Travelers are bound to view whales aboard just about any small ship cruise in Alaska and whale watching is a big part of any cruise experience. Because small ship overnight cruises usually spend a week or more in the Alaskan wilderness your chances of seeing whales, and seeing them up close, is greatly increased. While whale watching is an important part of any Alaskan small ship cruise, some guests want to make it a priority.
Alaska Small Ship Whale Watching Guide
This Alaska whale watching guide will help travelers choose the best small ship cruise and the best time of year to maximize their chances of close encounters with whales. If you have already booked your cruise this guide will help you make the most of your whale watching experience. Please share your whale encounters in the comments.
Types of Whales in Alaska
There are many different types of whales found throughout Alaska’s waters including gray whales, Baird’s beaked whale, blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, orca or killer whales, bowhead whales, sperm whales, beluga whales and narwhals. Whales belong to the taxonomic order named Cetaceans, which also includes other marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans are divided into two main groups; baleen whales (or, mysticetes) and toothed whales (or, odontocetes).
When considering small ship cruises, especially those in Alaska’s Inside Passage or Prince William Sound, there are three types of whales that are most commonly seen. These are humpback whales, orca or killer whales and minke whales.
Humpback Whale Watching in Alaska
Humpback whales are the most commonly sighted whales aboard Alaska small ship cruises and most whale watching efforts are focused on finding them. Humpback whales are about 40 feet long, they can weigh about 40 tons (about the size of a city bus) and they can live around 40 years. Humpbacks spend their summers in Alaska’s cold nutrient rich waters feeding and their winters in warmer waters of Hawaii and Baja, where they go to mate and give birth to calves. This journey is one of the longest and most amazing migrations of any animal on the planet. Humpback whales are known for their acrobatic behavior which can include tail slapping, pectoral fin slapping, spy hopping and breaching completely out of the water. Humpbacks are named for the distinct arching of their back that often precedes a deep dive. When you see this humped back get your camera ready because the whale often shows its huge fluke tail, which itself can reach up to 15 feet wide, before going down.
Humpbacks are baleen whales known for lunge feeding and bubble net feeding. Bubble netting is where they work collectively to blow a “net” of bubbles that corrals fish and krill into a column before they jointly lunge to the surface swallowing huge mouthfuls of food. During the Alaskan summer humpback whales gather in feeding pods near rich food sources caused by up-welling currents, making their behavior and location predictable and perfect for whale watching.
Orca Whale Watching in Alaska
Orca whales, also known as killer whales, are actually the largest member of the dolphin family and are of course, toothed whales. They can grow up to about 28 feet long and are easily recognizable by their distinct black and while markings and dorsal fin which can extend up to 6 feet in large males. Orcas in the wild have about the same lifespan as humans and they are the most widely distributed mammal on the planet next to humans. Orcas can travel up to 100 miles in one day making their behavior more unpredictable than humpbacks. Orcas are not seen on every small ship cruise. I estimate they are seen about every third cruise so if you see them, consider yourself very lucky.
Orcas live in a matriarchal family group called pods and individuals will spend their entire life in the pod of their mother. Each pod has distinct calls or language and family bonds are strong. Scientists generally recognize three types of orca pods including resident pods, transient pods and open ocean pods. Resident pods stay in the same geographical area (although this area can be huge) and typically feed on fish. Transient pods range farther afield and feed on other marine mammals. Transient pods may work together, like a pack of wolves, to prey upon animals much larger than themselves, including other whales. Open ocean pods are the least known of all orcas and spend their lives away from the coast. Orca whale pods around the world have developed unique styles of hunting with distinct behaviors and languages leading some scientists to consider different groups as races. Viewing orca’s can be the highlight of any small ship cruise in Alaska.
Minke Whale Watching in Alaska
The most numerous, yet the most discreet, whales in Alaska are minke whales (pronounced minkee). minkes are the smallest of the “great” baleen whales and can grow up to 35 feet long and weigh up to 10 tons. They have a small curved dorsal similar to a dolphin that only breaks the surface for a moment when the come up to breathe, making minke whales difficult to see. Like humpbacks minke whales feed on small fish and krill, however they usually work alone and don’t congregate in predictable feeding pods. Some minkes do migrate but many in Alaska are resident and stay in Alaskan waters year round. Despite their reclusiveness, minkes are known to spy hop, tail slap or even breach the surface. If you see a minke whale on your small ship cruise consider yourself an expert whale watcher.
