A whale watching cruise in Alaska is an incredible way to see some of the world’s largest mammals. An Alaska cruise vacation will get you front and center to see humpback whales, orcas (also known as killer whales), gray whales, and blue whales. What type of whale you’ll see depends on what region of Alaska you’re sailing through, while the number of whales you may encounter largely depends on the time of year, unless you’re stopping in Icy Strait Point, Alaska. Icy Strait Point’s famous humpback whale, Freddy, stays in the bay year round and has truly become a local favorite (more on him below).
We are breaking down what to expect on an Alaska whale watching cruise and how to increase your chances of seeing all types of whales during your cruise. With these tips, you’ll be prepared for an amazing adventure and know what to do to make your whale watching cruise as memorable as possible.
Best Time to Go on an Alaska Whale Watching Cruise
In order to know when to go to Alaska to see whales, you will need to understand whales’ migratory patterns. The whales you’ll see in Alaska spend their winter in the warmer southern waters of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. This is where they mate and give birth. As the ocean warms up to the north, they begin making their way up the coastline of North America, where you can sometimes spot them off the coast of California and the Pacific Northwest. In late spring and summer they arrive in the waters of Alaska where they feed and teach their offspring to hunt.
Alaska’s cruise season runs from May through September and whales can be spotted during that entire time. However, there are certain months that you’re more likely to see certain species of whales. Humpback whales tend to be more prevalent in the months of June and July and can sometimes even be spotted from the deck of the ship feeding along the Inside Passage route of Alaska that most cruises take. To view the black and white beauty of orcas, May and June are your best bet. Gray whales are more likely to be spotted earlier in the season while blue whales are more prevalent in Alaska the last half of the summer.
Cruise Ship Whale Watching Tips & What to Pack
To increase your chances of successful whale watching from your cruise ship, hang out on one of the cruise ship’s many open-air decks. If you prefer to be inside, pick public areas with large windows to increase your chances of seeing a whale make an appearance.
In addition, be sure to listen for announcements over the ship’s loud speakers letting passengers know that a whale has been spotted and what side of the ship it’s on – then be ready to rush over to that part of the ship.
It’s also a wise idea when departing on a whale watching cruise to pack binoculars and keep them with you while exploring your cruise ship, especially if the ship is making its way through water passages where whales are often prevalent. That way you’re ready to get a close up view of any whales that surface.
Another thing to pack is a high-resolution camera that has a high zoom lens. This is ideal for capturing shots of whales in the distance and will provide much better images of the creatures than just your phone camera will.
Be sure to bring a sturdy strap for your camera as well, along with possibly a dry bag if you plan to take a whale watching excursion while in port that involves a catamaran or zodiac, since those water vessels may be rocky and have ocean spray come on board.
Another way to increase your chances of seeing whales from the ship is to book a veranda stateroom or suite. Having your own private veranda to step out onto and lounge on while you gaze at the ocean lets you maximize the time you spend with an ocean view during your cruise. Sit on your balcony with a hot cup of coffee or fine wine and scan the horizon for the telltale sign of a whale: a plume of what looks like water (it is actually just warm, moist air) shooting up against the horizon from the whale’s blowhole.
Looking for this spouting action is a good way to first notice a whale that may be in the distance. Then you can keep your eyes trained on that area of the ocean to hopefully see the whale breach.
Do a Whale Watching Cruise Shore Excursion
While seeing whales from your cruise ship is a very real possibility on your Alaska cruise, the best way to ensure you spot some whale wildlife in action is to do a whale watching shore excursion in the ports of call that are near the migration paths the whales take each year and their main feeding zones in Alaska.
The best whale watching ports of call for Alaska cruises are Juneau, Alaska; Icy Strait Point, Alaska; Sitka, Alaska; and Victoria, British Columbia. The latter isn’t in Alaska, but it’s a common port of call when you cruise to Alaska.
Top 10 Whale Watching Cruise Shore Excursions
Here are ten of the top excursions you can do during an Alaska cruise to maximize your chances of seeing whales in the wild, and possibly even see more than one type of whale species..
Zodiac Whale Watching and Wildlife Tour in Victoria
Most Alaska cruise itineraries make a stop in Victoria or Vancouver, British Columbia (sometimes both!). These Canadian ports of call both have an abundance of fun and interesting things to do, but if it’s whale watching you have on your mind, choose an itinerary that stops in Victoria, which is known for its excellent whale watching. On the Zodiac Whale Watching and Wildlife Tour in Victoria you’ll get the chance to zip across the water in an eco-friendly Zodiac, making you feel more a part of nature and closer to the sea animals that appear during your excursion, which may be orcas, humpback whales, minke whales, seals, and sea lions. While you look for animals, you’ll also get to enjoy the beautiful scenery found along the Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait.
