A whale-watching excursion is one of the most sought-after shore excursions on an Alaskan cruise, and for good reason. Seeing some of the largest mammals on earth in their natural habitat is breathtaking and will be a highlight for many on an Alaskan cruise.
Deciding where to book a whale watching tour, what to bring with you and what to expect can be confusing, so here are some tips and tricks to make your whale watching experience as unforgettable as possible.
Types of whales to see in Alaska
There are four main types of whales to see in Alaska: humpback whales, gray whales, killer whales (orcas) and beluga whales.
Humpback whales are the most common sightings on a whale watching tour and are most common in June and July.
If you travel to Alaska early in the season, you may be able to spot gray whales as they migrate further north. Gray whales are most likely to be seen from late April to early May.
Killer whales, or orcas, can sometimes be spotted on a whale watching tour. However, orcas are fast-moving animals and have more unpredictable movement patterns than humpback whales, so they are less common to see.
Belugas are unlikely to be spotted on an Alaskan cruise, as they spend their time farther north in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Sometimes they can go as far south as Turnagain Arm near Anchorage, but you’re very unlikely to spot a beluga whale on a typical Southeast Alaska cruise itinerary.
Other whales, such as minke and fin whales, are present in Alaska, although much less common on a whale watching excursion.
Best Ports for Whale Watching in Alaska
While whale watching is possible at any Alaskan cruise port, two of the most popular whale watching destinations are Juneau and Icy Strait Point. Both locations are home to feeding grounds for humpback whales, making sightings extremely frequent.
Juneau is the most popular whale watching port. Not only is it a more common stopover than Icy Strait Point, but it offers the greatest chance of spotting whales.
That being said, Juneau is a port with a whole host of other activities to enjoy, from hiking the Mendenhall Glacier to the Goldbelt Tram cable car and bar-hopping. Some customers choose not to book a whale watching tour in Juneau and instead book it in a port where there are fewer tour and activity options.
At Icy Strait Point, there are fewer excursions to choose from, leading many to book whale watching for their day in that port.
Seward, Alaska is another recommended port for whale watching. If you’re taking a one-way cruise to or from Alaska, consider a whale-watching excursion in Seward before or after the cruise. This can be a good option for guests interested in other excursions during the cruise but still want to book a whale watching tour before heading home.
Although not in Alaska, Victoria, British Columbia can be another great port for whale watching.
It is common for whale watching tour providers to offer guaranteed whale sightings. If you don’t end up seeing a whale, they may offer you a partial cash refund. Be sure to read your tour operator’s policies before booking for details.
Whale watching in your cruise departure port
If you don’t want to book an Alaskan whale watching tour, consider booking one at your cruise ship’s port. Seattle and Vancouver both offer whale watching opportunities. So it can be a great way to add another day of excitement to your vacation before or after a cruise.
Plus, booking a whale watching tour at your port of departure gives you more time in Alaska to book other types of shore excursions.
Whale watching from the cruise ship
If a whale-watching excursion is beyond your budget, if you are prone to seasickness on small ships, or if you have prioritized other activities while in port, you may still be able to spot whales. whales on a cruise in Alaska.
While the ship is sailing in the North Pacific waters, whales can occasionally be spotted from the ship. This can happen on the high seas en route to or from Alaska, or while the ship is navigating the Inside Passage.
When whales are spotted by the captain, an announcement will be made over the loudspeaker to inform passengers that there are whales near the vessel. When this happens, expect a flood of guests making their way quickly to the outer decks eager to spot whales.
The best places on board to watch whales from the ship are from a private balcony, the Promenade Deck, the upper deck of the pool/racetrack and the outdoor area of the Windjammer.
It’s a good idea to bring binoculars on an Alaskan cruise, whether or not you’ve booked a whale-watching excursion. Alaska’s landscapes are so vast that sometimes it helps to take a closer look with binoculars at the mountains, glaciers and wildlife.
The same goes for a whale watching excursion. Take a pair of binoculars with you on your visit so that you can best spot the whales if they are far away. Although a pair of binoculars is not necessary for each person in your travel party, it is recommended that you have one pair to share with the group.
Prepare your camera
Make sure your camera and phone battery is fully charged before your whale watching excursion. Photography enthusiasts may want to bring a full setup with a telephoto lens to ensure they can capture the best images possible.
Whatever camera you bring, remember to spend time away from the lens and see the whales without using a screen or camera viewfinder. While capturing photos is something you can enjoy, it’s equally important to spend time during the excursion away from your electronic devices.
Medicines or remedies for seasickness
Whale watching boats are usually quite small and can encounter rough waters. Even on the calmest days, the rocking of a small boat can make some passengers seasick.
If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to bring seasickness remedies with you on your whale watching excursion, be it medication or natural remedies.
Whale watching excursions with other activities
Some guests may want to go whale watching, but combine the tour with other popular harbor activities. This gives the opportunity not only to spot whales, but also to experience what else a port has to offer.
In Juneau, for example, you can book the “Mendenhall Glacier, Whale Watching, and Wildlife Quest” tour which takes you on a whale watching tour followed by free time to explore the Mendenhall Glacier. This can give guests the best of both worlds as they experience two of Juneau’s most popular attractions.
Additionally, some tours may not be listed as a “whale watching tour” but may offer the opportunity to spot whales. At Icy Strait Point, guests can book a kayak tour that will take them through the waters of Port Frederick. This is a route commonly followed by humpback whales or killer whales, so passengers will have a chance of spotting whales while kayaking.
Planning a cruise to Alaska? Be sure to read more of our tips for an Alaskan cruise:
What it’s like to cruise Alaska early in the season
What is the best time of year to view wildlife in Alaska?
How much does an Alaska cruise cost?
What is the difference between a cruise in Alaska and the Caribbean?