The largest summer marine visitors to Alaska are the whales. Each spring gray whales are seen migrating north from Baja California; in the fall they return south. Also in the spring humpback whales move north from Hawaii. The humpback is easily distinguished by its humplike dorsal fin, large flippers, and huge tail, which shows as it dives. These 50-foot-long creatures often breach (jump) or beat the surface of the water with their tails, as if trying to send messages. Smaller (30-foot) minke whales are also common.
The killer whale (orca), which is not actually a whale but the largest of the dolphins (up to 24 feet long), travels in groups hunting fish and marine mammals. Its six-foot-high triangular dorsal fin and its black-and-white piebald pattern make it easily identifiable.
Whales can be spotted all along Alaska’s thousands of miles of shoreline, but commercial whale-watching ventures are only found in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula. Larger towns in these areas all have charter-boat operators that lead trips combining whale-watching with other activities such as fishing, sea kayaking, photography, glacier viewing, or bird-watching.
The Inside Passage’s protected waterways are favorite haunts of humpback and killer whales during the summer months, particularly around Admiralty Island, within Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and near Sitka. Look for beluga whales in Turnagain Arm along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage.
Boat tours of Prince William Sound depart from both Valdez and Whittier, providing a good opportunity to see occasional killer, minke, and humpback whales. Kenai Fjords National Park and Resurrection Bay—both accessible by boat tour from Seward—are popular places to spot killer whales and humpbacks, along with sea otters, seals, sea lions, and colonies of puffins. There’s also a fair chance of seeing whales on the Kachemak Bay wildlife boat trips that depart from Homer.
For more information on whales in Alaska, visit the National Marine Fisheries Service’s website (www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition