see + do
Concierge.com's insider take:
Ask people what animal they most want to see in Alaska, and the two most common answers are bald eagles and whales. Bald eagles are hard to miss—see that white spot in the treetops? There's one. Whales are a little trickier.
To whale watch for free, head to Beluga Point, located just south of Anchorage. While the number of belugas (a relatively small species, under 15 feet long) has declined in recent years, you still stand a good chance of spotting one during high tide in summer. In Southeast Alaska, drive to the Shrine of St. Therese, 23 miles north of downtown Juneau; the shoreline plunges here, which causes an upwelling that draws humpback whales. The quintessential Alaska whale, humpbacks are about 40 feet long and known for their complicated songs and tail markings, which are as distinctive as fingerprints. With a few exceptions (usually males not quite of mating age), the humpbacks who summer in Alaska migrate to Hawaii for the winter. In other words, they've figured out the perfect lifestyle.
To increase your chances of seeing a whale, you need to board a boat. The best option is Juneau's Orca Expeditions, which ferries passengers to another upwelling that the humpbacks really like, about 20 minutes by boat from downtown. How close you get is up to the whales—state law says boats can only get within 100 yards, but the curious mammals frequently swim a lot closer. Around Juneau, you'll likely see a couple of whales at a time, while on a good day in Icy Strait, near Glacier Bay, there might be 30 or 40 humpbacks. For the best trip into the strait, travel to Hoonah by ferry or plane and take an excursion boat from Icy Strait Point. Most Alaska Marine Highway ferry rides turn up a whale sighting or two (usually humpbacks, occasionally a minke); on the Aleutians run, impossibly huge fin whales sometimes swim near the ships—it's like watching a train pass by. If it's orcas you're after, Kenai Fjords Cruises in Southcentral's Resurrection Bay is your best bet.
Across Alaska, nearly all the whales migrate south between September and May, but some nonmating males do frequently stick around Silver Bay, in Sitka, year-round. Drive about four miles south of town on Sawmill Creek Road, and hang out at one of the overlooks. Maybe you'll get lucky.—Edward Readicker-Henderson