When is the Best Time to See Whales in Alaska?

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Many visitors are drawn to Alaska with the hope of experiencing its outstanding whale-watching opportunities. The allure of observing killer whales, beluga whales, and grey whales in their natural habitat presents a compelling reason to explore the 49th state.

The chances of capturing remarkable photographs and witnessing these majestic creatures firsthand can vary significantly based on the timing and location of the visit.

The optimal period for whale watching in Alaska aligns with the peak of the whale migration season, primarily during the summer months. However, opportunities to see whales also present themselves in spring and fall.

People on a Whale Watching Trip

The likelihood of encountering whales is highest on expeditions scheduled from April through September. While some tour operators may offer boat tours outside of these months, witnessing whales during the winter season is highly improbable.

The experience of whale watching in Alaska can differ markedly depending on the chosen time and place for the visit. While sightings are most frequent from April to September, different regions of Alaska are known to attract specific whale species at various times of the year.

For instance, marine tours in Kenai Fjords National Park offer rich whale-watching experiences, as evidenced by late-season observations of feeding grey whales and orca pods in late August.

Securing a tour with a company experienced in whale tracking is crucial for maximizing the chances of a successful whale-watching adventure.

The following guide provides comprehensive insights into the when, where, and how of whale watching in Alaska, ensuring readers are well-prepared to make the most of their Alaskan whale-watching journey.

Where and When to See Whales In Alaska

While humpback whales can usually be found along most of coastal Alaska during migration season, different species tend to favor other areas of the state.

People who want to have the best chance of seeing specific whales on their tour need to focus their attention on the areas listed below.

NPS Photo/ Neilson | The humpback is a baleen whale that migrates seasonally to Glacier Bay to feed in the nutrient-rich waters.
The humpback is a baleen whale that migrates seasonally to Glacier Bay to feed in the nutrient-rich waters.

Prince William Sound

Located on the southern coast of the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound is one of the most popular areas for humpback whales in the summer season. The reason so many humpbacks are attracted to this area is its large concentration of fish.

Two killer whales in Prince William Sound

Although less common, orcas (aka “killer whales”) have also been spotted in Prince William Sound on occasion. Most orca sightings occur in Prince William Sound between May and early June, but it really depends on whether there are large schools of salmon here that orcas can munch on.

Valdez and Whittier are the two biggest port cities by Prince William Sound. Usually, people who go on whale-watching excursions in Prince William Sound book cruises out of one of these cities.

The nearby town of Seward also offers tours of Prince William Sound, but, as you’ll see below, it’s more common for people to book trips from Seward to Resurrection Bay.

Resurrection Bay

Located close to Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay refers to an area that runs from the city of Seward down to Kenai Fjords National Park.

Just like Prince William Sound, the two most common whales you’ll see in the summer are humpbacks and (depending on salmon schools) orcas. If you visit during spring months like April or May, however, you might catch a glimpse of migrating gray whales in Resurrection Bay.

 Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) spotted at Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska | Photo by Diego Delso
Fin whale spotted at Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska | Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA

Although some people claim they can clearly see whales from beaches by Resurrection Bay, it’s still highly recommended you book a boat tour to enjoy the best views.

Since whales so reliably travel to Resurrection Bay’s waters, tour companies frequently share info on sightings with each other to ensure visitors see plenty of whales on their trip.

Read more: Things to see and do in Seward, Alaska

Cook Inlet

Since beluga whales are now considered an endangered species, they tend to be one of the most difficult whales to spot in Alaska. For those who are determined to see this whale up close, however, don't despair!

Beluga whale fans must plan a whale-watching tour out of Cook Inlet, which is near Alaska’s capital city, Anchorage. Your best chance of seeing a beluga whale in Cook Inlet is between July and September, either before or after high tide. Just like orcas, beluga whales are interested in eating salmon, so they will typically appear near large salmon schools.

By the way, there’s an area just south of Anchorage known as Beluga Point Sight. As you might’ve guessed from the name, there have been many reported beluga sightings by this coastal point, especially in the summertime.


Public Domain Humpback Whales playing in the Waters Around Juneau, Alaska.
Humpback Whales playing in the waters around Juneau, Alaska

Located in southeastern Alaska, the city of Juneau is well known as a jumping-off point for the Inside Passage, which remains one of the most reliable destinations for large groups of feeding humpback whales. In the summertime, you’re guaranteed to find dozens of humpbacks greedily feeding on local fish in this beloved whale-watching destination.

Orcas can sometimes be found in areas of southeastern Alaska, but humpback whales always steal the show. Other marine animals you might see on a whale-watching journey from Juneau include otters and sea lions.

Kodiak Island

Sometimes called “Alaska’s Emerald Isle,” Kodiak Island is most famous for its large brown bear population. Interestingly, this island is also one of the best spots in the state to catch a glimpse of migrating gray whales in the spring. Tourists in the past few years have even reported seeing gray whales appear within sight of coastal areas.

If you’re visiting Kodiak Island in the summer, then you’ll most likely see humpback whales. It’s also not uncommon to see a few orcas and finback whales chasing food near Kodiak Island in the summer season. For those interested in gray whales, however, definitely schedule a springtime trip to Kodiak Island.

Alaskan Whale-Watching Tour Companies

Now that you know some of the best places and times to see whales in Alaska, you need to find a tour company that meets your travel needs. Let’s go through a few of the most respected tour companies in The Last Frontier to help you on your whale-watching quest.

Mind you, we only tried the first one. The rest were picked from online recommendations and reviews by various travelers.

