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Whale Watching in Juneau: Will We See Orcas?

watching for orca whales while surrounded by breathtaking Alaskan scenery

Watching orcas in Juneau, Alaska

One of the top things to do when visiting Juneau is to take a whale watching tour. As one of the world’s best places for the activity, some 600 humpbacks inhabit the waters of the northern Inside Passage. But many of our guests ask, “Will we see orcas?” There are other whales that inhabit the waters around Juneau, including orcas. Orcas, or killer whales, are technically the world’s largest dolphins, but all dolphins are cetaceans.

Seeing orcas in their natural environment rather than a tiny tank performing for food, is incredibly rewarding. And, a luxury whale watch excursion from Juneau on an elegant yacht (the only whale watching yacht in Southeast, Alaska), is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip. Just imagine sipping champagne as an orca curiously checks out its visitors with a behavior called spy hopping.

orca spy hopping

While seeing humpback whales is highly likely, with the odds close to 100 percent, along with spotting other wildlife like Steller sea lions, harbor seals, Dall’s porpoises, and bald eagles, will you see orcas? Let’s take a deeper dive so that you’ll know what to expect.

The Types of Orcas in Alaska

Not all orcas are the same. In fact, there are three different types of orcas in Alaska, based on habitat and prey. That includes resident, transient, and offshore orcas. The residents feed only on fish and tend to stay near coastal areas, while transient orcas feed on marine mammals such as sea lions, seals, and porpoises, and have a larger range. Offshore orcas tend to be a lot more elusive as they’re found primarily in the open ocean, feeding on fish and sharks. In Juneau, there are both resident and transient pods of orcas, which are often depicted in Southeast Alaskan culture.

The differences between resident and transient orcas are significant. Residents are commonly spotted during the spring and summer, while transient orcas inhabit the waters in the fall and winter. This is due to their food sources, with resident orcas feeding primarily on fish and transient orcas feeding on marine mammals. Residents typically stay close together, living in tightly knit social groups that hunt cooperatively for food like herring and salmong. Transients tend to be more solitary. They hunt sea lions, seals, and sometimes whales and generally travel alone or in just small family units.

While orcas can be seen year-round in the waters outside Juneau, they aren’t always easy to find. They move quickly over vast areas, covering as much as 100 to 200 miles a day.

whale watching in Juneau

But Will I See Orcas?

Generally, an orca is spotted on about 10 percent of whale watching trips in Juneau. The success rate of finding humpbacks between May and mid-September is nearly 100 percent. They migrate over 3,000 miles from tropical waters like Hawaii, trickling in and out of the area to feast on the region’s rich krill and small baitfish.

During the summer, orcas tend to be more active as they take advantage of the salmon runs while traveling more freely throughout their habitat. If you’re very lucky, you might see large pods as the residents often travel in super pods that can have as many as 150 members. Transient pods are normally in groups of 10 or fewer.

Keep in mind that orcas are nomadic, often traveling as far as 100 miles a day. They may be spotted in one area for a month, then disappear for several weeks. There are never guarantees as these are wild, unpredictable animals, but your best chances are during the warmer months of the year. Come with a sense of adventure and appreciation for what you do see, and hope for the best. No matter what happens, you’re sure to have an incredible time out on the water.


whale sense Alaska

Fishermen and hunters once targeted orcas. Historically threats to the animals included commercial hunting and culling to protect fisheries from them. The live capture of orcas for marine parks and aquariums no longer occurs in the United States, but it is still a global threat. Populations face other dangers such as chemical contaminants, food limitations, and disturbances from boat traffic.  The noise from vessels are highly disturbing as orcas rely on underwater sound to communicate, navigate, and feed.  Communication is done through clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls, with each pod  possessing a unique set of calls, helping to maintain cohesion in the groups.

One of the most effective ways to protect orcas in Alaska is through habitat conservation. Orcas rely heavily on healthy and productive habitats for food and shelter, so ensuring these areas are protected from disturbances like noise pollution and boat traffic is essential. All orca populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

At Alaska Luxury Tours we practice Whale SENSE,  a voluntary recognition program that commercial whale watching companies adhere to that includes a commitment to responsible ecotourism practices. The criteria followed ensures that all whales, including orcas, are kept safe while also providing an educational, meaningful experience for guests.

Luxury Whale Watching in Juneau, Alaska, a Special Treat

With these ethical guidelines followed, we can ensure that a luxury whale-watching excursion is enjoyable and safe for all, from our human guests to wildlife. Our master captain and expert naturalist will use their local knowledge and experience to bring you to the very best locations, to maximize the chances that you will see orcas. But as these are creatures enjoying their freedom in the wild, as mentioned, that can never be guaranteed. One thing is sure, Alaska Luxury Tours will go above and beyond to provide every guest with an adventure of a lifetime.

Book your exclusive, private luxury whale watch here.