Whale Watching 101
Sure, you can visit an aquarium or Sea World for some amazing whale viewing, but it isn’t the same as seeing them in their natural habitat. Many cruisers, choose to visit places like Hawaii, Alaska, Antarctica, or Mexico to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitats.
Today, we are focusing on whale-watching while on an Alaska cruise, because for many people that is why they decide to take this cruise.
Types of Whales Commonly Found in Alaska
Humpback Whales – the coast of Alaska is the feeding ground for more than 10,000 humpback whales that travel to Hawaii to breed during the winter. These massive whales are known for their eerie songs that they sing during their trans-Pacific trek. These magnificent creatures can be found from Southeast Alaska, in the Gulf of Alaska, and even close to the road systems in Anchorage.
Beluga Whales – My absolute favorite breed of all the whales is the beluga. But these critically endangered species of whales are not found along most of the routes of cruise ships. To see these beauties, you will likely have to travel farther north towards Anchorage where a very small number of them live. To see these beauties, you will have to travel to more arctic areas.
Killer Whales – Killer whales, or orcas, is known to be one of nature’s smartest predators. These animals live and hunt in Alaska’s bays and inlets throughout the year. These black and white beauties are found in numerous noisy pods around the areas hunting for their favorite food – salmon. Many small ship cruises and some excursions offer trips on small zodiac boats where these animals are known to hang out. The curious creatures sometimes come near and check out who is there, but never try to reach out and touch one of these animals. Weighing in at 10 tons, they can easily cause issues. Rarely you will see a single killer whale out in the sea – those are known as transients and they are usually quite aggressive.
Gray Whales – In one of the largest mammal migrations, gray whales travel from Baja, California to the areas in the Arctic on an 11,000 mile round-trip. These incredibly large whales (longer than a school bus and weighing in at more than 30 tons), tend to follow Alaska’s outer coast. These are mostly seen in spring and early summer.
Where to Find them?
1. Resurrection Bay – One of the most reliable places to view marine wildlife in the world is Kenai Fjords National Park. Off the coast of there, you have food-rich waters where whales can often-times be seen from the waterfront park or off the beach. But to get the best view, you need to take one of the tour boats out. During summer, you will find killer whale pods here feasting on the salmon. You can also find many birds, sea lions, and seals here!
2. Prince William Sound – Humpback whales (usually found in singles or pairs) can be found here seeking the area’s heavily concentrated fish populations. You may also find killer whales and Dall’s porpoises swimming here looking for food. Many tour operators are located outside Whittier or Valdez and they will take you out to Wells Passage, Blackstone Bay, or to Columbia and Meares Glaciers to find these majestic creatures.
3. Turnagain Arm – This area near Anchorage is home to the endangered belugas. These are most often seen before or after high tides along Seward Highway between July and September. You can see the bits of white skin peeking through the water tops as they breathe. If you’re listening carefully, you might can hear them singing and chattering as they pass. Check out Beluga Point, Knik Arm, Kincaid Park, or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for great viewing locations.
4. Homer – Lower Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay have humpback whales and killer whales visit throughout June to September. You can see Augustine Volcano on the horizon and may see either of these animals or you may get the very rare pleasure of encountering a giant baleen whales or even a blue whale far offshore. Many tour operators will take you here from Homer Spit. Kachemake Bay and Cook Inlet provide a stunning backdrop. Stop at Baycrest Hill Overlook at the top of the bluff. On calm days you can see congregations of humpbacks and provides one of the greatest views in Alaska.
5. Kodiak – Kodiak is home to humpback whales all summer and gray whales in the spring making it a wonderful place to watch whales. Not only is it a great place for whale watching, it also is home to a thriving population of brown bears. There are reports here of many different breeds of whales being spotted, like the menke whale. This is one of America’s busiest fishing ports, so it makes sense that it would be a great place to find whales and other marine mammels. Getting to Kodiak means flying from Anchorage or Homer or spending 10 hours on one of Alaska’s marine highways!
6. Inside Passage - Most larger cruise line itineraries are on the Inside Passage located in southeastern Alaska. This area is the primary feeding ground for humpback whales during the summer months making it the ideal place for cruisers who want to see whales. You can also find humpback whales, Dall's porpoises, sea lions, seals, and otters. You can book your whale-watching excursion through the cruise ship or you can find better deals and greater values (more money but amazing experiences) through other tour operators. I will be glad to help you find which tour is best for you!
Whale Watching Tips
1. If you get sea-sickness, choose larger vessels. The larger boats will provide smoother sailing. If you don’t suffer from sea-sickness, choose a smaller ship! These smaller boats will provide more personalized tour guides and people are not vying for space. Also, these ships can move more easily and into shallower waters if needed.
2. Have good binoculars and cleaning cloths handy! Ships are required to stay at least 100 feet away from whales. Whales can come closer to the ship, but the ship can’t move closer to them. So be prepared to see them at a distance.
3. Have a good camera and know that marine shots are hard to get. Marine shots require great lenses and knowing how to work your camera well. If you prefer to just use a camera on a phone, that will work too, but your picture won’t usually look like a shot out of National Geographic. Also if you are renting lenses or cameras – or buying for this trip – be sure to practice at home with the camera and the lenses so that you aren’t stressing over how to work the camera and lenses while searching for whales. Try grabbing pictures of a two-year old who just ate a pack of skittles to help you perfect the quick shot with that new lens!
4. Put down your camera and look up for a while! The scenery around you will be breath-taking. And while we all want that great shot, enjoy the moment too. Especially if you’re traveling with kids! Help them to live in the moment and enjoy nature without the stress of getting “that shot” to post to the Gram.