Peak humpback whale watching season has reached Alaska. By now, the vast majority of the humpbacks have completed their migration from their breeding grounds in Hawaii, Baja, or Japan, and reached the waters of Alaska. Each spring, they begin their migration back to the nutrient-rich waters of the North Pacific, with some swimming with their newborn calves in tow. After fasting through the winter, the humpbacks journey back to Southcentral Alaska and Kenai Fjords to feed on small fish and crustaceans such as krill, herring, and capelin.
Humpback whales can grow to over 50 feet long but their throats are roughly the size of a grapefruit, allowing them only to feed on small animals. To find enough food, the whales have to travel to the cool waters of Alaska. During the summer months, Alaska has over 19 hours of daylight a day, which produces abundant nutrients in the ocean for the whales and other species to feed on. Humpback whales have some extremely impressive feeding behaviors that they exhibit as they work to consume enough calories and build the fat preserves needed to last through the winter.
Typically, humpback whales do not travel in pods or group together except when they are breeding. However, one cooperative feeding technique can bring over a dozen humpback whales together in their common goal of feeding on schools of fish. Bubble-net feeding occurs when whales join together to push the schools of fish to the surface by blowing bubbles in a circular pattern underneath the fish. Once the fish are at the surface, the humpbacks lunge from the water with their mouths wide open, gulping up as many fish as possible.
Bubble-net feeding is a rare, unpredictable, and once-in-a-lifetime experience to witness. Humpback whales do have more common behaviors that can be seen in Kenai Fjords National Park that are just as amazing to see. On occasion, humpback whales will throw themselves out of the water, in a behavior called breaching. It’s not known exactly why humpback whales breach. During breeding season in Hawaii, males breach in competitive pods as they fight for the attention of a female. But in Alaska, breaching may be a form of communication, a way to stun fish, an exercise, or just pure fun. Other behaviors that can be seen include fluke diving, pectoral fin slapping, tail lobbing, and spouting. The best tip for whale watching is to keep your eyes on the water. Humpback whales typically hold their breath for 5-10 minutes when they are feeding, but you never know what’s going to happen when they reach the surface.
May through August is the best time to see humpback whales in Alaska, but we can see them from all of our cruises for the entire cruise season. Some humpbacks will start their migration back to Hawaii as early as mid-August, while others stick around until September and even October. Our first bubble-net feeding action was seen on July 9th, and we hope to see it again before the summer ends! Though humpback whales can be seen on all of our cruises, the longer you are on the water, the better your chances are of seeing these incredible mammals. For the best chances of seeing humpbacks, we recommend our 6 Hour and 7.5 Hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruises and our 8.5 Hour Northwestern Fjord Cruise. Stay connected with us on Instagram and Facebook for the latest updates on our humpback sightings!