Whale Watching in Alaska: Best Time of Year & Complete Guide

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There is nothing more exciting in this world than watching whales in their natural habitat.

Am I being dramatic? Perhaps – but I still think it’s true.

I’ve lived in Alaska for well over 25 years and every single year I take at least one whale watching cruise. Even as a local I find the experience simply awe inspiring each time we go. My family also goes fishing every year and whales can easily be spotted from the boat.

When is Whale Watching Season in Alaska?

The whales head to Alaska in the warm summer months, mostly between April and September. In the more southern areas of Southeast Alaska, they may even stay until November.

Where Are the Best Spots for Whale Watching?

The simple answer is that you can see whales all along the coast across Alaska. But considering Alaska has the longest coast in the US with about 34,000 miles of shoreline, here’s a better breakdown.

Overall, the best locations for almost guaranteed whale sightings are out of Seward and Juneau.

Prince William Sound

Whales make their way to many areas in the state. Prince William Sound is 3,800 miles of coastline surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and islands. Humpback whales are common in the summers here. They come to the sound to feed on shrimp krill and small fish. Other whales in the area include fin, minke, sei, and killer whales (orca). The towns along the sound include Whittier (90 minutes from Anchorage), Cordova (not on the road system), and Valdez.

Seward

Kenai Peninsula & Gulf of Alaska

The best places for whale watching on the road system is Seward on Resurrection Bay. I’ve watched many whales from shore. The best tour companies include Major Marine (my personal favorite) and Kenai Fjords tours.

Cook Inlet & Kachemak Bay

Homer is in Kachemak Bay which feeds into the large waters of Cook Inlet. Many whales make their way here each summer including humpbacks, minke, and orcas. They’re not easily spotted like in Seward and some years not many are spotted at all. I’ve personally never seen a whale in Kachemak Bay (we visit each summer) which is likely why there aren’t big whale watching cruises here.

Beluga whales feed in the north Cook Inlet waters just outside of Anchorage from mid-August to November. There’s a Facebook group called Beluga Alliance where you can check for updates when they’re spotted. Or, you can text BELUGAS to 33-222 to get live text alerts. They live in Cook Inlet year round, moving to various locations throughout the year.

Homer

Kenai River

Beluga whales make their way up the Kenai River, typically in the spring, typically around the mouth of the river. The Kenai River feeds into Cook Inlet and they are still studying why belugas take up residence here.

Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska is a large area comprised of islands and a long strip of land extending southeast along the Canadian border. The main towns include Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Haines.

Southeast Alaska is where all the cruise ships run.

This area is a fantastic place to spot whales, so if you’re planning a cruise, you can see a variety of whales here. Here you’ll find Orcas, humpback whales, fin whales, and gray whales. On occasion you can also see minke, sperm, and even blue whales, the largest animal on Earth.

Seward Alaska misty whale image May

The Best Months for Whale Watching in Alaska

Overall, the best time of year to see whales is in the warm summer months. The best months for reliably spotting whales are from mid-May to September. Whales come to Alaska to feed and teach their young how to hunt, and the mild summer temperatures are when everything comes to life.

Local Tip! In Seward, we’ve always had the best luck spotting whales and other wildlife at the end of May through July. This is all anecdotal, but when we visit Seward in the fall (around Labor Day), we’ve never see whales from shore.

Different whales come to Alaska at different times throughout the summer. Beluga whales feed in the Cook Inlet waters in late summer and fall. Humpbacks can be found all around the coastal waters from May to September. Orcas stay throughout the summer and some pods are known to be in Alaska year round.

Can you See Whales from Shore?

Yes, you can see whales from shore at various locations in Alaska.

In Seward, the fjord is incredibly deep at 159 fathoms (a fathom = 6 feet), or 954 feet. We’ve witnessed so many whales from shore here.

We often stay at an area just past the town called Lowell Point where you have near complete views of the bay. It’s here that we’ve watched orcas hunt sea lions close to shore. We’ve watched humpback whales and fin whales while drinking coffee in the morning.

Seward Alaska misty whale image May
Humpback whale, photo taken from shore (Lowell Point)

Just outside of Anchorage, you can spot beluga whales from late August through November along Turnagain Arm. They’re spotted infrequently, though, so I wouldn’t plan a trip around seeing them.

Juneau can be a good spot to see whales from shore, although you’re much more likely to spot them from a boat.

It’s possible to spot whales from shore in Homer and even Whittier, but it’s not a normal occurrence.

Types of Whales in Alaska

Alaska is big with a lot of different bodies of water surrounding the state. And throughout the summer, different whales head to different areas of the state.

