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Gray Whale Watching in Alaska


Ben Marolf, Expedition Guide, Wilderness Explorer

I called Expedition Leader Dan Niebler over the radio.“Dan… this is Ben. I see some humpbacks spouting in the distance; I think our skiff is going to go check them out if we have time. We may be a few minutes late back to the boat.”

“Hey Ben, that isn’t a problem. Just so you know, they might not be humpbacks,” Dan replied.

There are points in life that you remember clearly and distinctly, for one reason or another. For me, many of those memories involve gourmet pizzas and meeting strangers’ dogs, but on that sunny April day in Magoun Island State Park in Southeast Alaska, the memory that I’ll be holding onto involves the first time that I ever saw gray whales.

Gray whales partake each year in a massive journey thought to be the longest annual migration by any mammal. From their winter breeding and calving grounds in Baja, Mexico, the gray whales make the enormous trek from the warm tropical waters to the nutrient rich waters off the Artic Pacific.

Gray Whales in Baja

During this period of epic transition, these 60,000 pound cetaceans skirt the coast of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia – braving waters patrolled by transient killer whales, all while transiting newborn calves.

When they finally pass through Southeast Alaska, these gentle creatures are nearly to their summertime grounds, and are probably excited to get there. It’s rare for them to make much of a stop close to land. These whales are heading to the Northern Arctic waters to feed during the summer, only stopping rarely and opportunistically along the way.

Gray Whales in Alaska

So in April when I saw a whale spout in the Magoun Islands, I completely assumed that it was a humpback whale, but as we got closer to the spouting, the coloration on the whales back seemed different than what I was used to.

Adding to my building anticipation and curiosity was the fact that each dive failed to yield a hump on the back of the whale, and their caudal fins certainly weren’t humpback shaped.

Our guests and crew were all elated as we spent the next day watching gray whales – from what we were told, a company first in Southeast Alaska!

We watched from skiffs, kayaks, and the shoreline as the gray whales fed. Habits involved consumption of mainly bottom dwelling crustaceans, which gray whales eat by turning on to the side of their body and rubbing their face along the ground, scooping up sediments from the sea floor.

Some older gray whales go blind in one eye as a result of this scraping along the bottom.

We considered ourselves pretty lucky that week in the Magoun Islands. We found ourselves a diamond amongst the gems of Southeast Alaska.

We wished the whales farewell as we left our anchorage, and didn’t see them when we returned two weeks later. However, next year when UnCruise returns to Alaska in the spring, you can bet the Magoun Islands will be on our list.

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