Skip to Content

Juneau Whale Watching Guide: Spotting Majestic Giants Up Close

Juneau, Alaska is a prime spot for whale watching. During spring and summer, the nutrient-rich waters serve as an abundant feeding ground for humpback whales, who migrate from Hawaii and Mexico.

As tours explore the waters near Juneau, they’re often graced with the presence of these magnificent creatures, surprising guests with their immense size.

These whale watching tours allow guests to witness these marine giants in their natural habitat. I have taken a few excursions in Juneau, and it’s an experience that stayed with me long after I returned home.

Humpbacks surfacing near a boat
This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase from an affiliate link, I may receive a very small commission, which does not result in additional charges to you. Full disclosure here.

When traveling to Alaska on a cruise ship, whales are often spotted with binoculars. However, since they won’t be close, only their waterspout flumes will be visible near the coastline.

By transitioning to a smaller boat, cruise passengers become part of an environment where the line between humans and nature blurs. Whale watching here goes beyond just sightings; it’s about understanding the connection that Alaskan wildlife shares with its surroundings.

What to Expect

When heading out for a whale watching adventure in Juneau, you’re stepping into a world teeming with marine life and extraordinary panoramas.

Tours usually last three to four hours, inclusive of the travel time to and from the Auke Bay Harbor. Since some ships arrive late to the port of Juneau, operators offer evening tours. Tour goers are just as likely to spot whales in the evening as during the day.

Auke Bay Harbor
Auke Bay Harbor

Let’s talk about the stars of the show and the stunning backdrop they call home.

Humpback Whales and Orcas

  • Humpback Whales: It’s almost a guarantee to spot these gentle giants gracefully navigating Juneau’s waters. Some guests might see their spectacular breaching and hear their complex songs, especially since many tours come equipped with hydrophones. The lucky few might even witness bubble net feeding.
  • Orcas: These iconic black and white are a thrilling sight. Known as killer whales, orcas travel in pods and are top predators, often seen hunting as a group in the cold Alaskan waters.

Most local operators have a whale sighting guarantee. If guests don’t see a whale, they may receive a complimentary booking, or a partial refund.

When on an Alaska cruise, the option of going another day won’t help. However, it you’re visiting Juneau on a land itinerary, you’ll have to option to go again.

Spotting a humpback whale
Spotting a humpback whale

Since I have taken several tours, I can say the chances of not seeing a whale are very slim. Sightings in Alaska differ from tours in Hawaii or Mexico.

Alaska’s marine-rich waters attract whales to feed, so they spend a lot of time underwater. As such, sightings include mostly backs and tails. Once a whale dives, it will take 15 to 20 minutes to resurface again.

Local Wildlife and Scenery

  • Bald Eagles: Keep an eye on the sky for bald eagles soaring with an impressive wingspan. These majestic birds are endemic to the area.
  • Other wildlife: Amidst the magnificent scenery, sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, and harbor seals may be spotted. In fact, tour operators cruise by a particular buoy, a popular hangout for a group of noisy Steller sea lions.
Sea lions on a buoy in Auke Bay
Sea lions on a buoy in Auke Bay

Tour Options

When it comes to whale watching tours in Alaska, there are options that cater to all preferences and group sizes. So, choose from an intimate experience with loved ones or join other adventurers. The latter is a better option for budget-minded travelers.

Group Vs. Private Tours

  • Group Tours: For those of us who don’t mind mingling, group tours are ideal. There’s an increased chance of whale spotting with more eyes on the water. While some operators supply binoculars, we bring a compact pair to help with the search.
  • Private Tours: Need something more personal? Luxury yacht excursions guarantee an intimate experience between guests and the whales.

Combination Tours

Maximize your excursions when docking in Juneau for ten to twelve hours. Consider tours that combine whale watching thrills with other exciting Juneau activities.

  • Glacier and Whale Watching: Some of us want to witness the icy marvels as well as the marine life, right? Well, tours that merge whale watching and Mendenhall Glacier provide just that. Since getting to Mendenhall Glacier requires a 30-minute bus ride, reaching the park from the harbor is quicker.
Mendenhall Glacier and Lake
Mendenhall Glacier
  • Whales and Salmon Feast: While working up an appetite on the water, complete the day with a salmon feast. The Gold Creek Salmon Bake serves fresh coho, cooked on an open fire. We enjoyed this tour, and it’s an all-you-can-eat experience!
  • Whales and Ales Tour: Combine a whale watching bucket list tour with sampling beer.  This combination includes a trip to the Alaskan Brewing Company, to sample flights or brews in their tasting room.

