out on the water. But it is highly likely that you’ll see many, many more when you tour with a Juneau outfitter.
Best Time To Do Whale Watching in Alaska
The best whale watching in Alaska is generally during the summer months, but it depends on the species of whale. They begin their migration from the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico in February and March, typically arriving in Alaska in April and May.
Various types can be seen around the state from May through September. About 600 humpbacks inhabit the waters of the northern Inside Passage around Juneau, with the peak time for watching in July and August.
Your best chance to see gray whales is in April and May. The top places are off the shores of Sitka and at the southern end of the Inside Passage around Ketchikan.
They may also be spotted in Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, and around Kodiak Island. Beluga whales can be viewed year-round between Katmai National Parl on the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island in Shelikof Strait.
As mentioned, they’re often spotted in the spring along the shores of Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage.
The optimal time for orca whale pods is from early May to early June, although they can be seen through September near Seward and the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska.
While it’s rare to spot one, blue whales inhabit the eastern and northern portion of the Gulf of Alaska in July and August. They’re rarely near the shoreline due to their vast size as the world’s largest animal, most often well out into the open ocean.
The Best Whale Watching Tours in Alaska
The best Alaska whale watching tours are excursions led by knowledgeable guides who are local to the specific area. Not only do they know where to go to find the whales, but they’ll be able to provide in-depth insight about them to enhance the trip.
Another thing to consider when choosing a whale watching tour operator is the size of the group and the boat.
The larger the boat, the more passengers will be on board with you which can make it difficult to get a good view or capture photos.
Smaller group tours on smaller vessels are more personal and don’t require elbowing your way through a crowd to catch a glimpse.
While you’ll probably have many options depending on the particular destination, in Juneau, Jayleen’s Alaska is hard to beat. Owner Jayleen grew up here in a whale-watching family. She’ll take you out on The Alaskan Girl, perfect for small groups to enjoy the best possible sightings. Her passion for the whales is obvious, revealed through exciting tales and fascinating factual information.
Kenai Fjords Tours
There are no whale watching tours at Turnagain Arm with the animals spotted right from shore. But just south, cruises in Seward through Resurrection Bay into Kenai Fjords National Park offer some of the best Alaska whale watching opportunities. Kenai Fjords Tours is a long-time operator with a variety of options.
The four-hour excursion will bring you to view California gray whales that travel over 5,000 miles from Baja California to feast in the nutrient-rich waters. Wildlife viewing is exceptional here, with not only many other types of whale species but lots of other animals here.
Multiday Cruise or a Day Tour: Which One is Best for Whale Watching?
The more time you have out on the water, obviously, the higher chances you have of spotting whales. But there’s more to determining whether a multiday cruise or a day tour is best for whale watching in Alaska.
If you’re out on the water in Alaska during the summer, you’ll have a good chance of seeing a whale on any boat. But a major cruise line offering multiday trips on a huge ship isn’t the best option as they can’t reach areas that smaller boats can.
Plus, it can take a big vessel up to two miles to make a complete stop. That means just a quick passing view, making Alaska cruise ship whale watching more of an exercise in frustration.
The best options for whale watching are on a multiday, small-ship cruise that can reach remote areas that aren’t accessible to day-touring boats. Small ships usually have a flexible schedule, allowing vessels to pause for whale sightings and linger longer too.
The second-best is a day tour on a boat with a minimal passenger capacity. Most offer guaranteed sightings, and you might even choose to book two or even three tours, heading out multiple times.
Which Whales Are You Going to See?
Many of the Alaska whales you’re like to see we’ve mentioned. The most common whales include humpback, gray, blue whales, beluga, and orca whales, famous for their black and white markings. But there are others not as frequently seen that you might be fortunate enough to witness.
That includes many minke whales, a sleek, dark-colored whale that’s larger than an orca but smaller than a humpback. These are fast-swimming animals that usually only reveal a quick glimpse of their back.
Sperm whales are rarely spotted, but it is possible. Bowheads are the most ice-adapted of the larger whales. They spend their entire lives near sea ice in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas.
Usually, you’d need to be far north, in or near the Arctic Ocean, to see one. Fin whales can be seen in this area too.
What to Pack for a Whale Watching Trip
Depending on your destination, summers in Alaska can be quite warm, particularly in Southeast Alaska. With temperatures increasing in recent years, mercury can easily rise into the 80s Fahrenheit.
That said, while it might be warm on land, it’s going to be cold out on the water.
You’ll want to bring clothing that you can layer, wearing multiple layers from head to foot as the wind tends to pick up as you cruise over the water.
Your outer layer should be a warm, waterproof jacket. If you get too warm, you can also peel off some of your layers.
Sturdy waterproof shoes will keep your toes warm and dry. Make sure they have rubber soles as you don’t want to be sliding around when the deck gets slippery.
A waterproof hat with a wide brim can protect you from the sun and the rain. Even if it’s not raining when you set out, the spray that kicks up can get you wet and sudden showers are always possible.
Finally, don’t forget your camera. Boats are required by law to keep their distance from whales. Unless they pop up by the vessel, most of the time you’ll be snapping from farther away.
Whale Watching Tips
To get the most out of your experience, go with the flow, appreciating what every moment offers.
Once the whale dives down deep, revealing that big beautiful tail, it can be 15 or 20 minutes before it pops up again. Don’t forget to put your camera down and simply absorb the scenery all around you. It’s impossible to take it all in without using all your senses.
Remember that whale watching requires patience. You might be staring at the water for 30 minutes, thinking there’s nothing beneath the surface.
Then, suddenly a 40-ton, 60-foot-long animal leaps out. This is the wild, and the whales don’t come out on cue, but when they do, they can provide an unforgettable thrill.
Be prepared for any kind of weather to ensure your comfort, bringing the right clothing and accessories as noted above. Keep in mind that the best sources of knowledge about what to look for are your captain, crew, and/or onboard naturalist.
Always choose tour operators that respect the laws meant to protect the whales, our oceans, and other waterways. Those who care will be able to provide the best possible experience without a potentially harmful impact.
As such highly intelligent creatures, the whales often seem just as curious about us humans as we are with them. Experiencing the rush of adrenaline as they surface near the boat, exhaling a plume of mist into the air, is something you’ll never forget. Looking them in the eye can even be life-changing.
Regardless of your expectations, you can never really prepare yourself for the reality of the experience. It can be emotionally overwhelming, with the encounter often moving people to tears of joy.
About the author
K.C. Dermody has traveled the world, visiting some 40 countries and nearly all 50 U.S. states. She has a passion for learning about different cultures and taking part in outdoor adventures. When she’s not writing, you might find her swimming with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez, watching whales in Alaska, paddling among icebergs in Newfoundland, or enjoying a pint with the locals in an Irish pub.