Whales & wildlife in Alaska

Whales

Whales

Whales are way up there on the wildlife lover’s wishlist when embarking on a small ship cruise in Alaska. Even better, on a small ship cruise you can see them without the noise of giant cruise ships and their thousands of passengers on board, oohing and aahing en masse as a humpback dances through the air. These smaller vessels can access quieter bays, where the wildlife is left relatively undisturbed.
Humpback whales are the most common, although let’s face it: there is nothing banal about seeing a whale breaching, lunging or cresting. Whichever term you prefer, they will all leave you gasping. Humpback whales feed off tiny crustaceans known as krill, which thrive in these colder waters. June and July are the best months to see them in the Inside Passage as they feed using a technique called bubble netting. The whales swim underneath a school of fish and blow a load of bubbles around them. This strength of the bubbles forces the fish up towards the surface and the whales follow them, mouths wide open. It’s as if they had created a school lunch queue and then just vacuumed them all up. The joy for us is that we see them all the whales burst out on the surface en masse, mouths open and feasting job complete.
The grey whale is a big hit with wildlife watchers on small ship cruises, because they are curious about boats and tend to come closer than other species. They are also natural performers and love the shallows, doing tricks like standing on their heads in low water, or turning all the way around to take in their surroundings with just their heads showing. They also give a mighty noise and splash when they breach, thanks to the angles at which they fall. The shallow coasts near Ketchikan and Sitka are popular spots in April and May.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are, in fact, a species of dolphin. They are more elusive in southeast Alaska, favouring further north around Seward. However, they have been seen on these cruises and the best time to see them is between early May and early June.
Seals

Seals

The most common seal in southeast Alaska is the harbour seal, which you can see all year around not only in harbours, of course, but on remote islands, bays and rocky shores. Early June is the pupping season and they tend to favour glaciers for that around the likes of Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay. If you are kayaking, be very wary of going close to a mother with her pup.

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Bears

Bears

Black and brown bears are a magnificent sight on a small ship cruise in Alaska. The state also has Kodiak bears, but their habitats are further north in the Kodiak archipelago, not usually explored on small cruise ship itineraries. Brown bears are the larger species, and are otherwise known as grizzlies. They are huge and can stretch up as high as 2.5m when they stand on two legs. Luckily they are fairly solitary, and happiest foraging for food. If you are lucky you will spot them hunting alone on the shoreline. They stock up on berries and fruit during spring and summer, then come out for a banquet of salmon, en masse, in late summer. See our Bear watching travel guide for more information.
Black bears are not always black, but may also have grey or cinnamon coloured fur. There are even bluish coloured bears called glacier bears around the Yakutat area. Black bears are the most common bear, with approximately 100,000 in Alaska and can be identified by their brown muzzles and angular facial structure. They are smaller than brown bears and are most common on the islands around southeast Alaska, with the exception of Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof, and Kruzof, which are home to brown bears.
birdlife

Puffins & other birdlife

Glacier Bay National Park is a puffin paradise, a popular summer nesting ground for both tufted and horned species. So, pack your binoculars to spot their coastal rookeries as they nest and nurture their chicks (just one chick per pair), until the autumn when they leave them to fend for themselves. Other sea birds include glaucous gulls, pigeon guillemots and oystercatchers.
Bald eagles

Bald eagles

It’s hard to imagine that you could become blasé about a bald eagle, but with around 30,000 of them in Alaska it isn’t that unusual to see one of these soaring beauties on a small ship cruise. Or swooping down to catch its dinner, or perched regally in a shoreline tree, surveying his kingdom. You can visit the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka to find out more, and to learn about their rehabilitation of injured eagles. Watching these magnificent birds in these equally magnificent habitats really is a wildlife lover’s dream come true. And a photographer’s one, too.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sanjoy Ghosh] [Whales : Christopher Michel Christopher Michel] [BANNER: Mark Mitchell] [Grey whales : José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez] [Orcas: Christopher Michel] [Seals - Harbour seal : Steve Halama] [Brown bears : Max Goldberg] [Black bears: Andrew E. Russell] [Puffins & other birdlife: Matt Zimmerman] [Bald eagles: Andy Morffew]
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