Whale watching in Alaska

There is simply no better way of whale watching in Alaska than going by small ship.
Powell Ettinger, founder and director of our specialist operator The Small Cruise Ship Collection, speaks from years of experience. “In just one week in 2019, I saw 300 humpbacks. Then orcas, sea lions and seals, and on land there were bears, mountain goats, bald eagles. In my opinion, what awaits in Glacier Bay National Park is even more exciting than the way up through the Inside Passage. It’s just teeming with wildlife.”
Not to be confused with the (also awesome) Glacier National Park in Montana, Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska is 13,000km2 of pristine natural beauty. It is a sanctuary for endangered humpback whales, which flock there every summer in their hundreds to feed hungrily in the nutrient-rich waters. They are joined by baleens, grays (in late spring), minkes, and the ocean’s greatest predator, orcas. The park can only be reached by plane or boat, so the vast majority of visitors come by water, and those that do typically pass only briefly aboard a large cruise ship, which cannot delve into the narrower inlets and waterways that a smaller vessel can.
You can see whales in many parts of southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage – the capital, Juneau, and Sitka, are both whale-watching Meccas. But few places can hope to rival Glacier Bay National Park, where you get huge numbers of these giants of the deep, framed against such majestic frozen landscapes. A typical whale-watching cruise in Alaska will travel from Sitka to Juneau via locations such as Tracy Arm fjord, Frederick Sound and the Alexander Archipelago, with the absolute highlight likely to be a 65km each-way journey into one of Alaska’s most spectacular national parks.

Whales & wildlife cruises in
Glacier Bay National Park

A typical itinerary will see you getting underway from the historic city and busy seafood port of Sitka, and moving south towards the Alexander Archipelago, which has its own subspecies of coast-dwelling wolf. Here you might spend time exploring the beaches and bays of some of the larger islands such as Kuiu, Mitkof or Kupreanof. On the latter you may visit the Tlingit community of Kake, which is home to one of the world’s largest totem poles.

Heading north, whale encounters become increasingly likely as you enter the Frederick Sound. You’ll spend a lot of time on deck each day watching out for flukes (whale tails) and humpbacks breaching the waves, always a thrilling sight no matter how many times you witness it. Other whale behaviour you might observe ranges from pectoral slaps to lunge feeding and perhaps even aerobatic leaps from the water. Further on you’ll reach the well known Tracy Arm fjord, where your ship will cruise between massive calving glaciers and granite cliffs from which waterfalls plummet. The naturalist John Muir, an early father of America’s wilderness preservation movement, described Tracy Arm as “a wild, unfinished Yosemite”. Certainly it’s one of the most extravagantly beautiful parts of the Inside Passage, its natural features condensed into a shallow channel just 50km long and 1.5km wide. Heaving glaciers and remote villages can be explored by inflatable boats, and again the swirling nutrients in this water make it an excellent habitat for whales.
Reaching Glacier Bay National Park finally, you’ll cruise inside for a day, perhaps taking to kayaks for coastline paddling, beachcombing or hiking along tidal flats. This kind of experience is totally unscripted, and you never know when a whale encounter will happen, or indeed, an encounter with another form of wildlife. Powell Ettinger says: “We’ve sat a few yards offshore in an inlet just watching a pair of grizzlies for an hour. You simply can’t do that on a larger vessel. Larger ships also have fixed schedules they need to stick to, whereas on a small ship you’re only travelling a quarter of the distance in the same time, so you have much more freedom. Any small ship cruise itinerary is really just a guideline.”
You’ll likely finish in the Alaskan capital, Juneau, with orcas often seen off the coast. Humpbacks use their bubble-net technique to feed here also, with 20 or so whales joining forces to herd their prey upwards before all surfacing at the same time to chow down. You’ll have had superb wildlife-spotting opportunities throughout the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park – there are brown and black bears here, and many other forms of marine wildlife.

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A whale of a time

While Glacier Bay National Park and the Inside Passage are a renowned whale watching destination, there are plenty of other places around Alaska to get your cetacean kicks. Further north, off Resurrection Bay and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Kenai Fjords National Park, you can also see orcas and humpbacks, along with everything from spotted sea lions to otters, Dall’s porpoise and seabirds such as eagles and puffins. In contrast to a small ship cruise however, in Kenai Fjords you’re likely to sail just for a day as part of a wider wildlife-watching expedition.

The Alaskan whaling industry began to fade away from the early 20th century onwards, though Alaskan Eskimos are still allowed to hunt a limited number of bowhead whales every year. These wonderful creatures, once brought to the brink of extinction by rampant hunting, are now protected and the numbers of most species are growing healthily. Alaska was historically at the forefront of whaling. It is now one of the best places in the world to see them alive and flourishing.

Best time for whale watching in Alaska

Peak whale watching season in Alaska is between May and September, which coincides with Alaska’s main tourist season, and is the period over which many small ship cruises operate too. Humpbacks, the most commonly seen whales, are most prolific in June and July, while gray whales tend to pass through earlier between late April and late May. You can sometimes see Beluga whales while bear watching, as they inhabit the waters between Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island. You stand a good chance of seeing orcas, or killer whales, in Resurrection Bay and the Inside Passage all summer long, and in open water it’s sometimes even possible to spot the mighty blue whale.
A typical wildlife watching small ship cruise lasts around eight days and carries just 70 or so passengers. That’s a huge advantage, not only in getting to parts of coastal Alaska that larger ships cannot. For one thing, it means much less hanging around waiting for daily excursions, and for another, it means your presence will have little impact on the wildlife or their environments – vital in such a fragile landscape as this.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kenai Fjords National Park] [Whale breaching: Navin75] [Small ship cruise - whale breaching: Roger Mommaerts] [Humpbacks: Don Henise]
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