If you’re coming to Juneau, Alaska, it’s hard not to think bout going on a whale watching adventure.
The Juneau area is one of the best places to catch humpback whales in the summer and you can easily book a tour whether you are flying in or coming in on a cruise.
In this article, I’ll show you what you can expect when doing a humpback whale watching tour. I’ll give you an overview of the experience and also some tips to make the most of your time out on the water!
Juneau whale watching overview
We decided to do our tour with Juneau Whale Watch.
In total, it’s about a 3.5 to 4 hour excursion that spends about two hours and 15 minutes on the water. The rest of the time is getting situated and transported to and from the dock.
They run quite a few tours throughout the day so you can pick a time slot that works just for you.
I don’t think the time of day really matters that much because the whales are active throughout the day. However, mornings and evenings are typically when the water is calmer.
Prices are $145 for ages 13 and older, $130 for ages three through 12, and free for ages 2 and under. Tours will be offered April through September.
Something I like about these tours is that if you don’t see any whales you can get your money back!
Also, if you shell out $20 more bucks you can combine this so that you get dropped off at the Mendenhall Glacier. You’ll be able to hang out there as long as you want and then board the shuttle bus back.
It’s on the way coming back from whale watching so it makes a lot of sense to knock out that site after a whale watching tour.
Before you go the Mendenhall Glacier, I would highly recommend for you to read our detailed guide of the Mendenhall Glacier.
Pre-visit tips for whale watching
In order to really enjoy your whale watching trip you want to make sure that you are 100% prepared and here are some essential tips to help you be completely ready for your visit.
Adjust your expectations
I hate to break it to you but most likely, you are not going to witness a spectacular, once in a lifetime breaching event.
You also will likely not see bubble netting which is a pretty rare event.
You might see these things… but probably not.
With that said, just being able to see humpback whales in the wild is a pretty spectacular site.
And there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to see some majestic flukes breaking the surface at a minimum.
Hopefully, you will see something extra spectacular but just set your expectations so that you’re not disappointed.
Getting good photographs
Getting really good photographs of whales is not an easy task on these tours.
One reason is that you have to keep a good distance from the whales and that can make it difficult to get a good shot with a lot of detail.
Another reason is that you have to anticipate their movements and/or just get lucky.
The good news is that you can see so many whales here so that you have a lot of opportunities to anticipate those movements which does make it a lot easier to get good shots.
However, you’re still going to want a good zoom lens if you want quality shots. I utilized my 300 mm Cannon L-series lens and I thought it did a pretty good job.
Serious wildlife photographers might go with something like a 400mm but most of the people on the boat were definitely not serious photographers.
If you only have your smart phone with you that can still get some pretty good shots, especially if you have one of the whales getting a little close.
Video of whales can also come out really nice even on a cell phone.
Get a good vantage point
As soon as the second deck opens I would recommend going up there because you just have a better vantage point.
Don’t forget the Dramamine
If you are prone to sea sickness it’s probably a good idea to take some Dramamine.
I think the bay/Inside Passage is often pretty calm and it was definitely calm during our expedition so seasickness is probably not a major issue out here.
But it’s always good to be prepared.
Juneau whale watching experience
Your whale watching experience begins when you meet up for check in. This will take place right outside of the Mount Roberts Tramway.
Depending on the time of day this area can be quite busy but we scheduled our tour for the morning and so it was quite empty, especially because the cruise ships had not arrived yet.
You’ll look for the person wearing the blue cap and simply let them know that you are have arrived.
Soon you will board the whale watching shuttle bus and it is going to take you over to Auke Bay, where you will board your boat for the tour.
It’s about a 30 minute ride over to the boat full of dad jokes and commentary, which was a little bit difficult to fully appreciate so early in the morning.
The good news is: you may have a surprise waiting for you on the way.
When we took the shuttle, we spotted many bald eagles along the way. A handful of them were just hanging out on top of the light posts along the road.
You also might get lucky and spot a black bear roaming the fields along the main road.
It’s pretty incredible how accessible the wildlife is in Juneau.
Once you arrive in Auke Bay Harbor, you’ll walk down a short dock and then board the 49-person catamaran. When the boat is taking off they may not open up the second deck so you will just need to find a seat on the first deck.
Note that some tours go out on a smaller jet boat that seats 26 people.
Our boat was really nice and I liked that the seats had a small shelf area so I could easily set my camera down.
Note: They don’t provide meals but they do provide some light snacks at some point during the tour.
Large windows provide great views so that you should not have to miss anything. I also appreciated the fact that the windows were well cleaned.