Whale and Marine Mammals Cruise, Icy Strait Point
While stopped in Icy Strait Point during your Alaska whale watching cruise, you’ll have the chance to take a shore excursion to Point Adolphus. The area around Point Adolphus is known for being one of the premier humpback whale viewing areas in Alaska since the whales gather there each summer to feast on the nutrient-rich water found there. The whales are typically so plentiful in Point Adolphus that this shore excursion even guarantees you’ll see them or you’ll get a refund. During your high-speed sightseeing cruise to Point Adolphus you’ll be accompanied by a naturalist who will teach you all about the scenery and animals you encounter during your cruise.
Whales, Wildlife, and Brown Bear Search, Icy Strait Point
If you want to see humpback whales while stopped in Icy Strait Point, but also have an affinity for bears, then this is the shore excursion for you. You’ll visit Point Adolphus to see humpback whales feeding and then head back onto land for a drive through Spasski River Valley with a knowledgeable guide who will point out wildlife and teach you more about them and the region they call home. During the drive you’ll have the chance to see brown bears, bald eagles, deer, and other wildlife. You’ll also get scenic views of the gorgeous Spasski River.
Icy Strait Point also provides a wonderful opportunity to see a local favorite – Icy Strait Point’s most famous humpback whale: Freddy the solo bubble-net feeder. Freddy the Whale was attacked by a group of orcas and since then he has not done the migratory pattern up and down the coast that is common for humpback whales such as himself. Instead, he stays in the bay by Icy Strait Point year round. Another thing that makes him unique is that he is the only known solo bubble-net feeder in the area. Bubble-net feeding is typically done in groups where numerous whales blow bubbles around a school of fish to trap the fish and then feast upon them. Freddy does this all by himself with a unique spiral bubble pattern.
Whale Quest, Orca Point Lodge, and Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
This shore excursion gives you a wide range of iconic Juneau experiences along with whale watching. You’ll board a catamaran and cruise around Stephen’s Passage where you’ll have the chance to see humpback whales and other sea creatures. During the excursion you’ll also get glimpses of the vast Mendenhall Glacier, which encompasses an impressive 13 miles and is located a short distance north of Juneau. This excursion also includes some relaxing on land at the rustic Orca Point Lodge, where you’ll enjoy a traditional salmon bake breakfast.
Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest, Juneau
This adventurous shore excursion takes you along Stephen’s Passage and to Auke Bay for some whale watching and the chance to see other wildlife. Humpback whales are often seen on this excursion (whales sightings are even guaranteed or you’ll get a partial refund!) and you also might witness the frolicking of seals and soaring of bald eagles. The catamaran for this excursion has an observation deck, perfect for animal viewing and experiencing the elements.
Whale Watching and Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, Juneau
Want to get some epic photos to hang on your wall or to post to social media and make all your friends jealous of your Alaska whale watching cruise? This is the Juneau shore excursion for you. On the Whale Watching and Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari you’ll get the chance to see humpback whales along Stephen’s Passage, view Mendenhall Glacier, and also do a rainforest hike to see more wildlife like sea lions, harbor seals, porpoises, eagles, salmon, and black bears. What turns this excursion into a photo-worthy one is the naturalist photographer who will be with you during the excursion and who will give you tips on the best shots to capture. You’ll also get a frameable postcard and access to online photography tutorials to help you elevate your photograph skills.
Whale Watching Adventure and Salmon Bake, Juneau
See one of the largest animals in the world and then dine on one of the tastiest fish in the sea on the Whale Watching Adventure and Salmon Bake excursion in Juneau. This fun shore excursion takes you out to sea on a whale watching catamaran that is jet-powered and specially designed for the waters of Alaska. You’ll be taken to common feeding areas for humpback whales and get the chance to see them breaching, bubble-net feeding, and other awe-inspiring movements. After whale watching you’ll head to an Alaska tradition that is decades old: the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. You’ll feast on wild-caught grilled Alaskan salmon and also get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet full of other delicious entrees, side dishes, and desserts.
