Any cruise to Alaska is going to be breath-taking; the impressive natural geography humbles humanity while the elusive Northern Lights are astounding. However, knowing what to expect can never prepare you for the incredible views. The only thing that can build upon the already stunning area is to spot some of its natural inhabitants. Alaska is teeming with life from whales to bears to eagles, as almost everywhere you look there is something to see.
Seeing wildlife on your Alaskan cruise involves a little planning and a bit of luck. We have spoken to the experts in the field, who know the best places and time of year to spot furry friends or marine wildlife.
Though many people have seen bears in the zoo, seeing them in their natural environment is a completely different experience. Alaska is home to all three of the American bears and they can be widely seen, so bear safety must be observed on any outdoor activities.
Brown/ grizzly Bears
When most people think of bears, they often think of grizzly bears, but black bears are more populous in Alaska. You can tell the two apart firstly by their size – the grizzly bear is much larger and stands at eight-to-nine feet in height on its hind legs. Secondly, you can tell by the grizzly’s distinguishable shoulder hump when stood on all fours.
Salmon is the brown bear’s primary food source, making them easy to find in salmon spawning season which peaks between July and August. Katmai National Park is one of the prime viewing destinations for brown bears. Speaking about their bear population, Katmai National Park adds:
“As many bear populations around the world decline, Katmai provides some of the few remaining unaltered habitats for these amazing creatures. At Katmai, scientists are able to study bears in their natural habitat, visitors are able to enjoy unparalleled viewing opportunities, and the bears are able to continue their life cycle largely undisturbed.”
Patrick Enders is a wildlife photographer who has spent some time in Alaska and recommends the Katmai National park as well:
“I like the topographical relief of this area, the nearby mountains, the aqua blue water of Naknek lake, the orientation of the sunrise, the diversity of wildlife, and yes, of course the amazing congregations of brown bears. “
The famous Brook Falls in the Katmai National Park in Alaska has been immortalised as a great bear watching destination as the falls attracts large numbers of grizzly’s due to the abundance of Sockeye Salmon that are in the area.
The most populous bear in Alaska, the black bear is smaller than the grizzly. Like all bears, they are scavengers – happy to eat berries, meat or a picnic left unattended! Black bears are generally found in forested areas as they are excellent climbers, however, as opportunists you can see them out in the open by salmon runs. Ghost Bear Photography spoke to us about their own trip to Alaska and the joy of Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site in Tongass National Forest:
“We do love Fish Creek – and mostly the coastal wolves there. They are quite the good fishers. Black and grizzly bears are abundant there as well as bald eagles and mink. The best time to go is in August, as the salmon are spawning along the creek (it varies from year to year, though). We were lucky enough to have gorgeous weather when we were there, but it is often rainy and overcast, so rain gear is definitely recommended. Early morning and late at night is the general rule for when to see the most wildlife.”
Polar bears are the largest and most carnivorous of the three bear species that populate Alaska. Due to the arctic nature of the polar bear, the opportunity to see them in the wild is limited, though it is possible in Alaska. Kaktovik and Barrow are the two communities that see the bears with any regularity. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends the best time to see them:
“Though polar bears spend most of their life out on the sea ice, many aggregate along the coast near Barter Island, where the village of Kaktovik is located, during the ice-free period between August and October. The bears are generally resting but also come near the village at night to feed on hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains. Most people who come to view bears do so in September.”
Recommended bear watching excursions
The Ketchikan: Alaska Bear Adventure by Floatplane excursion is one trip you will not forget as you take off from Ketchikan on a 20-minute flight by floatplane to a remote part of the Tongass National Forest. It is well-known for its salmon-rich streams and abundant wildlife and after a short hike along a trail you will get to a viewing platform overlooking a salmon spawning stream. It is here that you will get to see black bears gather to feed on the runs of pink, coho and chum salmon. You are also likely to see bald eagles perch in the surrounding trees waiting to clean up fish scraps left by the bears as well as Sitka blacktail deer, bald eagles, mink and marten.
The Bear Watching & Wildlife Viewing Adventure that we offer is one of the best excursions to see Brown/Grizzly bears. The trip allows you to join in an unforgettable journey to view coastal brown bear and other Alaskan wildlife in a natural setting.