On the second deck, there’s a pretty spacious viewing deck which gives you panoramic views. Once they opened up the top deck, that’s where we spent most of our time.
There is a bathroom on board but you can also go ahead of time at the dock or at the Mount Roberts Tramway.
Once everybody has boarded you will get your short orientation which will include a very brief safety instruction and then it will be time to takeoff.
Depending on the tides, this will be another opportunity for you to get some unforgettable views of bald eagles.
When we were here, we spotted at least a dozen eagles hanging out and fighting over fish. It was probably the best views we had of them our entire time in Alaska.
Once you launch, the instructors will give you a little bit of insight about humpback whales and offer you the chance to check out a baleen which is what some people call a “whale’s tooth” although it’s a different thing.
After cruising out for a little while you’ll eventually be out in the bay where hopefully some pretty nice views will open up. We had lots of clouds on our tour but the sky did open up for a while at some point.
(Even if it is raining outside the tour will still go on so you should not have to worry about cancellations.)
It didn’t take very long for us to get our first whale sighting and once we got the first one they pretty much were nonstop.
Once a pod would pass us by, we would wait around a little bit and then head out to a new spot and pretty much immediately find whales. That’s not always the case on a whale watching tour so it’s definitely not something to take for granted.
What I like about whale watching tours is that the boat is geared specifically towards allowing you to view these magnificent creatures.
That’s different from a boat cruise that you can take like the one we did to Glacier Bay which is focused on glaciers and general wildlife.
It makes a pretty big difference because on a whale watching tour you’re likely to get closer to the whales and the boat will stop and allow you to spend more time with the whales.
You can actually hear them blowing water through their blowholes and if you’re lucky (or unlucky) you might even get sprayed.
Seriously, I’ve heard horrible things about the ensuing stench after getting sprayed by a whale.
I’m all about close encounters but that might be pushing it.
But back to the boat tours….
My point is that if you really want to focus on getting a good whale encounter, don’t think that a normal boat tour will always be good enough.
The team on the boat is really good about helping to spot whales and will immediately alert you as to what direction to look in.
However, it’s really not that hard to find them in this area because they are so numerous.
All you have to do is look for spouts which are pretty easy to spot with the naked eye, even whenever they are pretty far out.
Once you see a spout you may then see multiple spouts following which could be different whales or it could be a new spout from the original whale.
Sometimes the whales will hang out near the surface for a while and engage in things like lunge feeding.
But eventually, they will want to take a dive and that is whenever you will see them arch their back and then maybe stick out there fluke. It’s truly a sight to behold.
On this tour, whenever we saw one whale we would usually see one or two additional whales hanging out with it.
That was really cool because the only other time I did whale watching was off the coast of Sydney, Australia, and we did not see as many whales.
Another thing that’s cool is that the whales you see likely migrated from Hawaii. So if you are ever there during the winter and do some whale watching it’s always possible that you could actually see the same humpback whales!
At a certain point we stopped to check out some sea lions hanging out on a buoy.
We were pretty close to them so this offered some of the best views I think I’ve ever gotten of sea lions. It was pretty funny watching them sun bathe and continuously annoy each other. Such a tough life.
Chances are there will be other boats circling around the areas where the whales are spotted.
The boats are required to keep a good distance from the whales (100 yards) but some of the smaller boats seem to either disregard that rule or have some kind of exception that allows them to get closer.
It’s possible that you could spot other whales (or orcas) on your tour but we did not see any on this whale watching adventure.
Something that is cool about this tour is that if you get a good photo of a whale’s fluke you can try to identify it by going to Juneauflukes.org.
If you don’t see any matching whales then you may have discovered a new one and they will even let you name it!
I believe I found one of the whales I spotted which is known as “moon cheese” and I thought it was pretty cool to be able to identify a whale like that. So far, 150 humpback whales have been officially documented here.
After spotting quite a few whales it was time to make our way back.
Once again, whenever we arrived back at the harbor there were a lot of bald eagles hanging out.
We also saw a beautiful Canadian goose flying right by.
If you’ve never been whale watching before this is a fantastic place to do it because you are virtually guaranteed to see some beautiful humpback whales when visiting during peak season.
While I enjoyed this whale watching tour, Gustavus, Alaska, may offer you an even more exhilarating whale experience. If I could’ve had it my way I would’ve done my whale watching tour over there and then done the Tracy Arm boat tour out of Juneau.
But that did not quite work out, which is fine because this tour was still a lot of fun!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.