The two most common whales are Orcas (killer whales) and humpbacks, both impressive whales to witness.

Both of these whales are incredibly active. You’ll find the biggest difference is that orcas travel in pods while humpbacks are typically solo travelers.

Humpback whales are large, often growing to be 40-52 feet long and weighing 80,000 pounds. They are baleen whales that feed on shrimp and krill. In Alaska when they’re constantly eating, they can gain 12 pounds per hour! Humpbacks can be spotted slapping their tails and even breaching out of the water, and are the most acrobatic of the whales.

Orcas are fast and have a unique black backside with a white belly and ‘eye spot’. They’re not as big as humpbacks and males typically weigh twice as much as females. A male orca comes in at around 27 feet long and weigh around 13,300 pounds.

Gray Whales (also grey) are the next most common whale in Alaska. These are the only mainly bottom feeding baleen whales in the world. They grow to be about 36-39 feet long and weigh approximately 90,000 pounds. They can be found in the Bering Sea and even further north in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (in the Arctic Circle). They also feed further south in Seward and along the Inside Passage.

Fin Whales are the second-largest whale species on Earth. However, they often travel in bigger, open waters so it’s less common to see them near shore. Fin whales travel to the Bering and Chukchi Seas in the summer and live in the Gulf of Alaska and other areas further south in the winter. They grow to be 40-80 tons and are 75-85 feet long.

Minke Whales are the smallest baleen whales and are all over the world. They grow to around 26-29 feet long and weigh about 6-8 tons. Interestingly, adult males are slightly smaller than females. These whales are more sleek and shorter than others. Orcas are a predator to these smaller whales, and can be seen in the Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska out of Seward.

Beluga Whales are a unique looking type of whale that are completely white and live in Arctic and Subarctic waters only. Their closest relative is a narwhal and just like minke whales, orcas are a predator. These are the smallest whales on this list, coming in at 11-15 feet long and weighing about 1-2,000 pounds. Belugas travel in herds of up to 1,000 and are best known as being incredibly vocal. They are also unique in that they can swim into freshwater areas like rivers. A lot is still unknown about them, and it’s a treat to spot them.

Do Whales Breach in Alaska?

I realize there isn’t some statistic that shows how often you see whales breach, but in all my years living in Alaska, I’ve never seen a whale breach. In Maui, we’d watch them breach for hours everyday. They absolutely can breach here, it’s just not super common.

Humpback whales are the most theatrical and enjoy breaching and being playful. They also like to slap their tails in the water (peck slapping), something I’ve seen them do quite a bit in Seward.

Scientists don’t actually know why whales breach. Many whales including humpbacks are busy eating as much as possible in the summer months. This is to sustain them in Hawaii all winter where they mate and raise their calves, so one theory is that they’re busy eating and hunting.

But don’t get your hopes up. You just never know when a whale might come barreling out of the water!

Do You Need to Pack Anything Special for Whale Watching?

My best tip to see the whales up close is to bring a compact pair of binoculars. These are the ones I use and recommend to everyone. They’re light, inexpensive, and work well.

For capturing close ups, a good camera with a long lens will get the best photos. From my experience, I wouldn’t recommend spending my time trying to take a bunch of photos on your iPhone. I don’t often go back and look at these videos and the actual experience gets a bit lost. I also don’t think these photos/videos turn out very good unless you’re really close to a whale.

That’s just my two cents as that’s been my experience.

If you have a professional camera, a monopod will help take the weight off your forearms while you wait for whales to appear. Many of the boat tours prohibit tripods but a monopod is allowed. A good strap is also nice to have (not the standard one like in my photo below).

What to Expect on a Whale Watching Cruise

Getting out on the water is the best chance to see whales. There are whale cruise options that range from small boats to larger catamarans. I prefer the larger boats like Major Marine as they handle the large waves better.

Many day tours include lunch, have an open bar, and offer snacks and Dremamine in case you forgot yours. Most whale tours range from 3-6 hours and are popular in Seward, Whittier, and the Inside Passage (Juneau and Sitka, for example).

Can You See Whales from a Cruise Ship?

Yes, it’s possible to see whales from a cruise ship, but you’re much more likely to see them on a smaller whale cruise.

There are many excursions for these whale watching tours. Many cruises port in Seward as well, so you can stay an extra few days and book a tour. We have booked with most major day cruises here and I prefer Major Marine. Their tours are fun, laid-back, and they work hard to ensure you spot whales (even on the glacier focused day cruises).

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I’ve lived in Alaska for over 25 years and have tons of helpful articles for your trip. From packing guides to destinations and many insider tips, I try to provide as much value as possible.

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