Nowhere else in Southeast Alaska will you see so many different creatures: puffins, sea otters, humpback whales, and sea lions will all likely make an appearance in Sitka.
That’s because the town is located on Alaska’s outer coast. Animals like puffins and sea otters are rarely seen in the protected bays and fjords of Southeast’s Inside Passage. But the outer coast provides nutrient-rich ocean waters for these and other animals. While other parts of Southeast get “runs” of fish, Sitka’s waters are home to abundant populations of feeder fish like herring or capelin. So when the fish runs are finished, whales and birds still find plenty to eat here.
You can spot gregarious sea otters feasting on crab dinners while rafting in kelp beds, watch puffins dive-bomb the Pacific from rocky island nests, and look for congregations of humpback whales. Harbor seals and Steller sea lions are often spotted, and you may even see minke, orca, or grey whales in the waters around Sitka Sound.
Some 200 to 300 humpbacks visit the ocean waters around Sitka from July to December. They’re drawn by the rich feeding grounds, often settling here after visits to Southeast’s interior waterways. If you’re here in spring or early summer, you might have a harder time seeing humpback whales, but a few are year-round residents, and several groups of them appear in early spring for the herring run. (You’ll better your chances by asking around before booking a wildlife-watching cruise.) Late July to November is the best time to spot humpbacks; seeing 20 whales on a fall day isn’t unheard of. The humpbacks are feeding on krill; you’ll likely see their dark blue arched backs as they surface for air, or their deeply forked tails disappearing into the water on another deep dive. You might even see a whale breaching. Humpbacks breach more than any other baleen whale, and they often propel themselves almost fully out of the water. On a still day, it’s an amazing sight, and they make a thunderous sound crashing back into the water.
Humpbacks stick around Sitka later than any other waters in Southeast, feeding on the rich biomass of fish in preparation for their month-long swim to Hawaii. There, they’ll give birth to calves and linger to April or even May before returning to Southeast. Most humpbacks return to the same waters year after year, so your boat captain may recognize tail colorings or markings, and may even know a whale by name. In the meantime, check out this catalogue of whale-tail photos, compiled over 30 years by researchers in Southeast.
There’s even an annual festivalannual festival celebrating humpbacks, held in November.
You’ll also find grey, orca, and minke whales around Sitka. About six grey whales summer here, while minke whales and orcas pass through the area. Minkes are small versions of humpbacks—both are baleen filter feeders, but minkes are the second-smallest baleen species, growing just over 20 feet (humpbacks are often twice as large). Orcas are spotted less frequently, but they’re around. These toothed whales feed on salmon, seals, baby whales, and even sea lions, but have to stay on the move to surprise their prey.
How to See Whales
Road - You can spot whales, seals, and sea otters from a lot of spots around town, even from the O'Connell BridgeO'Connell Bridge, which connects Sitka to Japonski Island. Because Sitka has a road system that follows the shore, you can drive the highway and probably have some luck. During the height of the humpback congregation in the fall, many Sitkans look out their office or home window to see the spouts and flukes of whales. Take the RIDE bus (weekdays only; 907-747-7103) or drive to Whale Park and stop at any roadside pullout where you see something.
Boat - The best way to spot whales is to get out on the water. Sure, it’s more expensive than driving, but your odds of seeing whales goes way up. Boat captains do this all summer, so they know where the whales are and where they might be going. And boat companies can adjust their routes to the weather, visiting protected bays on stormy days and making outer coast runs on nice ones. You might visit rocky islands, bays with gentle rollers, coves with mirror-like still waters, or tidal flats beneath a volcanic peak.
There are plenty of boat options in Sitka, from larger boats with elevated open decks to small, family-oriented charter boats. Ask about trip duration, what you might see, and motion sickness before deciding which vessel and which trip might work for you.