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Icy Strait Point Whale Watching: Insider Tips For An Epic Adventure

When cruising to Alaska, there are some shore excursions cruise passengers need to try at least once. Dog sledding, flight-seeing, and whale watching are a few that come to mind.

While there are many places in Alaska to go whale watching, Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island provides one of the best opportunities to see the giants.

Two cruise ships a day can dock in Icy Strait Point, Alaska. One docks at Ocean Landing, and the other further north, at Wilderness Landing. Taking a tour to see whales is a great way to spend a day in Icy Strait Point.

Icy Strait Point and Juneau provide the best places to take a whale watching excursion. However, it requires a bus to and from the harbor in Juneau, cutting into the shore excursion time.

Icy Strait Point whale watching vessel
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In Icy Strait Point, cruise passengers can take tours from the dock or from companies in the nearby town of Hoonah. 

Guests on a Hoonah whale watching cruise, gather at the excursion hub at the adventure center before traveling to Hoonah. During the short bus trip, wildlife like blacktail deer, bald eagles, and sea otters may be sighted.

What To Wear On A Whale Watching Tour

Alaska’s a wet place, and the weather can change quickly. Even if it’s warm in port, traveling on the water can be much colder. Nothing is worse than being stuck on a tour for a few hours and chilled to the bone.

To prepare for the three-hour whale watching excursion, take a jacket, preferably waterproof, and wear waterproof shoes. I prefer Vessi runners, as I live in a wet city year-round. In May or September, a hat and gloves are preferred too.

To capture shots of the whales, remember to bring a fully charged smartphone or digital camera with a zoom.

Will I See Whales?

Humpback whales migrate from Hawaii to feed in southeast Alaska. They arrive in May and leave in September. Since this happens to be Alaska cruise season, the chances of seeing whales are high. In fact, most tours have a whale sighting guarantee.

I have taken several whale watching tours in Alaska and always seen the gentle giants.

As the cruise ship pulls into port, look around as whales often swim in the deep waters around the port. While humpbacks are the prevalent species, orcas, harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and porpoises are sighted too.

A whale tail in Alaska
A whale tail in Alaska

Tip: To aid the operator in whale sightings, bring a pair of binoculars. With more eyes on the water, it won’t be long before the first sighting happens.

The Whale Watching Vessels

Whale watching vessels are built for speed, and their comfortable interior space provides warmth and shelter from cold and wet weather.

Most vessels are catamaran style, so they provide excellent stability. The large windows below the deck provide uninterrupted views of the panoramic scenery.

The upper deck ensures maximum viewing experience and allows guests to move around comfortably once they reach the viewing area.

Who Should You Book With?

Tours are offered through your cruise line and various local companies. Know your meeting point and allow time to return to the ships, especially when taking a tour from Hoonah.

Alaska Whale & Drone Tours uses a rugged drone to get aerial shots and video of your excursion. Often these aerial images capture views beneath the surface, not seen from the touring vessel. Each tour group receives a copy of the files as a memento of the trip.

Tip: When booking a whale watching tour through the cruise line, guests will board the touring vessel next to the cruise ship. This option is idea for guests with limited mobility.

Tour boat departing next to the cruise ship in Icy Strait Point
Tour boat departing next to the cruise ship

Icy Strait Point Whale Watching

With a high concentration of food and little marine traffic, humpback whales prefer the area of Port Frederick for feeding. It’s considered the preferred spot for a tour, but most cruises stop in Juneau instead.

Since whales are searching for food, sightings usually are of their backs as they break the surface to breathe and their flukes as they dive.

Once a whale dives, it generally resurfaces again in four to seven minutes. However, whales can hold their breath for up to one hour.

Whale watching is a fantastic experience, and their playfulness is wonderful to witness. Activities include fin waves, tail slaps, breaching, and bubble-net feeding. While I have seen many slaps and breaches, I have yet to see bubble-net feeding.

A breaching whale
A breaching whale

Bubble-net feeding is a unique technique humpback whales have learned in Alaska. Working as a team, one whale swims in a spiral, releasing air from its blow hole. The resulting wall of bubbles or bubble-net traps the herring.

Once the lead whale gives a signal, the others lunge to the surface with mouths gaping, scooping up the fish. A local humpback whale named “Freddy” has acquired the feeding technique. However, he performs the ritual on his own.

Freddy the humpback was once attacked by orcas. Maybe due to injuries, he no longer migrates to warmer waters in winter. Instead, he hangs out near the coast of Icy Strait Point and Hoonah. On my last trip, I was fortunate to watch him breach near the beach.

Capturing The Perfect Whale Photo

Whales surface to breathe and drop beneath the water quickly. Look for a mist flume on the water’s surface to spot them. Once spotted, the captain will position the boat close enough to view, but without breaking the whale approach rule.

It’s hard to capture the ideal photo. Having a digital camera with a faster shutter speed works much better than a cell phone. I set my camera to multiple shots and hold the shutter button down when I see a whale.