Combination tours are the perfect way to make a day in Juneau more memorable.

Planning A Visit

Whether booking through the cruise line or a private operator, excursions include transportation to Auke Bay Harbor, 30 minutes north of Juneau.

Best Time to Go

May to September is the prime season for whale watching in Juneau. There’s a high chance of sightings and even an opportunity to listen to whale conversations via hydrophones.

Humpbacks migrate to Alaska in May and leave for warmer waters in September. The stronger males arrive first, with mothers and young arriving last.

Whales misty flume
Whales misty flume

For peak experiences, consider late June through August, when humpback whales are especially active.

Boat captains communicate with each other to share sightings. This ensures everyone arrives at an area where whales have been spotted. Tours with knowledgeable naturalists enrich the journey, giving insights into the whales’ behaviors and habits.

What to Wear

Dressing comfortably is critical for maximum enjoyment of the tour. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • Layers: The weather can be unpredictable, so wear layers that can be easily added or removed.
  • Waterproof Jacket: A waterproof outer layer keeps out any spray or rain.
  • Sunglasses: To prevent glare off the water, wear sunglasses, and sunscreen to prevent sunburn.
  • Comfortable Footwear: Non-slip, sturdy shoes are essential on a moving boat. Waterproof shoes are preferred, especially during unfavorable weather. My favorite, Vessi runners are my everyday choice.

Ideally, bring a DSLR camera with fast shutter speed to capture a leaping whale. However, with newer smartphones, their video quality is sufficient too.

Whale watching in Juneau, Alaska
Whale watching in Juneau

Is Seasickness Common on a Tour?

Since whale watching tours head out into the open water, they could experience choppy seas. If prone to motion sickness, here are the choices.

Firstly, book a larger catamaran, rather than a smaller vessel. Catamarans provide more stability, lowering the chance of seasickness. The tradeoff is they don’t move as fast as a smaller boat.

Secondly, use a motion sickness patch, or sea bands, to help with the feeling of queasiness.

Onboard Amenities

A whale watching adventure in Juneau does not mean sacrificing comfort for the sake of the experience. Many top-rated tours have their vessels purpose built.

Their boats are decked out with amenities that make the journey as enjoyable as the destination.

Larger vessels with heated cabins provide cozy refuge from the Alaskan chill. Equipped with indoor seating, they keep you warm and dry, no matter what the weather. Large windows ensure you won’t miss out on the action.

Guests can move around, allowing freedom to observe the majestic whales from one side of the boat to another.

View of Mendenhall Glacier from the water
View of Mendenhall Glacier from the water

Larger boats also have upper viewing decks, allowing everyone front row action. The outer viewing decks allow for unobstructed panoramic views of Mendenhall Glacier, surrounding mountains and Auke Bay.

With several viewing decks, everyone gets a prime spot to watch the whales without feeling crowded.

Booking on a smaller Zodiac or vessel offers a contrasting experience. Smaller vessels move faster and reach whales quicker. However, they lack stability, limiting movement on board.

An onboard amenity of necessity might be a bathroom. Book a large vessel if it’s essential. Ask the tour operator if their boats have a washroom before booking.

Conservation Efforts

When heading out on the waters for a whale watching tour, it’s vital to remember that the approach to experiencing these majestic creatures has a direct impact on their environment. That’s why, Juneau, has embraced responsible whale watching practices.

By engaging with companies that prioritize conservation, you’re supporting efforts to protect whale populations. This means adhering to strict guidelines like maintaining a safe distance from the whales and reducing speed to minimize noise and wake.

Whales surfacing between boats
Whales surfacing between boats

While tour operators must stay a certain distance from whales, it doesn’t prevent them from approaching or surfacing near boats. I still recall the moment three humpbacks swam under my boat. Their immense size dwarfed my vessel, and their blowhole breath smelled like garbage!

Juneau Tour Operators

Here are some choices for Juneau whale watching excursions.

  • Allen Marine Tours – Offers day and evening tours, with tea, coffee, and snacks.
  • Marv & Harv’s Juneau Whale Watching – Have small and larger boat options.
  • Gastineau Guiding Company – Offers a 5 hour “Alaska’s Whales & Science Adventure.”
  • Juneau Whale Watch – Has been in business for over 15 years, and boats can carry 26 to 49 guests.
  • Jayleen’s Alaska – Provides a small boat experience with just six guests per vessel. 

Keep in mind that each whale watching experience supports local businesses that operate only part of the year.

Humpback whales seen on a whale watching tour in Juneau, Alaska