Juneau Whale Watching Cruise in Alaska

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If you’re visiting Alaska and thinking of a wildlife adventure or if you’re looking for a Juneau shore excursion, then book yourself a Juneau whale watching tour. Whale watching in Juneau is an opportunity to see migratory North Pacific humpback whales.

I visited Juneau on a package tour and cruise booked through TripADeal.

Juneau whale watching tours

There are many whale watching tours you can choose from in Juneau.

Half or full-day tours are possible, but I decided to do a ‘combo tour’ with the Gastineau Guiding Company, arranged through our Royal Caribbean cruise ship tour desk.

The Gastineau Guiding Company offers small group whale watching cruise experiences with a marine naturalist on board.

Juneau whale watching
Gastineau Guiding Company and their Juneau whale watching boat, the Navigator.

They can also combine a Juneau whale watching experience with a Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari. And that especially appealed to me with my wildlife and landscape photographic interest.

whale watching Juneau
Basking sea lions on the cruise out to Mendenhall Lake during out Juneau whale watching tour combo.

Juneau Whale Watching

Juneau is Alaska’s capital city.

It is only accessed by air or sea and is home to a population of around 32,000, humans that is.

But from April to November, the Juneau whale watching season, those numbers are expanded by over 600 North Pacific humpback whales.

North Pacific humpback whales migrate to the nutrient-rich waters of the Southeast Alaskan waters.

It’s a long 6000 mile round trip from Hawaii to the northern Inside Passage.

juneau excursions
More humps and tail flukes for identification purposes while whale watching in Juneau if you have good binoculars!

They come during the summer months, with a few staying all year round. And these gargantuans of the sea do the trip in about a month. Amazing!

Why Humpback Whales Go To Alaska

The humpback whales come to Alaska to feed, as they generally fast in Hawaii.

Their main activity is foraging for food to fatten up before they head south again to mate.

Krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) and baitfish such as herring are amongst their favourite food.

When a humpback whale opens its mouth, it expands the linear folds under its jaw and neck. The krill is then filtered along its baleen which hangs from its upper jaw.

A humpback can eat over a ton of krill a day.

Humpbacks often practice ‘lunge-feeding’ and coordinated foraging amongst groups.

The latter is particularly spectacular to witness and is called “bubble-net feeding”.

juneau whale watching
Humpback whales with ‘humps’ and tail flukes being the commonest sight on our whale watching in Juneau.

But to see a whale actually feeding on a whale watching tour would be quite rare and very special (there’s your challenge for the day!).

Whale Watching Regulations

In order to help preserve and care for the local marine wildlife, many commercial Juneau whale watching tour companies adhere to Whale SENSE, a responsible whale watching program.

The US Atlantic and Alaskan program is sponsored by NOAA Fisheries and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Some of the regulations promoted are:

  1. Boats are not allowed to approach closer than 100 yards to a whale or group of whales.
  2. There can be no ‘herding’ activity by a boat, and certainly no chasing a whale or separating a group of whales.
  3. If a whale approaches a boat, the engine should be cut or put into neutral. Only once the whale has passed the 100-yard mark can the engine be put into gear.

What To Look For When Whale Watching

The most common sight to look for is a whale ‘blow’ or spout. This is often the easiest thing to see even from a large distance away, with or without binoculars.

whale watching Juneau
As a humpback whale surfaces, it ‘blows’. Then as it dives again, you will see a tail fluke – great for identifying a whale by its individual ‘fingerprint’ pattern.

Once your eyes accommodate, look for a whale’s curved back or ‘hump’ as it swims along the surface or begin a dive.

When a humpback whale dives, it often throws its tail high in the air showing its tail ‘fluke’. As its tail sinks back into the water, the underside pattern of the tail or fluke gives its individual identification pattern.

This is used by researchers and scientists to recognise a particular whale and record its migration pattern.

4 Tips For Alaska Whale Watching

  • Wear something warm – I know this is stating the obvious, but layer up as the weather can change suddenly from cold winds to warm sunshine
  • Bring sunglasses – especially polaroids if you have them as they help cut the glare off the water making spotting whales much easier
  • Binoculars – always a good thing to carry, although many tour operators will have them onboard for you to use
  • A camera of course! – one with a good telephoto zoom is ideal, but if nothing else, use your phone camera. Uploading your fun selfie images instantly to social media sites is a great way to be the envy of all your friends who didn’t cruise with you!

Many whale watching tours are in warm, covered in boats.

Food and hot and cold drinks are often available but check with the tour particular guides. Your own water bottle is always a good idea.

Mendenhall Glacier Trail Walk

Tongass National Park Trail of TIme
The Tongass National Park ‘Trail of Time’, crossing Steep Creek with its spawning salmon and ice limit lines through time

Our Mendenhall Glacier combo tour took us along a short trail walk, the Trail of Time.

This was a short 1-mile walk, part of the 3.5-mile East Glacier Trail.

Mendenhall Glacier is the world’s only ‘drive up to’ glacier and is Juneau’s most visible ‘ambassador’.

The glacier is 13 miles long and extends into Mendenhall Lake, frequently launching icebergs into the lake.

Many easy and moderate trails pass through the Mendenhall Glacier park or Tongass National Park forest and alongside the lake.

juneau shore excursions
Tongass National Park trails covered in moss and lichen

Our photo guide educated us in the natural history of the glacier as we passed by signs of previous ice limit lines of the glacier over the last century (the oldest we saw was 1916).

The rainforest was extremely green and lush, with moss and lichen as I had never seen before.

As we passed over the icy cold but crystal clear Steep Creek, a group of bright red spawning salmon were swimming against the creek’s flow.

juneau tours
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre looking over the Mendenhall Glacier and Mendenhall Lake

We had many photographic vista points of the Mendenhall Glacier, and the end of the line was the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre, a rather stunning building overlooking the forest, lake, and glacier.

Juneau whale watching tours
Mendenhall Glacier as seen from Mendenhall Lake on a Juneau whale watching cruise.

However, the best view of the Mendenhall Glacier was from the water of the Mendenhall Lake during our whale watching cruise.

Just awesome, and a great end to a fabulous day out.

Juneau certainly offers more than just Alaskan whale watching, that’s for sure!

More Whale Watching  

If you’re keen on whale watching check out these whale watching cruises:

Juneau Whale Watching Cruise in Alaska

Juneau Whale Watching Cruise in Alaska

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Irene Isaacson Tony Isaacson bio profile
While living the life on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and actively volunteering with wildlife organisations in her spare time as a semi-retired medical doctor, Irene has travelled the world with her shark scuba diving husband, Tony Isaacson (aka DiveCareDare). Experiencing wonderful wildlife adventures as well as voluntourism, travel and nature photography has become her passion. She loves to share their experiences via Instagram and YouTube, in an effort to increase awareness and promote conservation. On a mission to make a difference, their shared motto is: "In the end, we conserve only what we love, we love only what we understand, and we understand only what we can learn." (adapted from Baba Dioum 1968)