These marine giants are always crowd pleasers, breaking up the apparently placid Alaskan waters with grandiose tail splashes or playfully breaching the surface. Alaska is one of the best spots to see whales in the world due to their migration patterns with some visiting the area in early spring and summer as they head to the rich feeding and calving grounds of the Arctic Ocean. You can see many different species of whales and we have listed the most popular below.
Killer whale/ Orca
As orcas are such social animals, the pods they travel in are a sight to behold. As these orcas prefer cooler coastal waters, they can be seen in the Bering Sea near the continental shelf. Some of the best places where you can see orcas in Alaska are Juneau and Seward and there are lots of other whales you can see in these areas.
The humpback whale is one of the largest baleen whales. With males’ songs lasting 15 to 20 minutes, the eerie musical conversations can continue for hours at a time. Visiting Alaska in the summer, humpback whales come to enjoy the summer feeding grounds and can be regularly spotted off the coast.
Corey Himrod recounted his own experience with humpback whales in the Tongass National Forest for the Alaska Wilderness League:
“Some days are simply perfect. The weather’s warm. The skies are blue. The water flat and calm, and the line between sea and sky is almost indistinguishable. We had a day like that in August. It was the kind of day that happens every-so-often in the temperate rainforest climate of southeast Alaska. It was the kind of day where all the conditions were just right for watching humpback whales. Not only could we stop to watch, but we were able to turn off the engine and drift silently. Without background noise from the boat, we were able to experience something different. All around us, and spread out over several miles were humpback whales in groups of two or three, and alone.”
As the largest mammal to have ever existed, spotting a blue whale is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So impressive are they that a skeleton has recently been erected in the Natural History Museum in London to replace ‘Dippy’ the diplodocus in the main hall. Though these whales were nearly hunted to extinction, their population has been returning for the last few years. The Bering Sea is a great place to see blue whales in July and August, or alternatively around the Aleutian Islands.
Recommended whale watching excursions
The Alaska Whales, Glacier & Rain Forest Trails excursion in Juneau allows you to view Alaska’s humpback whales and the Mendenhall Glacier in a small-group, which has a limited number of 20 travellers. You will head out on a custom-built safari vessel, you’ll seek out marine wildlife and step away from the crowds on a secluded rain forest trail — two pristine habitats to explore on a single tour. On this trip you will learn about the interdependence of species and the many connections between the land and sea.
Another great whale watching excursion is the Evening Whale Watching Quest as this allows you to enjoy a magical evening cruise that features great food, a relaxing ambience and guaranteed whale viewing.
Alaska’s skies are as interesting as its seas, filled with some of the world’s most incredible avian predators and prey alike. While Alaska may be home to 514 species of birds according to the official list published in January 2017, 55 are considered rare.
The national bird and animal of the United States, the bald eagle has become symbolic of freedom. These birds create the largest nest of any species in North America and are rivalled only by Californian Condor for the title of the largest raptor.
As these eagles are scavengers, they have a diet of mainly fish and are often found near coasts. Homers Spit is one of the best eagle watching spots in the state. The narrow finger of land extends for 4.5 miles and is prime feeding ground.
The golden eagle may lack the status of the bald eagle, but while one is a scavenger, the golden eagle is an incredibly powerful predator. Alaska Fish and Game biologist, Steve Arthur says:
“Golden eagles are significant predators of Dall sheep lambs in the Central Alaska Range. The lambs are born in late May and they’re very vulnerable in their first few weeks.”
“The eagles – either soaring overhead or perched – constantly watch the bands of sheep, and if a lamb strays away from its mother there’s an eagle zooming in,” Arthur said. “They swoop down and try to grab it before it can get back under its mother.”
Puffins are one of the most distinctive birds – with their bright beaks and monochromatic markings they are easily spotted. Two species are found in Alaska, the tufted and horned, and these can be found all along the southern coast as they mainly feed on fish.
The best time to see puffins is from May to September as this is their breeding season.
Recommended bird watching excursion
The Skagway Haines Eagle Preserve Float Adventure & Lynn Fjord Cruise is spectacular and gives you the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including eagles.
Your tour will begin as you board a high-speed catamaran for a scenic cruise through North America’s deepest fjord. Watch for whales, seals, and spectacular waterfalls as you cruise Lynn Canal to the picturesque village of Haines.