A humpback mom and calf
A humpback mom and calf

With multiple pictures, I always get some great photographs. I took over 600 shots using this technique on my last whale watching trip.

Tip: With a smartphone, taking video might be better than aiming for that single shot. A still shot can be taken from a good video. When trying to capture single pictures, most visitors get parts of tails or water splashes after the whale has made its dive.

When viewing on choppy seas, the unstableness of the vessel can lead to fuzzy photos. To capture stable images, I highly recommend a DJI OM-5 gimbal.

Please remember you’re sharing the vessel with other guests. If space is limited at the front, take turns with others. Being only five feet tall (or short), I often can’t see the action on tours like these. 

However, most guests (not all) are courteous and allow shorter people (or children) to stand in front as they can see over our lowered heads.

During the tour, a guide will provide narration about the whales’ feeding techniques, migration, breeding, and how big they grow. Watching videos and seeing online pictures are vastly different than the actual experience.

The walkway to the Cannery Dock in Icy Strait Point
Walkway to the Cannery Dock

At the end of the excursion, vessels return to the Cannery Dock, next to the Hoonah Cannery. The Hoonah Cannery complex has shopping, a small museum, and places to eat.

Watching Whale Antics

Some scientists believe whales breach to communicate with other whales. Others say the activity removes parasites, or they do it for fun. Whatever the reason, it’s a spectacular show to watch; even baby whales learn the technique soon after birth.

Breaching is a technical term used for when a whale leaves the water. More than 40% of its body mass must rise above the surface to be considered a breach. While all whale species have the ability to breach, none do it quite as much as the humpbacks.

Since adult females weigh around 35 tons, jumping out of the water requires energy. Tour goers watch with mesmerizing eyes as a whale leaps, creating a thunderous splash.

Is It Worth Taking A Whale Watching Tour?

This question gets asked a lot on Facebook groups I belong to. While whales are often spotted from a cruise ship balcony or upper deck, the viewing is vastly different than taken an excursion.

To spot them on a ship, scan the water near the coastline with a pair of binoculars. Their blow-hole flumes are easy to spot. However, cruise ships sail in the deepest channel, and whales hug the shallow areas.

Whale seen from a cruise ship vs on a tour
Whale watching comparison

For perspective, here’s a comparison of a whale shot from my balcony to seeing one on tour. The difference is like night and day.

In Icy Strait Point, lucky passengers see whales off the shore of the boardwalk. But, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. 

During my last visit, I saw a humpback breach a few times offshore, but moments later, it swam away.

Whale breaching in Icy Strait Point
The humpback I spotted from the boardwalk

Icy Strait Point Whale Watching Q & As

Here are some commonly asked questions and answers.

Is there a better time of the day to take a tour? No. Whales are active throughout the day. So, the chances of seeing whales are the same, whether visiting in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

Will I witness bubble-net feeding? While a large population of humpbacks migrates to Alaska yearly, only a tiny percentage have learned the unique feeding system. It’s all about luck.

Are the catamarans wheelchair accessible? For safety reasons, boats can’t accommodate wheelchairs. However, some companies can accommodate mobility-challenged guests.

Are the vessels heated? Yes, most tour operators offer interior, heated areas to sit and watch the action if Alaska’s weather isn’t behaving.

A tour boat at the Cannery dock
A small tour boat at the Cannery dock

Is there a washroom onboard? Larger catamaran vessels have a restroom. However, when booking a small group tour, operators provide tiny, uncovered boats without a washroom.

How close will I get to the whales? The Alaska whale approach regulation says tour operators can’t get within 100 yards of whales. However, it doesn’t stop whales from approaching.

Will I get seasick? The waters around Icy Strait Point are relatively calm. However, take some Dramamine or use a motion sickness patch, if you’re prone to motion sickness.

How much does an Icy Strait Point whale watching tour cost? Most tour operators charge around USD 170+ per person. Tour companies include Icy Strait Whale Adventures, Hoonah Whale Tours, Hoonah Travel Adventures, and Glacier Wind Charters.

A combined whale watch and bear search excursion is sometimes available when booking through the cruise line. Chichagof Island is home to a large population of coastal brown bears.

If taking a tour isn’t within your family budget, walking the boardwalk provide a complimentary activity in Icy Strait, and you could see whales from the beach.

Conclusion

I have taken several whale watching tours in Alaska and they are always fantastic. Sometimes boats get close enough to whales and smell their breath (which is terrible, by the way). Other times, I’m viewing from a distance.

Trying to spot these gentle giants from the cruise ship won’t provide the same experience.

When taking a tour, don’t get fixated on trying to capture that perfect breaching whale photo. Immerse yourself in the moment because sometimes you miss out on the memories.  

Cruise ship docked in Icy Strait Point, Alaska and an orca spotted on a whale watching tour