Jet-Cat Wildlife Quest and Beach Exploration, Sitka
While in Sitka, escape to one of the destination’s remote islands via an expedition catamaran. On your way to the island, your catamaran will navigate through the waters of Sitka Sound where you’ll have the chance to see whales and other wildlife. When you reach the island, you’ll disembark and explore the coastline, home to tide pools in which you may discover sea creatures waiting for the tide to come back in.
Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise with Lunch and Airport Drop-Off, Seward
If you’re sailing on one of the Alaska cruises that end in Seward, Alaska, disembark to a final day of adventure with a shore excursion that gives you one last chance of seeing whales before being dropped off at the airport. The Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise with Lunch and Airport Drop-Off takes you on a boat ride around Prince William Sound to see the gorgeous scenery, the cool blue hue of Surprise Glacier, plus the chance to view breaching humpback whales. You’ll also be provided with lunch before getting dropped off at Anchorage International Airport for your flight back home.
Kenai Fjords Cruise with Lunch, Sealife Center and Airport Drop-Off, Seward
This is another shore excursion you can do on your last day in Seward before getting dropped off at Anchorage International Airport, and it’s a good option if you’re looking for educational opportunities to learn more about the wildlife in the area. On this excursion you’ll visit the Seward SeaLife Center where you’ll learn about the marine life in the waters off the coast of Alaska. Then you’ll board a sightseeing boat for the chance to see that wildlife while also getting the opportunity to view the icy coastline scenery of Kenai Fjords National Park. Back on land you’ll have a buffet lunch and then a scenic drive to Anchorage to catch your flight home.
Alaska Whale Watching Cruise Itineraries
Need some inspiration for some Alaska cruise itineraries that will provide you with a memorable vacation experience and also give you numerous opportunities for whale watching? Here are some itineraries that will do just that:
See Whales and Have Time in Seward on the Alaska Northern Glacier Cruise
This Alaska Northern Glacier Cruise departs from Vancouver, British Columbia, and travels up the Canadian and Alaskan coastline. The cruise travels for seven nights and ends in Seward, where you can join one of the disembarkation day shore excursions that take you on a whale watching adventure before catching your flight. This itinerary also visits Juneau and Icy Strait Point where you can do a couple of the whale watching cruise shore excursions mentioned above. In addition, you’ll sail along the Inside Passage of Alaska and stop in the towns Ketchikan, Skagway, and at Hubbard Glacier.
Whale Watching Opportunities Abound on the Ultimate Alaska Cruise
This Ultimate Alaska Cruise is a 10-night vacation that sails roundtrip from Vancouver and visits all of the top whale watching cruise spots, including Sitka, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, and Victoria. The cruise also will take you to some of Alaska’s other must-see spots, like Tracy Arm Fjord, Ketchikan, and Skagway. You can also keep an eye out for whales on the day your ship sails the Inside Passage. That ship is Celebrity Eclipse, one of the incredible ships part of the award-winning Solstice-class of ships, and you can enjoy the Lawn Club deck, multiple specialty restaurants, engaging theater performances, and more onboard its luxuriously appointed decks while sailing through Alaska.
Bonus Whale Watching in Seattle on the Alaska Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise
If seeing Seattle is also an item on your bucket list, opt for an itinerary that departs from Seattle, like the Alaska Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise. In addition to cruising along Tracy Arm Fjord and seeing Sawyer Glacier at its end, you’ll visit whale hot spots like Juneau and Victoria. You’ll also have port days in Ketchikan and Skagway. Plus, Seattle itself is known for being home to orcas. Extend your vacation before or after your cruise and explore the Puget Sound around Seattle for the chance to see some marine wildlife, as well as to see the city’s popular tourist spots like Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. In addition, this itinerary sails on Celebrity Solstice, a sister ship to Celebrity Eclipse and the original ship that debuted the Solstice Class. An added bonus of this itinerary for residents that live in the Pacific Northwest is that you can just drive to your cruise embarkation port and save money on flights.
Book Your Whale Watching Cruise to Alaska
If an Alaska whale watching cruise is at the top of your bucket list, book it easily and conveniently using Celebrity Cruises’ #BookItList platform. This innovative booking engine lets you effortlessly reserve your cruise stateroom or suite, book airfare using Flights by Celebrity, which provides you with protection and a Lowest Airfare Guarantee, and secure your spot for vacation activities both on the ship and off (like those whale watching shore excursions!).
All of these aspects of your cruise can be booked at the same time in the same place thanks to Celebrity Cruises’ #BookItList, which makes for a stress-free vacation planning process. Use the time you save on your vacation planning process to dream about all the fun you’re going to have on your Alaska cruise and seeing those magnificent whales.