Best Months for Whale Watching in Alaska
Whales can be found in Alaska’s coastal waters throughout the small ship cruise season of May through September. Orca and minke whales are residents so they may be found at any time of year. But most travelers want to see humpbacks and if you fall into this category you must plan your trip accordingly.
The first humpbacks begin to arrive in Alaska about late April and early May. These are typically the adult males that can make the long migration the fastest. They are followed by younger males, females and finally mothers with calves arriving in late May and early June. Small ship cruises in May will likely view whales, but they will be individuals or smaller groups of two or three spread about looking and waiting for food.
The best months for whale watching aboard small ships in Alaska are mid June through mid August. By mid June most humpbacks have arrived and they are gathering together in predictable feeding pods. This is the best time for whale watching in Alaska and the consistent sightings will continue through mid August when the first whales will begin to leave for warmer waters. During this time humpback whale sightings are almost guaranteed.
Why is mid June through mid August the best months for whale watching in Alaska? Sunlight from long midsummer Alaskan days causes a bloom of phytoplankton (tiny plants) which serves as the base of Alaska’s rich marine food chain. Strong currents bring nutrients from deep below to mix with oxygen rich water near the surface resulting in huge blooms of zooplankton (tiny animals), krill and small fish such as capelin, candlefish and herring. While this process occurs throughout coastal Alaska there are a few areas where the process is more pronounced attracting whales, whale watchers and small ship cruises.
Best Whale Watching Sites in Alaska
Whales are commonly sighted throughout Alaska’s coastal waters and travelers should be looking throughout their small ship cruise. But some areas are known whale gathering spots. If whale watching is important to you, plan a small ship cruise that includes these areas on your itinerary.
Whale watching in Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a hotbed of whale research and is a fantastic place to watch whales. In addition it is one of the most popular small ship cruise destinations and its scenic beauty, geologic history, concentration of tidewater glaciers, abundance of terrestrial wildlife and human history make it a worthwhile destination, even without whales. Rich nutrients generated by glacial activity combined with strong tidal currents mixing deep and shallow waters make Glacier Bay a popular spot for humpback whales. In fact it was in Glacier Bay where bubble net feeding behavior was first observed and studied. Additionally, an abundance of marine mammals including harbor seals, stellar sea lions and abundant salmon runs make Glacier Bay a popular hunting ground for orcas.
Glacier Bay is one of the most protected places for whales, where in certain places and at certain times of year the behavior of ships is restricted to protect whales entering and exiting the bay. One drawback can be that ships need special permits to enter Glacier Bay. As such many ships, even small ships, are in a hurry to get in to see the glaciers, then get out again before their permit expires. If you want to see whales consider a cruise that spends more than one day inside Glacier Bay National Park.
Whale Watching at Point Adophus
Just outside of Glacier Bay National Park sits Point Adolphus, one of the premiere whale watching spots in all of Alaska. In fact the entire Icy Straight region, of which Point Adolphus is a part, offers outstanding whale watching. Huge tides as high as 30 feet move a tremendous amount of water in an out of Alaska’s Inside Passage. The northernmost opening to the Pacific Ocean is the west end of Icy Straight where water rushes in, mixes with nutrient rich water from Glacier Bay, and must pass by Point Adolphus. The waters in this area can be hundreds of feet deep, just offshore, creating an incredible amount of upwelling and mixing. The currents also work to herd krill and small fish into compact columns where they are easily consumed by mighty whales. This bounty of food also attracts other marine mammals and you may find sea lions trailing behind humpback whale pods, picking off larger fish escaping the huge mouths of whales. This region is also home to a large number of sea otters which can be seen floating in rafts or by themselves, usually near shoreline kelp beds. Many small ship cruises will combine a visit to Glacier Bay with a day in the Icy Straight, Point Adolphus region.
