Whale Watching in Alaska

What to Know Before You Go

Nothing compares to viewing an animal in their natural habitat. It is a humbling experience, especially when it comes to whales, one of the more entertaining Alaska creatures to spy on. When you go whale watching on an Alaska cruise, you could see a humpback breach or an orca pod on a hunt or even a gargantuan blue whale, zooming through the water. Alaska waters are known to host eight different species of whales inhabiting or migrating through its seas and fjords.

Your ship’s crew will be able to answer many of your specific questions about whales onboard Alaska cruise, but here are some common questions about whale watching in Alaska.

What is the Best Time of Year for Whale Watching on an Alaska Cruise?

You’re in luck. April to November is the best time to whale watch in Alaska and that nicely encompasses the cruise season. Like most of us, whales enjoy Alaska in the spring and summer months, when the days are long, and feeding is plentiful. Some whales are in Alaska year-round and others migrate to the state during summer months.

If you’re dead set on a specific kind of whale, read on for the best times.

Best Time to Watch Orca (Killer) Whales

Take your Alaska cruise between early May to early June for the best chances to watch orcas, who like to hang out near Juneau, Ketchikan and Seward. You can identify these cunning carnivores by their black-and-white markings.

There are three orca subspecies—residents, transients, and offshore. Residents, as their name suggests, stay in their home turf and feed on various types of fish; some resident orcas almost exclusively eat salmon. Transient orcas eat mammals, such as harbor seals. Offshore orcas are elusive and live far from land. Little is known about offshore orcas’ preferences or family structure.

One last bit of trivia: Orcas aren’t whales at all, they’re the largest member of the dolphin family.

Best Time to Watch Humpback Whales

Every year in summer, more than 500 humpback whales glide into Alaska’s Inside Passage, like the wildlife version of spring break. They are commonly spotted in June and July and a joy to watch, especially if they’re bubble-net feeding. These dramatic performers like to leap out of the water and breach … just because they can! This is one of the more common whales you’ll see in Alaska.

Best Time to Watch Blue Whales

Blue whales "summer" in the eastern and northern Gulf of Alaska in July and August and are just returning to Alaska after extreme whaling drove almost the entire population to extinction.

Blue whales are the largest of all whales and the biggest and loudest animal on earth today, possibly of all time.

Imagine three school buses, all lined up—that’s the length of a blue whale. Their tongues weigh as much as a full-grown elephant. As big and glorious as they are, it’s rare to spot blue whales while whale watching in Alaska.

Blue whales favor open waters and are rarely seen from shore.

Best Time to Watch Beluga Whales

Resident belugas are commonly seen in mid-July to August, snacking on the hooligan and salmon in the silty waters of Turnagain Arm. These cream-colored, smiley whales are not only conventionally the cutest, but also the best singers—the belugas’ vocal range has earned them the nickname, "Canaries of the Sea."

Will You See Whales from the Cruise Ship?

The crew notifies passengers of whale sightings, but if you have a verandah, spend some time scanning the ocean for the signature plume of water, it’s often the first thing you see. Holland America Line ships are perfectly mid-sized and have wide-open decks, so you’ll enjoy wildlife sightings with a little extra space. When you first board, scope out viewing areas, so that you’re prepared to beeline to it when those magical Alaska moments occur.

What to Pack for Whale Watching in Alaska?

Pack to spend a few hours in windy and chilly outdoor weather on an observation deck. Bring a warm, waterproof jacket and touchscreen gloves. Wear comfy walking shoes with good traction in case it gets slippery. Bring binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens—without a decent camera and a long lens, it’s near impossible to get amazing shots, as all boats are required by Alaskan law and international agreements to maintain at least 100 yards away from whales. Find out ahead of time if the tour provides a meal and plan to bring a lunch if not.

Book Alaska shore excursions from Juneau, Sitka or Icy Strait Point for the best whale watching in Alaska. Whale sightings are so frequent during certain times of the year that some tours guarantee at least one sighting.

Whether it’s a lone humpback or a pod of orcas, every whale sighting leaves a life-long impression. Ready to go? Find out everything you need to know about Holland America Line cruises and start planning your whale watching shore excursions.