A “Whale” of a Time: Alaska Whale Watching for Humpbacks, Grays, Orcas and More

Published: April 20, 2023

Seeing any of Alaska’s wonderful wildlife up close frequently delivers thrills, chills and everlasting memories. The mighty grizzly bear gives goosebumps. The majestic bald eagle inspires pride. And the funky moose makes for an immediate smile. But there is something extra special about seeing the mammothlike but graceful whales at play in their northern home in Alaska’s waters.

All About Alaska’s Whales: Grays to Humpbacks to Orcas and Belugas (and more!)

With the exception of orcas (killer whales) which can be found year round in Alaska, most whales you will see when whale watching in the state are migratory. These marine mammals travel north in March from the warm waters and feeding grounds of Hawaii, Baja Mexico and Central America. Gray whales (or Grey whales as their known outside the U.S.) typically arrive in Alaska in April when they’re often spotted in Southeast waters. By June, the humpback whales are in residence in this area. If you are able to get close enough to one of these whales, you may even hear them (they are known to sing) or smell them (seafood breath) them! If you are traveling to other parts of Alaska, you might even spot the endangered blue, sperm, Northern Pacific Right, or finback whale or a minke whale – if you’re lucky.

S.S. Legacy whale watching as humpback whales feed.

Not as large but equally incredible, if not a tab bit intimidating, are killer whales or orcas that cruise Alaska’s waters, usually in pods, on the hunt for feeding opportunities. You will get serious bonus points if you spot a pod of killer whales or orcas and their distinct fins and coloring racing along the water. Beside their smaller size (small as in only 20-some feet long and 10,000 pounds compared to the 50-foot, 30-ton humpback or the 50-foot, 40-ton gray whale), these savvy hunters are known for their distinct black-and-white coloring, dorsal fin and teeth. And you might be surprised to learn that while they’re known as “killer whales”, they’re technically within the dolphin family, which is something of a mindbender. Nonetheless, when a pod of a half dozen orcas swim or surface around your boat during a cruise, it will give you goosebumps and is the big-time bonus any wildlife watching trip.

Beluga whales can also be found in Alaska, both in their native Arctic Ocean habitat as well as in warmer shoreline waters in the summer. Belugas are most often spotted between mid July through August for example when the salmon are running in Cook Inlet. They may also be seen near Nome on the Seward Peninsula, in Alaska’s Far North, later in the fall as they follow the tomcod migration down the coast.

When to Go Whale Watching in Alaska

Summertime, between May and September, is prime whale watching season in Alaska. Whether experiencing a humpback or gray/grey whale smoothly gliding out of the water for a quick breath, or watching one, a pair or a pod breaching seemingly defy gravity by launching out of the water for an epic twisting splashdown followed by a whiplash tail-smack splash, whale watching in Alaska is filled with moments of sheer joy and shake-your-head unbelievability. It is often difficult for many Alaska visitors to even wrap their brains around whales’ immense size, speed and power when these seemingly serene mammals are seen in person. And if you think you’ve traveled great distances to get to Alaska, just imagine the long journeys that humpback and gray whales make across oceans just to spend their summers in Alaska’s welcoming waters.

Do I Need to Book a Whale Watching Cruise in Advance?

Like all of Alaska’s rockstar wildlife, you could luck out and see whales on your own just by taking a water taxi or a ferry, if you are in the right place at the right time. Small pods of the porpoise-like (but toothed) beluga whales make occasional appearances in Turnagain Arm just a few miles south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway – and when they do, most of Anchorage is talking about it! You may also see whales pop up on the watery horizon while strolling along a rocky beach in Homer or Seward. And if you’re on a cruise ship traveling the spectacular Inside Passage, you might just see a whale or two from your vessel.

Humpback whales feeding as seen on a Juneau whale watching tour.

But the best way to boost your likelihood of seeing whales in the wild is connecting with Alaska whale watching tour companies that take travelers in boats large and small, directly to the whale-watching hot spots in Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward), Kachemak Bay (Homer), Juneau along the famed Inside Passage, and in Prince William Sound (Valdez, Whittier). These whale watching day tours often feature Alaska naturalists who educate you all about the wildlife you are experiencing, from their behavior, feeding and mating habits to their habitats and more.

Where to Go Whale Watching in Alaska

One of the best things about coming to Alaska is the variety of whale watching opportunities available to visitors across the state, especially in peak migration season in the summer. We Alaskans like to say that

Inside Passage, Icy Strait and Juneau Whale Watching Cruises

For those traveling to or from Alaska on a cruise ship through Southeast’s Inside Passage, the region’s Glacier Bay National Park and Icy Strait are delightful destinations for taking whale watching day trips out of one of the handful of pretty port towns along this popular Alaska cruise route. And cruise passengers wanting more than a day of whale watching fun can make a package deal out of this excursion, adding on an overnight at one or two at some of Alaska’s finest lodge accommodations.

Up-close view of a diving whale from Juneau.

Kenai Fjords National Park: Whale Watching Day Tours from Seward

The most convenient whale-watching day trip destination for travelers originating out of Anchorage is to head south to Seward and Resurrection Bay, the gateway to the magical Kenai Fjords National Park. Our Alaska travel experts at Alaska Tours can recommend whale watching day tours out of Seward that take you on the best journeys into the fjords for action-packed day trips that feature whales, marine bird and wildlife and calving glaciers. And just like in Glacier Bay, you can extend your fun with an overnight lodge stay at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, complete with a stay in a private cabin, Alaska-inspired cuisine and welcoming hospitality.

Whale breaching in front of a Major Marine tour vessel out of Seward near Kenai Fjords National Park.

Prince William Sound: Whittier and Valdez Whale Watching

If you’re headed southeast of Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, you can combine your whale watching fun with kayaking to Shoup Glacier where you might be lucky to spot a whale or two or book a day cruise to Meares Glacier out of Valdez for even more likely whale action. And out of Whittier, more whale watching fun can be had on a day cruise into College and Harriman fjords.

No matter where you where you watch for whales in Alaska, you’re in for a treat when you finally see them – and you’ll likely see other wildlife (otters, seals, dolphins and porpoises, and countless marine birds), glaciers and classic Alaska landscapes along the way, too. So come on up and reserve an Alaska whale watching day cruise or multiday lodge stay with some whale watching fun packaged in. You’ll learn a lot and have lots of smiles to show for it!

Whale Tail!