Tips to Help Spot Wildlife in Alaska
Alaska’s wildlife is unpredictable, captivating and raw, filled with hundreds of species, from magnificent grizzlies roaming the untamed terrain in search of their next meal to a mamma moose and baby running through a nearby parking lot. The dream of observing wildlife in its natural habitat is what lures us to Alaska.
In a state that’s bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, every minute is an opportunity to see rare animals in their natural habitat. Training your eyes to properly spot wildlife means knowing not only where to look, but how to tell the difference between the wild landscape and the wild animals.
Bald eagles, the national bird of the United States, have a gigantic wingspan of up to seven feet and distinctive white heads. They are far more abundant in Alaska than anywhere else in the country. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to cruise to Alaska and not see at least one. Alaska lays claim to the world's largest concentration of bald eagles, and offers them a protected home at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The preserve was created by the State of Alaska in June 1982 to protect both the eagles and their habitat — including the salmon runs so important to the birds' survival.
Bald Eagle Spotting Tips: Watch for the white “snowball” of an eagle’s head in the tops of the trees or soaring along coastlines. Once you learn to spot them, you tend to recognize these magnificent birds of prey everywhere.
A Variety of Marine Life
Whales — humpback, gray, orca — rank as the largest marine creatures you're likely to see from your stateroom balcony. And don't forget Alaska's most renowned fish, the salmon, famous for its mighty upstream struggle to spawn. Salmon are an important economic mainstay in Alaska, especially for Native communities, who have often held ceremonies commemorating the first catch of the season. Besides glimpsing the fish in its natural habitat in the wild, visitors can learn about them at hatcheries that include educational exhibits. You may even spot some leaping porpoises riding the ship's bow wake.
Tips for Spotting Marine Life: When cruising the Inside Passage, the onboard naturalist will alert you when a pod of whales is swimming close to the ship. A keen-eyed park ranger may come aboard in some ports to help spot marine life, too. Out on deck, fellow cruise guests provide instant reports of sightings.
Did You Know?: The ports of Southeast Alaska also offer many opportunities for wildlife sightings. Walking on Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau or boating through Misty Fjords in Ketchikan or Tracy Arm Fjord in Skagway, visitors are often treated to sightings of humpback and killer whales, sea lions, porpoises and harbor seals.
Bears, both brown and black, are typically solitary animals. Brown bears (commonly known as grizzlies even though there are many differences) are much larger than black bears, weighing between 500 and 900 pounds and having a more prominent hump on their shoulder. Black bears, despite their name, can range in color from a sandy blond to an almost bluish shade of gray and weigh 200 to 500 pounds.
Black bears tend to live in dense forests, while grizzly bears typically live along the southern coast of Alaska, where they primarily feed on salmon. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, there can be as many as one grizzly bear per square mile in portions of southern Alaska, especially in areas with plentiful food sources.
Bear Spotting Tips: Spotting bears can be easier than you think. When you’re out on the ocean, look along the shoreline for shiny black rocks that stand out against the typical dull black rocks. Once you spot one, watch for any signs of movement. Typical boulders will appear dull, but a bear’s fur looks particularly oily, and that distinct shine will stand out against the landscape. Once the salmon begin to swarm the rivers in late July through early September, many bears will move to the streams to feed.
What to do if you encounter a bear: Just keep in mind that bears are best when seen from a distance. If you are hiking in bear territory, especially along a river teeming with salmon, make your presence known. “If you do come across a bear, stand your ground, wave your arms in the air and speak loudly,” says Dan Irelan, park ranger for Denali National Park & Preserve. “I had a bear approach me as I was walking along a river. I stood my ground and eventually the big momma bear and her curious cubs turned around, leaving me with a racing heart and a good story to tell.”
Did you know?: Grizzly bears have a better sense of smell than hound dogs and can detect food from miles away.
It’s a deer. It’s a horse. No, it’s a giant moose. A bull (male) moose stands seven feet tall at the shoulder and can weigh up to 1,600 pounds. If that’s not massive enough, the bulls can also grow an 80-pound antler rack in one summer. That’s about one pound of bone growth a day. It’s quite impressive to see how gracefully they move throughout the forest, even with all that upper-body weight.
Moose Spotting Tips: Unlike much of Alaska’s wildlife, these iconic creatures don’t stick to the wilderness. Moose seem to appear when you least expect them, whether prancing through the parking lot as you’re hopping on a tour bus or simply standing in a small pond by the side of the road, sipping the cool water as cars pass by.
Did You Know?: Moose browse for food in low-lying wetlands, even those located beside busy roads and towns. Anchorage residents often wake to find their flowerbeds devoured by hungry nighttime visitors. At twilight, be alert for moose feeding on reeds in shallow ponds. When captured on camera, the silhouette of a male's huge antlers set against a pale pink sky makes a memorable souvenir.
Caribou are one of the most recognized symbols of the great wild north. Much smaller than moose, caribous weigh between 175 and 400 pounds. They have the distinction of being the only member of the deer family to have both males and females grow antlers. They spend most of their time in the open country and have adapted to the cold, wind and snow of even the harshest Alaska winters.
Caribou Spotting Tips: Caribou are difficult to spot, even for wildlife-peeping pros, but it’s possible with a keen eye and a little patience. In the summer, caribou spend most of their time in the remaining snow patches high in the mountains. Keep your binoculars handy while scanning the spines of the mountains. Allow your eyes to adjust and look for out-of-place silhouettes. It might just be a peek at the elusive caribou.
Did you know?: Caribou and reindeer are the same species, but reindeer are usually privately owned and have some genetic differences.
Mountain Goats and Dall Sheep
Agility and strength are necessities for these all-white mountaineering ungulates (hooved animals), because they spend most of their time clambering through steep and rocky terrain.
Dall sheep and mountain goats look similar, but one look at their horns and you’ll know which is which: Dall sheep have ram-shaped horns that curve on the side of their head, while mountain goats flaunt pointed horns. Though they have comparable body shapes, Mountain goats often seem much bigger due to their long fur and fluffy beards.
Mountain Goat and Dall Sheep Spotting Tips: From afar, both mountain goats and Dall sheep look like small mounds of snow on the mountain, and you can easily miss them with the naked eye.
Use binoculars to scan the cliffs, and you’ll realize that, yes, that mound of snow is in fact three Dall sheep resting, or a scruffy mountain goat browsing for food. If they seem to be moving swiftly up the mountain, pay careful attention; it might mean one of their predators, such as a wolf or coyote, is nearby.
Did you know?: Mountain goats were reintroduced to Mount Juneau in 1989 and have become a common sight since the early 2000s. If Juneau is one of your ports of call, you’re in luck.
Spotting Alaska Wildlife is Only Half the Thrill
The thrill of spotting wildlife in Alaska is almost guaranteed when cruising, but the real excitement comes once you've put this knowledge to the test. Now that you know what to look for and where to find it, try one of our top Alaskan cruise adventures and see how easily you can spot wildlife while exploring.