Major Marine Tours

Going out of Seward, this company is the official contractor for Kenai Fjords National Park. We took their park tour and had a park ranger on board providing information in addition to the captain's narration. While we did see both orcas and grey whales, the National Park tour does not guarantee whale sightings.

If your heart is set on whale watching, you can take one of their two designated whale excursions: The gray whale watching cruise or the Orca quest cruise.

Phillips Cruises & Tours

Founded in the 1950s, Phillips Cruises & Tours is a highly respected cruise company that takes guests through Prince William Sound. A few perks that come with booking a Phillips cruise include free food and drinks, narration from a US Forest Service Ranger, and a “no sea-sickness guarantee.”

Although Phillips Tours focuses on the area’s glaciers, Rangers go out of their way to point out wildlife in the region, including whales. All Phillips tours are on catamaran vessels that depart from the city of Whittier.

Whale Watching in Alaska

Kenai Fjords Tours

If you're looking for an alternative to Major Marine Tours when visiting Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, consider booking a cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours. This Seward-based company has been in business since 1974 and offers some of the highest-rated wilderness excursions in the region.

There are many different tour packages to choose from depending on what you’re interested in. The tours that tend to interest whale watchers are the Gray Whale Watch tour and the Resurrection Bay tour. As a bonus, all of these tours come with a complimentary meal.

Alaska Travel Adventures

The company Alaska Travel Adventures boasts one of the best whale-watching excursions from Juneau. The best feature about this tour is that whale sightings are guaranteed in your ticket price.

All Alaska Travel Adventures tours take place on jet boats with comfortable heating on the inside, glass windows, and a viewing pier.

In addition to spotting whales, your captain/tour guide will draw your attention to other marine life as well as the Mendenhall Glacier on your tour. These tours are offered between May and September every year.

Geographic Marine Expeditions

The tour company Geographic Marine Expeditions has made a name for itself as one of the best tour operators on Kodiak Island. The team at Geographic Marine Expeditions works hard to give guests an immersive experience of Kodiak Island as much as possible.

You’ll get to see plenty of humpback and fin whales, as well as brown bears, seals, and eagles, on any tour offered by this company. If you don’t like the pre-arranged tours offered in this company’s catalog, Geographic Marine Expeditions allows you to customize your tour.

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Whale-Watching

Whale-watching cruises are usually long, and they're not always easy. We've done four such excursions during our travels across North America in the following locations: New Hampshire, Monterey, Oregon, and, of course, Alaska.

Each trip was different, but they were all fairly long and relatively demanding. So, here are a few tips that might help make yours better.

Packing Suggestions

As you prepare for your whale-watching adventure, packing appropriately is key to ensuring a comfortable and memorable experience on the ocean.

Given that you'll be away from the convenience of your hotel room and car for several hours, it's crucial to bring along essentials. While some larger boats might feature small shops and certain cruises provide meals, it's always best to verify these details ahead of time.

Here are some recommended items to include in your packing list:

  • Warm Clothing: The ocean air, particularly in Alaska, can be brisk. Dressing in layers will help you stay warm and comfortable.
  • A Warm Hat: Essential for keeping your head protected against the chill.
  • Binoculars: Enhance your viewing experience by bringing binoculars to spot whales at a distance.
  • Smartphone with a Good Camera: Modern smartphones come equipped with cameras that can capture high-quality photos and videos, ensuring you can document your sightings without the need for a separate camera. Remember to provide sufficient storage space or bring an external memory card adapter for your phone if necessary.
  • Sunscreen: Even in cooler climates, sun protection is important when spending hours outdoors.
  • Food and Drink: Pack snacks and beverages, especially if they are not available for purchase on the boat or if you prefer your selections.
  • Glass-Safe Cleaning Cloth: An absorbent cloth suitable for glass will be invaluable for wiping away any spray or moisture from your phone screen and binocular lenses, keeping your view clear throughout the journey.

Packing these items will help ensure that you're prepared for the elements and able to fully enjoy the whale-watching experience.

Effective Remedies For Seasickness

No matter how clean your binoculars are, you won’t enjoy a whale-watching voyage if you’re suffering from seasickness. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce your risk of suffering from this nauseating condition.

First off, be sure you get a good night’s sleep before your trip. If your body is not well rested, you will be far more sensitive to the rocking of the ship.

Second - but possibly more important - take that anti-seasickness pill! You can either get your own before the trip or buy one from the crew. At least, that was the case during our journey with Major Marine Tours. Oh, how I wished I had taken that pill!

Watch Whales Like A Pro In Alaska

Getting to see whales up close is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially in Alaska. Few places on earth rival The Last Frontier’s many whale viewing locations.

No matter what whale species you’re interested in, you shouldn’t have great difficulty finding a tour that can supply you with everything you want in a whale-watching adventure.

And finally, as promised, here's that link again - Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise – Trip Report & Tips

When is the Best Time to See Whales in Alaska?

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  1. You mention that the summer is the best time to be able to see whales, because that is the peak of the migration season. What is the average temperature for that time of year? Is it still jacket and gloves weather, even in the summer?

    • Hi Shaylee,
      The average temperature would depend on the exact location of your trip. In my experience, it’s always jacket weather aboard a ship that far up north. If you want to spend a lot of time with your hands outside your pockets, gloves wouldn’t hurt either 😉

  2. Great information, thanks. We’re going to Canada and Alaska July 2020 to see the whales, and can’t wait. Your site has given us some tips we hadn’t thought of. Thanks again.

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