Grab your binoculars and head to the water, Alaska's whales await. Here's how to see three of our state's most iconic.
Humpbacks migrate to Alaska in the late spring, spending the summer feeding before returning to warmer waters in the winter. Their majestic breaches and signature flukes are iconic. They're also relatively easy to spot. Here's what to look for:
- Exhale plume with a tall column rounding at the top. Plumes, or whale exhales, make excellent markers for all types of whales. They last for a few seconds before dispersing, giving you more time to catch it, especially contrasted against the dark cliffs bordering places like Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound.
- Fins and flukes. Humpbacks have long pectoral fins spanning upwards of 16 feet across, while their tails average around 18 feet across. These are much easier to spot than a humpback relatively short dorsal. If you do see a full tail the whale is usually diving, so it could be 20 minutes or more before they surface again.
- Noisy groups of seabirds circling low and landing on the water. Birds often cluster above humpbacks feeding below. The activity under the water tends to drive smaller fish up toward the surface.
There are both resident and transient orcas in Alaska's coastal waters. When you go out on a Kenai Fjords day cruise, one of the very best ways to see orcas in Alaska, experienced boat captains are even able to identify what pod you're seeing. Here's how to spot orcas:
- Orca plumes are shorter and stouter, more of a shrub shape than a column.
- Long, tall dorsal fins. A large male's dorsal can be as tall as six feet. Orcas rarely travel alone, so where you see one dorsal you'll likely see more.
- Orcas also like to porpoise. Similar to dolphins and, accurately, porpoises, this describes leaping out of the water while moving forward. Watch for that distinctive movement as you scan the water.
Beluga whales enter to the Turnagain Arm near Anchorage with the salmon, following along with the incoming tide. Both Beluga Point (mile 110 on the Seward Highway) and Bird Point (mile 96) are good viewpoints. There's a salmon run on nearby Bird Creek so you'll up your chances of scouting belugas if you're in the area approaching high tide. Not sure when that is? If there are folks fishing at Bird Creek, it's the right time! Here's what to look for on the water:
- White flashes, often in groupings. They look a bit like white caps but rounder and not moving with the wind. Belugas are small whales, just 16 feet long at maturity, so if you spot them you're one of the lucky few! These endangered white whales are even more elusive than wolves in Denali.
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