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Whale Watching In Alaska: 6 Epic Places For Viewing

Observing whales in their natural habitat is an unforgettable experience, and I’ve enjoyed it in many global areas. However, whale watching in Alaskan waters is extra magical, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and landscapes that go on forever. 

If you’re a nature lover seeking a once-in-a-lifetime experience, whale watching is one of the most booked activities in the Last Frontier. Alaska is home to spectacular marine life, and with over 20,000 miles of coastline, it’s the perfect place to enjoy wildlife spotting.

Many whale watching tours are available, ranging from small, intimate affairs to larger, more commercial operations. We showcase six areas to enjoy such an excursion.

Whale watching in Juneau, Alaska

Alaska is known for its abundance of humpback, orca, and gray whales, which can be seen spouting, breaching, and diving in the marine-rich waters. When traveling to Anchorage and the Turnagain Arm, beluga whales can be spotted from mid-July to late September.

The Best Time To Watch Whales In Alaska

The best time to visit Alaska is summertime, which happens to be whale watching season. While the northern state has resident whales, humpback whales migrate to the state’s coastal waters in May to feed on the abundant fish and krill. 

In September, after the completion of binge feeding, they migrate south to Hawaii and Mexico to mate and give birth.

Tours allow visitors to get up close and personal with colossal whales and learn more about their behavior and habitat. Most excursions are three hours; however, some can last all day.

Monthly Breakdown

Whale watching season in Alaska typically runs from mid-March to October. The peak season is from May to September when the waters are warmer and more nutrient-rich. 

This draws various whale species closer to the coast, offering excellent viewing opportunities. While male humpback whales begin to arrive in early May, the females and their young show up much later in the month.

Humpback whale tail in Alaska
A humpback whale in Alaskan waters

Here is what you can see by month:

  • March to May: This is the time to see gray whales specifically. They migrate around Alaska during this time of year.
  • June to August: Humpback whales are in the area during this time. They come to Alaska to feed on krill and small fish.
  • August to September: These are the months to specifically see beluga whales. They migrate to the Cook Inlet during this time of year.
  • October to early November: During this time, the last of the humpback whales migrate south for the winter, and there’s a chance to see them.

If you’re specifically interested in seeing a certain whale species, it’s best to plan your trip around its migration patterns.

Prime Alaska Locations For Whale Watching

When taking an Alaska cruise, there are numerous spots along the inside passage where guests can spot whales. With compact binoculars, I’ve spotted their waterspouts close to land. However, viewing from a large vessel contrasts significantly with a small group excursion. 

Here are some of the best locations for whale watching in Alaska:

Juneau

Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, offers many great tours, from dog sledding on a glacier to helicopter flightseeing and walkabouts on ice fields. While whale watching in Alaska’s capital is top-rated, it’s often combined with a visit to Mendenhall Glacier, a must-see in the state’s capital. 

Whale watching in Juneau, Alaska
Humpback whale tail I saw in Auke Bay

Tours depart from Auke Bay Harbor, and operators provide transportation to and from downtown. Experienced guides lead the tours and provide vital information about the whales and their habitat.

I’ve done several tours out of Juneau and combined them with the Gold Creek Salmon Bake and Mendenhall Glacier. The operators offer a whale watching guarantee, and I’ve seen the giants on every trip.

Allen Marine Tours, Harv and Marv’s Outback Alaska, and Gastineau Guiding offer tours. Alternatively, Jayleen’s Alaska, owned and operated by Jayleen Bydlon, who was born and raised in Alaska, provides a small boat experience. 

Enjoy the experience with up to 16 guests or opt for an intimate encounter on The Salty Girl or The Alaskan Girl with a maximum guest count of six.

Icy Strait Point

Icy Strait Point whale watching vessel
Whale watching tour boat in Icy Strait Point

Hoonah or Icy Strait Point is another popular spot for whale watching when cruising. Hoonah is on Chichagof Island, across from Glacier Bay National Park, making it a thoroughfare for whales.

Port Frederick is a marine-rich area, and like Juneau, tour operators offer a whale sighting guarantee. It is home to various whale species, including humpbacks, orcas, and gray whales.  

One local humpback nicknamed “Freddy” is often sighted near the Icy Strait Point wooden boardwalk. Freddy, attacked and injured by orcas, doesn’t join the annual migration. Instead, he has adapted to life in Alaskan cooler waters year-round.

On one of our visits, we were fortunate to witness his playfulness from the beach. He put on a show of breaching and fin waves before heading out to sea.

Humpback breaching near the beach in Icy Strait Point
A humpback we saw breaching near the boardwalk

Icy Strait Whale Adventures, Wooshkeetaan Tours, and Glacier Wind Charters are top operators, with the latter offering small boat experiences.

However, Alaska Whales & Drone Tours scores points for its unique approach. Captain Josh, a certified drone pilot, uses a drone to capture images and videos from the air.

The drone broadcasts live to the vessel, allowing guests to enjoy a different perspective of Icy Strait Point whale watching.

Kodiak Island

While Kodiak Island might be best known for its bears, it’s also a great place to view whales. In addition to humpback whales, sightings of sea lions, porpoises, and sea otters are also possible.

Harbor on Kodiak Island and a Fin Whale
Harbor on Kodiak Island and a Fin Whale

Kodiak Island isn’t visited as often as other coastal cities, but travelers may spot humpback whales in the Barren Islands between Homer and Kodiak in the summer months.

June and July are the best months to watch them feeding, and they may engage in bubble-netting. This humpback-specific technique involves a group of whales that release a net of bubbles to encircle and disorient their prey.

Once the dominant whale gives a signal, the group lunges to the surface with their mouths open, scooping up the entrapped fish. 

Without a tour, whales may be spotted from land. Fort Abercrombie State Park and Miller Point are prime locations to observe whales from shore.

Seward – Resurrection Bay

Seward is a small town located on the Kenai Peninsula. Resurrection Bay, situated near Seward, is a prime whale watching location. 

While you can catch glimpses of whales from town, for the ultimate experience, embark on a boat tour from Seward. Depending on the excursion length, some visit Kenai Fjords National Park, while others enjoy wildlife viewing in Resurrection Bay.

Kenai Fjords and a humpback whale
Humpback whale spotted in Kenai Fjords

Humpback and orca whales frequent the area, with orcas visible year-round and summers being prime viewing time. Although rare, minke and fin whales are sometimes spotted.

Excursions from Seward can be an all-day affair, lasting up to nine hours. It’s part wildlife tour and part scenic adventure with a chance to view Aialik, Holgate, and Northwestern Glaciers.

Opt for Kenai Fjords Tours, which boasts over 40 years of experience in Seward whale watching. Their 5.5-hour tour, departing at 3 p.m., combines a trip to Kenai Fjords with an onboard dining experience.

Turnagain Arm – Near Anchorage

Turnagain Arm is a waterway located south of Anchorage and north of Cook Inlet. Its unique geography enhances the whale watching experience, with towering mountains and glaciers providing a stunning backdrop. 

While the tour aims to spot whales, mountain goats often grace the cliffs in Chugach State Park, and seals sun themselves on beaches. 

Like other areas, humpbacks and orcas are the prevalent species. 

Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm

However, between July and September, there’s a chance to see the elusive beluga whales in the waters near Beluga Point.

Their white coloring is easy to spot in summertime, which provides them with great camouflage amongst the ice in the winter.

Whittier – Prince William Sound

One-way cruises between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Anchorage either begin or end in Whittier or Seward. Whittier is a small town on Prince William Sound’s western edge. 

While the area is rich in marine life, including whales, tour operators don’t market their excursions as “whale-watching” tours. 

Whittier Marine Charters and Phillips Cruises and Tours are your best bets. The latter provides the popular 26 glacier cruise and a glacier quest cruise. Both use a high-speed catamaran and are narrated, with a high chance of seeing wildlife. 

DestinationWhale Types
JuneauHumpback whales and Orcas
Icy Strait PointHumpback whales and Orcas
SewardHumpbacks, Orcas, Fin, and Minke whales
Turnagain ArmBelugas, humpbacks and Orcas
WhittierHumpbacks, Minke and Orcas
Kodiak IslandOrcas, Minke, Sei, and Gray whales
Whale species spotting on various Alaska marine life tours

The 26 glacier cruises offer a mixed bag of everything: more than two dozen glaciers, the pristine landscape of Prince William Sound, and wildlife galore.

For bird lovers, there are pigeon guillemots, kittiwakes, cormorants, and bald eagles. In Blackstone Bay, look for bears and mountain goats. Marine life includes sea otters, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, Dall’s porpoises, orcas, and humpback whales.

Humpback whale spotted on the 26 Glacier Cruise
Humpback whale spotted on the 26 Glacier Cruise

Whale Watching Tours And Charters

If whale watching in Alaska is on your bucket list, there are many options for excursions and charters. Here are some things to consider when trying to select the right tour.

Choosing A Tour

Depending on the length of stay and places visited, begin by choosing the location to book an excursion. Larger cities like Juneau have more options, and the area may affect the species of whales spotted. 

Secondly, decide on the size of the tour vessel. Smaller boats give a more intimate experience and provide viewing closer to the water’s surface. 

With fewer guests, getting photos is much easier. However, smaller boats generally have less stability, so expect choppier seas.

Larger catamarans are much more stable, but they carry many more passengers. While it won’t be an intimate tour, guests will have the added amenities of a washroom and a place to get drinks and snacks, and a naturalist often narrates it.

Lastly, consider the length of the excursion. The ones in Icy Strait Point and Juneau may last three hours, while those in Whittier and Seward could be a full day.

Longer tours offer the opportunity to see more wildlife on land and at sea and explore further afield.

What To Expect

Going on a whale watching tour offers the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife. While the goal is to view whales, dolphins, Stella sea lions, harbor seals, and other wildlife may also be sighted. 

Harbor seal and its pup in College Fjord

The most common whale species in Alaska are humpback whales, and I have seen plenty on my various tours. But guests may also see orcas, gray whales, or even belugas when traveling to the right area during the ideal months.

Most tours provide binoculars, but it’s best to carry your own. Knowledgeable guides may accompany the tour and help with wildlife spotting. Whale watching can be a test of patience because once the giants dive, it could be 20 minutes before they resurface.

Dress warmly in layers, as it can get chilly on the water even in summer. Waterproof shoes, a coat, and sunglasses are recommended.

Overall, an Alaskan whale watching tour can be a memorable experience and the highlight of a Last Frontier journey. Choosing a suitable tour and knowing what to expect can double the extraordinary experience.