Humpback whales near Juneau

Whale Watching in Southeast Alaska

Whale Watching in Southeast Alaska

An Alaskan cruise is not complete without a whale watching adventure!  Working on the cruise ships in Alaska was one of the most rewarding times of my life, and that definitely included whale watching. Since I was privileged to narrate and speak for nearly 200 Alaskan cruises with Princess Cruise Lines, I was also able to experience at least 50 whale watching excursions.  In addition, I spotted hundreds more whales from the cruise ship bridge for enthusiastic cruise ship passengers.

Where is the best place for Whale watching?

If you are in SE Alaska, Juneau is the place.  Humpback whales come to Alaska to feed, and they feed in the icy waters of Stephens Passage 24 hours a day.  You can also do some amazing whale watching in the Kenai Peninsula in South Central Alaska or near Hubbard Glacier. In fact, though, you may see them randomly anywhere in Alaskan waters.

Why do whales come specifically to Stephens Passage?

Alaska’s humpback whales winter in Hawaii where they breed and give birth, but they DO NOT eat.  Each spring they migrate to Alaska and they are HUNGRY as they arrive.  Consequently, in Alaska they eat constantly–22-23 hours per day!

When the young are born in Hawaii, they have absolutely NO blubber and the mothers weight is also depleted.  Therefore, the mother whale must eat enough to feed her baby and replenish here own blubber.  Humpback whale blubber is 55% fat (the consistency of toothpaste or yogurt) and the babies gain 3-5 pounds per hour.

Humpback whales feed on krill and herring.  These tiny fish migrate to narrow waters, consequently, they are in this passage in abundance!  Like humans, whales are intelligent so they go where the “getting is easiest.”  Why feed in open ocean when all the food you can eat is one relatively small area?  

Can you see whales from a cruise ship?

Yes, but you must be at the right place at the right time.   Whale watching excursions near Juneau “guarantee” you will see whales OR they will refund your money.  Guess what?  In nearly 100 whale watch experiences near Juneau, I saw whales every single time.  Granted, sometimes more than others and sometimes more spectacular than others.  Remember.  Alaskan waters are pure nature and not a theme park!

What’s the best weather for Whale Watching?

ANY weather.  Humpbacks mate and winter in Hawaii and do NOT eat there.  So, they come to Alaska to eat—all day—all summer!  Therefore, rain or shine whales will be in Stephens Passage.  Humpbacks must come to the surface every 8 – 10 minutes to breathe, so you will see them regardless of weather.  The best way to spot them is to watch for their 10-12 foot spout and the rest is history.  Usually, a humpback will spot two or three times before diving and exposing their gorgeous tail.  Here is a good rule of thumb:  Tail up; whale down!

Will I see anything else on a Whale Watch trip?

Whale Watching - Sunning Stellar Sealions
Whale Watching – Sunning Stellar Sealions

You are likely to see Stellar sea lions, eagles, jumping salmon, dolphins, Dahl’s porpoise, and maybe an orca or two (the Killer whale).  Orcas are the largest of the dolphin family, and they are NOT whales.  They get their name because they Kill whales! You will also see at least two of Alaska’s old lighthouses.  These days Alaskan

Rendezvous with Majesty
Alaska’s amazing glaciers!

lighthouses are automated, but the buildings are still there.  If you care to know more about Alaska’s lighthouses, there is an entire chapter (including photos) in my book, Rendezvous with Majesty.  I’m confident that this book will be most helpful to take with you on your next Alaska experience!  Click to Purchase.

Where’s the best place to book a whale watching excursion?

Your cruise ship shore excursion desk offers great day trips. These are as good as any, but not my favorite—for one reason only.  There are usually more people on their boats than when you book with a smaller, private company.  The security, though, you receive by booking on the ship is advisable for many since you are guaranteed not to

Whale watchig - Guard Island Lighthouse
Whale watching – Guard Island Lighthouse

on the ship is advisable for many since you are to miss the ship.  Private companies don’t miss either, so this is merely a personal choice.  You can pre-book with your cruise line before sailing, or you can pre-book on line with several local whale watch companies in Juneau.  You can also wait until you get on the ship to book.  If you are flying into Juneau, then your best bet is to book locally.  However you book your excursion, you will never regret the experience of whale watching!

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Kathy Slamp

Kathy Slamp has traveled extensively since her youth. Her childhood was spent in Alaska. She parlayed that experience into serving as an Alaskan cruise ship naturalist for 13 seasons.. In addition to Alaska, she travels extensively in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and S. Pacific. You will love her travel insights.

One thought on “Whale Watching in Southeast Alaska”

  1. It is thrilling to watch this and makes me want to go back to Alaska now. I have seen the whales in both Alaska and Hawaii and their story is amazing. Nature at its best!

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