Whale Watching in Alaska: What to Expect

When the calm waters of Alaska's Inside Passage are first broken by a large, dark humpback as it rises and breaches from the sea, viewers on the open deck of an Alaskan whale watching ship can't help but gasp at the thrill. Vessels that transport passengers on a whale watch excursion are allowed to approach as close as 100 yards to a humpback whale — a distance that hardly requires binoculars to get an up-closelook.

When to Go

From May to September, humpback whales that have migrated north from their winter feeding grounds feast on Alaska's plentiful krill, herring, and bait fish, eating up to a ton of food per day. Orcas, popularly known as killer whales, also make appearances in Alaskan waters with their pods. Sightseers may see both types of whales on a Juneau whale watching excursion, especially during the summer months of May and June for orcas and June and July for humpback whales.

Orcas dwell in cooler coastal waters, from Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound to the tips of the Aleutian Islands. They hunt in packs (called pods), similar to wolves. Each pod has a distinct way of communicating with each other through a sequence of clicks, whistles, and calls. These massive creatures can weigh as many as 13,300 pounds, with dorsal fins that reach as high as six feet in males and three feet in females.

Other Wildlife Excursions

There's more to wildlife in Alaska than just whale watching. Here are three ideas:

Search for Baby Chicks in the Horned Puffin Colonies: Horned puffins are some of the brightest of Alaska's wildlife, with two-tone yellow-and-red tipped bills that earned them the nickname "sea parrot" by some of the first sailors to find the region. These colorful birds are also committed parents. Puffins will not only build their nests underground, scratching out burrows in steep hillsides or along cliffs with their sharp claws, but they will also take turns incubating and keeping watch over their chick. Parents will alternate duties, one staying with the chick while the other hunts for food.

Listen for the Roar of the Steller Sea Lion: With their distinctive, low-pitched roars, and with males weighing more than 1,200 pounds and measuring up to 10 feet long, it's easy to see why they're called sea lions. Look for sea lion pups who play along the rocky shores, but don't let their lazy sun bathing fool you — Steller sea lions can dive as deep as 1,500 feet, and they swim remarkable distances to forage.

Laugh With Sea Otters: The largest members of the weasel family, sea otters can be found playing around glacial fjords. Adults can grow as long as five feet and adult males can weigh as much as 100 pounds. These expert divers can hold their breath for up to five minutes as they venture as deep as 250 feet to catch their prey. These dainty diners will resurface, roll on their backs, and eat their catch from their stomachs. Sea otters survive the cold water because of their incredibly dense fur; with 800,000 to one million hairs per square inch, they sport the thickest fur of all mammals.

What to Pack

How can you prepare to see these majestic mammals on an Alaskan whale watching tour? You'll want to bring binoculars, which you can use to spot whales from afar, and your camera. A telephoto lens will capture faraway breaches, but whales can also approach your cruise ship. Since whale watching vessels can approach whales once they are spotted, and because whales sometimes decide to move a little closer, a snapshot or cell phone camera can capture the spectacular rise of a whale. So unless you have a strong passion for photography, you shouldn't feel obligated to purchase expensive specialty equipment for your whale watch. Having a video option will allow you to record an orca's spray or a humpback whale's pattern of "bubble net feeding," wherein a group of whales circle their prey and then surge to the surface to engulf it. Consider wearing lightweight or fingerless gloves to more easily access your camera's functions while whale watching in Alaska.

It's easy to book a whale watch excursion from Juneau — but there's a lot more you can do in the area. Browse Alaskan cruise itineraries for the best way to see the most of The Last Frontier.

Cruise passengers watch as majestic whales breach the surface of the pristine waters of Alaska's Inside Passage near Juneau