Alaska wildlife viewing
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Did You Know … ?
- More bald eagles are found in Alaska than in all the lower 48 states combined.
- Humpback whales require up to a ton of food daily.
- Kodiak brown bears can catch salmon at a rate of about two per hour.
- At peak times, there are up to a quarter million birds per square mile in the Copper River Delta.
- Musk oxen have no musk glands and are not oxen; goats and sheep are closer relatives.
The biggest critters
Everyone knows Alaska is America’s largest state, but there is a lot more that is outsized about the place — its wildlife, for example.
The 49th state claims some of the world’s largest critters, i.e., the largest whale and hence, largest mammal (blue whale); largest carnivorous land mammal (Kodiak bear), and largest salmon. It also claims the world’s largest gatherings of bald eagles (Chilkat River) and marine mammals (Pribilof Islands).
Besides, the vast Alaskan land is home to mammals in huge numbers. It counts approximately 900,000 caribou, 175,000 to 200,000 moose, 100,000 black bears, 30,000 brown bears, 7,000 to 11,000 wolves and 4,000 musk oxen. Sixteen species of whales are seen in its waters, and large numbers of seals, sea lions and walruses haul out on its shores. Seabirds nest on Alaska’s coast in the millions occasioning festivals celebrating the annual visitors.
Such numbers are good news for those who like to populate their vacations with wildlife. It’s both easy and difficult to satisfy a yen to observe these animals.
As to the easy part, many of the impressive creatures live reasonably close to humans. The observant can spot bald eagles, Dall sheep and moose, among others, simply by driving in areas where the animals are frequently seen — or, sometimes, moose are right in Anchorage. Similarly, select spots on the coastline are good for land-based whale watching, and many coastal towns offer whale watching boat excursions, which provide chances to see additional sea mammals, plus puffins and other seabirds.
The state and national park systems, animal protection and rescue centers and even the Anchorage Zoo ensure an eyeful of Alaska’s bounty.
Wildlife viewing is sometimes difficult, too, given Alaska’s size and climate. Extra effort is required to see specific sights — such as polar bears in the far north, unique bear watching experiences accessible on a fly-in basis or record-setting numbers of marine mammals 300 miles from the mainland in the Pribilof Islands. The astonishing Pribilofs also host the Northern Hemisphere’s largest seabird colony (2.5 million birds) and support the world’s largest breeding rookery of northern fur seals (57% of all these seals).
Things to do for Venturers
- Go north. Watch herds of caribou on the move north of the Brooks Range, and look for polar bears on the ice floes around Barrow.
- If walrus viewing is on your must-do list, visit the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, accessible only by boat. Rough it when camping and hiking on Round Island, the most-visited island in the group. You’ll see sea lions and whales, too.
- It’s an exotic journey, but head to and spend a few days at St. Paul Island in the Pribilof Islands to see northern fur seals and some unusual bird species. Local Aleut naturalists lead guided tours. Observation blinds have been constructed so the seals, plus sea otters, Steller sea lions and walruses, can be observed without disruptions.
- See whales at water level, from a sea kayak. Or choose a barebones boat charter to head out onto the waters in search of the world’s largest mammals.
- See Kodiak bears (a subspecies of brown bears) in the place that shares their name, Kodiak Island. Observe how they do their fishing.
- Drive the 52-mile Copper River Scenic Byway, which crosses the Copper River Delta, a gathering place for millions of shorebirds during spring migrations. Camp and hike along the byway for unique viewing opportunities. Look for the once-endangered white trumpeter swan.
Things to do for Centrics
- Listen to whales. At Sitka’s Whale Park, which is set up specifically for land-based whale watching, listen to their undersea noise via a hydrophone on site, or listen to whale sound recordings. Also, within four miles of the park, tune in to “Whale Radio” (88.1FM) for broadcasts of the hydrophone sounds.
- Look for wildlife from the decks of the ferryboats on the Alaska Marine Highway system.
- Take a flightseeing tour that specializes in wildlife viewing from the air.
- Carry your camera and watch for Dall Sheep along the cliffs next to the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. A spot called Windy Point can provide particularly good photo ops.
- See white beluga whales from key vantage points on land. Look for them from the Seward Highway near Anchorage (one stopping point is aptly called Beluga Point) and along the Cook Inlet coast of the Kenai Peninsula.
- In May, join the festivities at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival at Homer or the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival at Cordova — and watch birds by the thousands.
Things to do for Authentics
- Buy an AlaskaPass — a rail pass — and, from the comfort of a train seat, take in the grandeur of Alaska’s scenery as well as its wildlife.
- Take a shuttle into Denali National Park as one (reasonably) sure way to see grizzly bears. Denali is your best place to see caribou, too.
- Look for bald eagles alongside highways, but for the best viewing — and photographic — opportunities, put the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve on your itinerary, especially if traveling in October.
- For additional, focused wildlife viewing, visit the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer; Sitka’s Alaska Raptor Center, a bald eagle hospital and educational center, or the Alaska SeaLife Center, an aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center in Seward.
- From Bartlett Cove, take a full-day cruise up Glacier Bay. View the glaciers, but also watch for seal lions, seals, sea otters, whales — and even puffins. Also, from the boat, you may see black bears, brown bears, moose, mountain goats, as well as abundant bird life.
- Take a guided tour that specializes in bear watching, or a tour focused on birds.
For more information, consult the Alaska Travel Industry Association at www.travelalaska.com