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Steller Sea Lion's rest on an ice flow, seen on an Alaska cruise

Alaska's Top 5 Marine Animals

The seas are filled with Alaska wildlife. Learn about the top five marine animals in Alaska’s Inside Passage and how to spot them on your Alaska cruise.

Alaska wildlife is varied and abundant, from the land to sea. With so many climactic regions and the sheer vastness of the state, it’s easy to focus solely on the land-based Alaska wildlife, like Alaska’s brown bears and Dall sheep. However, Alaska’s waters are also teeming with creatures great and small. And there’s no better place to view marine wildlife than the deck of a cruise ship on the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage. These waters rank among the top summer feeding grounds for a variety of marine life, so you’ll have a front row seat for the action.

Alaska’s Inside Passage waterway stretches for 1,000 miles from Puget Sound in Washington all the way up to into the Gulf of Alaska. The Passage weaves through islands, fjords, mountains, glaciers, and wilderness protected from the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s a brief rundown of the top five Alaska wildlife species commonly found along the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Humpback Whale

  • The most common whale seen along the Inside Passage, humpbacks can reach almost 50 feet in length and weigh up to 35 tons.
  • Humpbacks are usually seen alone or in small groups (pods).
  • One of the more spectacular sights is that of whales breaching — breaking through the water’s surface in an acrobatic display. This is thought to be a display of prowess or perhaps just a form of play.
  • These huge marine mammals can live up to 50 years.
  • Each humpback’s dorsal fin and flukes (tail fins) are unique to the individual whale (much like our fingerprints), which has allowed scientists to track them easily.

Orca (Killer Whale)

  • Killer whales (orcas) have a cooperative social structure and hunting style similar to wolves.
  • They feed on harbor seals, porpoise, sea lions, and can prey upon other larger whales like the humpback and minke when hunting in large pods.
  • Orcas can reach lengths of up to 30 feet and weigh up to 8 tons. When born, they’re already 8 feet long and weigh 400 pounds!
  • Killer whales are most often observed swimming at the surface of the water. However, like humpbacks, orcas can be seen breaching, spyhopping (raising their head out of the water, and lobtailing (slapping the surface with their tail).

Steller Sea Lion

  • The largest of the “eared seals” (the Otariidae family, made up of all fur seals and sea lions), Steller (northern) sea lions are known for their roar-like calls, much different from the barking sound made by their California sea lion cousins.
  • Prefer coastal areas and can be seen on rocky shores in groups.
  • Steller sea lions use their rear flippers to “walk” on land.
  • They feed on fish and large mollusks.
  • The largest males can weigh over 1,000 pounds.

Sea Otter

  • The smallest marine mammal (4.5 to 6 feet in length), sea otters are members of the weasel family.
  • Differ from their land-based cousins by having a loose skeletal structure that allows them to be extremely flexible in the water.
  • The sea otter’s forelimbs are used for grooming and foraging for food, while the rear limbs serve as swimming flippers.
  • Often seen floating on their backs along the coast, feasting on clams, snails, crabs, and urchins.
  • Sea otters have been known to dive as deep as 250 feet on a single breath.

Dall's Porpoise

  • Black and white markings, similar to orcas but significantly smaller in size
  • Adults typically reach an average length of 6 feet and weigh about 300 pounds.
  • Can reach speeds of up to 30 knots, and are quite fond of riding the bow waves of fast-moving boats.
  • Named after William Dall, a renowned explorer and authority on Alaska wildlife.
  • There are approximately 83,000 Dall’s porpoise in Alaska.

Whether it’s a porpoise zipping along with the boat or an otter chilling on an ice floe, seeing Alaska wildlife is something you’ll never forget. Though you will likely see wildlife from your Alaska cruise ship, book an Alaska shore excursion to get a more personal experience with the animals.