Whale Watching in Frederick Sound
At the south end of Admiralty Island, known for the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, lies Frederick Sound. Loosely defined as the waterway south of Stephen’s passage and east of Chatham Straight, this area offers an astounding variety of bays, coves, islands and open water that consistently attracts whales. For all the reasons described above this area is home to humpback whales, orca whales and minke whales in great numbers. It is also home to a plethora of other marine mammals including harbor seals, stellar sea lions, harbor porpoise, Dall’s Porpoise and sea otters. If you are choosing a small ship cruise that does not include Glacier Bay, but still want to see whales, consider an itinerary that includes Frederick Sound. Fortunately Frederick Sound is somewhat of a crossroads in Alaska’s Inside Passage and it is included on many small ship cruise itineraries.
Whale Watching in Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound is a vast waterway close to Alaska’s largest town Anchorage and usually accessed by small ship from Whittier. Because of its size whale watching day tours have trouble reaching areas where whales congregate. This problem is solved aboard overnight small ship cruises. Several types of whales can be found in Prince William Sound including humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales and minke whales. But the most famous whales in this region are the orca whales. Prince William Sound is home to several resident pods of orca and transients are also known to visit the area in search of abundant marine mammals. Occasionally these pods gather to mix and mate in what are known as superpods in which 50 or more animals may be seen at one time. While orca sightings are not guaranteed you have a better chance to see them in Prince William Sound than any other region of Alaska.
Alaska Whale Watching Preparation
Whale watching aboard small ships is easy. Typically the captain and crew are expert whale spotters and they will announce when whales are in the area. The ship’s crew is also in touch with other ships and boats in the region and they share information to help one another find animals. Be sure you have a waterproof jacket and pants as the weather is often misty or rainy. Warm layers also help as you will want to spend as much time as possible on deck. A good pair of binoculars is important. We suggest a pair of binoculars for each traveler. A whale breach might last one quarter of a second and you won’t want to miss it. If you plan on photographing whales, a 200-400 millimeter lens is helpful, as is an image stabilizing lens. Cameras that shoot several frames per second can capture breaches, tail slapping and flukes more easily than slower cameras. If all you have is a point and shoot focus on watching the whales yourself and purchase a professional whale image for a local gift shop.
Whale Watching Aboard Small Ships
Watching whales aboard small ships has many advantages over large cruise ships or whale watching day tours. Flexible itineraries aboard small ships mean you can linger longer when whales are sighted. It’s not uncommon for captains to stop the ship for an hour or two if the whale sightings are good. And over the course of a seven night itinerary you may have several such encounters. Small ships are able to venture farther afield to reach the whales, whereas day tours from town are limited to whales that venture close to inhabited areas. Whales can be seen from ferries and large cruise ships but keep in mind that ferries have a schedule to keep so they never stop for whales. It can take a large cruise ship up to two miles to make a complete stop, so they have little interest in stopping for animals and watching whales from 10 stories up as they pass by can be an exercise in frustration.
Another advantage of watching whales from small ships is the ability to get off the ship to view wildlife up close. Many small ships are outfitted with small inflatable crafts that take travelers away from the ship to view whales and wildlife at “see” level. Adventurous travelers may even have the opportunity to encounter whales while kayaking. While kayaking with whales is a rare occurrence I can tell you that viewing a 40 ton whale from your kayak is the thrill of a lifetime.
Small ships are also outfitted with a crew of expert naturalist guides on board. They are available to enhance your knowledge of whales, whale habitat and conservation issues surrounding whales in Alaska. They will offer narration and answer questions while viewing whales from the ship. And evening programs may consist of talks and slide shows reviewing whales and other animals encountered on your journey. Small ship whale watching cruises are geared towards inquisitive travelers who want to learn more about the nature and wildlife they are viewing.
For these reasons we feel that small ships are the best way to whale watch in Alaska. Follow our small ship whale watching guidelines above and you will have the cruise of a lifetime. View our Alaska small ship cruises and call our experts to plan your Alaska whale watching cruise.
Share Your Whale Watching Encounters
Tell us about your whale watching cruise and experiences in the comments below.
Images provided by AdventureSmith Explorations Founder and President Todd Smith and our partners at Un-Cruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and Pacific Catalyst II. Click on an image to learn more about specific whale watching cruises in Alaska.