The list of animals that call Alaska's rugged, wide-open expanse home is nearly endless.
There are brown bears, moose, lynx, wolves, bald eagles and orca whales, just to name a few. That's why no trip to Alaska would be complete without a glimpse of these native creatures. And one of the best ways to spot Alaska's iconic fauna: a wildlife cruise. If you're starting a trip through Alaska in Anchorage, there are quite a few options available when it comes to cruises. Many tour companies have booking offices right in downtown Anchorage. None of the cruises, however, actually leave from the Port of Anchorage itself, which means you'll actually cruise from nearby towns like Whittier and Seward. You can reach these ports by car, coach or train, and most tour companies can help you set up transport and connections.
Depart from the "Gateway to Prince William Sound"
The sparsely populated seaside community of Whittier (93 kilometers southeast of Anchorage) is the departure point for a handful of wildlife cruises that explore the fjords, bays, coves, glaciers, mountains and islands of Prince William Sound.
The popular “26 Glacier Cruise" with Phillips Cruises & Tours explores 225 kilometers of the sound, visiting Esther Passage, College Fjord and 26 named glaciers. You'll enjoy vistas of tall mountains and narrow fjords and will also get close enough to glaciers to see and even hear large chunks of ice calving off into the sea. The cruise takes place on the M/V Klondike Express (a 41-meter, high-speed catamaran that has a "no seasickness" guarantee) and comes complete with a meal and hot drinks on board. Note, though, that groups leaving from Whittier can be large — the M/V Klondike Express, for example, is Coast Guard-certified for 328 passengers and crew.
On this cruise, you'll spot sea lions, bald eagles, sea otters, the occasional black bear and orca whales, some of which you're likely to see right next to the boat. For animals that are trickier to spot, there will be a Chugach National Forest Service Ranger on board with you to narrate much of the cruise and point out hard-to-see wildlife. Before you return to Whittier, the cruise also includes a stop at a bird rookery, which is inhabited by 10,000 birds each summer.
Go Where the Locals Go
Seward, roughly 2.5 hours from Anchorage, sits at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. While it's more of a trek, most locals will tell you that Kenai Fjords National Park has better wildlife viewings than Prince William Sound. That's because within Resurrection Bay, you'll glimpse harbor seals, bald eagles, sea lions, puffins, porpoises and various species of whales, including humpbacks, orcas and even migrating California gray whales. Major Marine Tours offers two wildlife-specific tours (one 3.5 hours long and one five hours long), as well as whale watching cruises to search for orcas and gray whales. All tours are narrated either by naturalist crew members or a national park ranger. Binoculars are free to use to spy eagles and other small wildlife.
A typical cruise from Seward takes place on a smaller vessel (for example, the 3.5-hour wildlife cruise with Major Marine Tours can only accommodate 60 passengers) and usually only offers food and drink for purchase. You'll still see snow-capped mountains and glaciers on a Kenai Fjords cruise, but the real focus here is getting you up-close to bird rookeries and sea lion colonies, as well as passing whales.
Know When to Go
Alaska's main tourism season takes place during the summer months, when the days are long and the weather is mild. Most wildlife cruises also operate on this schedule with the majority of tours running from May through the end of September. Most wildlife will be viewable during this entire period, though there are certain times when it's better to see certain animals.
For example, if you're interested in seeing the migrating California gray whales in Resurrection Bay, their migrating season generally runs from March through mid-May. Prime orca-spotting time in Alaska, though, is from mid-May to mid-June.
Give Yourself Time
Many of the best and most-encompassing wildlife cruises within the greater Anchorage area require a full day of your time. For this reason, it's recommended that you spend at least one or two nights in the originating port town to ensure that you can see as much wildlife as possible.
Most of the ships used for wildlife cruises out of both Whittier and Seward are multi-level vessels with both indoor and outdoor viewing decks. Chances are, though, that you'll want to be outside when you get close to glaciers or when whales and eagles are spotted. For this reason, it's important that you bring warm, waterproof and windproof layers, since summer temperatures on the water in Alaska can still be very chilly.