During this 3-hour cruise/tour, an on-board naturalist will explain much about the wildlife and natural phenomena, such as the glaciers, that you will see. On our cruise, the naturalist happened to be a twenty-something young lady who did an excellent job with her commentary and answered any questions she was asked, such as "Why do whales breach?" ( The answer is that it is a social behavior among whales most likely.) In addition to our naturalist, the whole crew consisted of twenty-somethings who crewed the boat and did an excellent job!!
We were served water, tea, hot chocolate, and juice as well as snacks twice while on board. But the best was the "salmon mousse" on crackers--it was fabulous! They even gave us the recipe for the mousse.
The boat was perfect for sightseeing with a large, closed in cabin with huge windows to shelter you from rain or chill; above deck was an equally large area with benches for wildlife watching and sunning. On our particular cruise we saw a "pod" of humpback whales, Stellar sea lions and innumerable bald eagles and sea/shore birds. With no exaggeration, bald eagles in Alaska are a common sight!! If you are not so lucky to see whales, the company running these whale watching cruises promises a partial refund
The newest of these vessels are jet-powered catamarans with hydrophones for listening to the whales "sing." Though not for the faint of pocket, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to see the whales & wildlife in and around these Alaskan waters when you've come this far already!!
$110 Adult; $70 Child (partial refund if no whales sighted.) (2004 price) We booked this excursion through our cruise ship. A quick check of the Allen Marine Tours makes it appear that this excursion might be available only through your cruise ship/cruise line. I can't believe this is really the case, so please check their website for more info., and for contact information.)
One attraction that you don't want to miss when you are in Juneau is a Whale Watching & Wildlife excursion. If you are lucky you may see one, several or all of these wildlife: humpback whales, orca whales, Steller Sea Lions, Harbor Seal, Dall's Porpoises, Sitka Black-Tailed Deer, Bald Eagles and and many additional sea and shore birds.
The first time we visited Juneau we missed the opportunity to take this wonderful excursion, but when we again cruised Alaska we decided we musn't miss the whale watching again! It was an exceptionally sunny, and warm day as we set out Auke Bay, through Stephens Passage and up Favorite Channel. We almost immediately saw many (about 12, YES, YES!!) Bald Eagles who were swooping down to catch fish. (The picture at the left shows a Bald Eagle perched on the highest crop of rocks.) We saw Stellar Sea Lions sunning themselves on the rocks and we glided around a group of 3 or 4 humpback whales who were most likely enjoying a good feeding spot! During the 3 hours we were on the boat, we also cruised through the Lynn Canal and by the Chilkat Peninsula.
4-Seasons just got bought out by Allen Marine, so that's no longer an option. Orca Enterprises is the most often advertised in travel forums, and with the high volume of people they put on their boats, it's no wonder there are so many good reviews.
Here's the breakdown on whale watching in Juneau:
All of the tours see basically the same whales in the same area. As a matter of fact, NOAA and NMFS require whale watching operators to act cooperatively to stay out of the way of the whales and other marine mammals. All tour operators have a set of guidelines to follow... things like do not approach closer than 100 yards, communicate with other boats and coordinate your viewing, don't stay with one group of animals for more than 20 minutes, etc.
Since most of the tours in Juneau are 2-3 hours in length, and they're all going to the same areas, it comes down to a few more subtle points when making your decisions.
First, try to decide what size of boat you'd like to take your tour on. I put all the operations in Juneau into 3 categories, based on the size (passenger capacity) of the boats they operate. Allen Marine operates large boats. You'll be on a tour with anywhere from 60-150 other people. The interaction with the captain will be minimal, but there are usually several very qualified crew members you can grab and ask a question if needed. When the boat is fairly full, the announcements will all be over a P/A system instead of in person.
Dolphin Jet Tours, Adventures in Alaska, Alaska Whale Watching and Orca Enterprises all fall into the medium category with anywhere from 6 to 50 guests on each tour. Usually the boats are smaller than the big Catamarans, and your announcements and narration will usually be in-person. A bit more direct access to the captain/local expert, although Orca regularly receives criticism that Capt. Larry just sits there looking grumpy and lets his crew do all the talking while he silently drives the boat. Note that in all the times I've personally been aboard an Orca boat, Larry has been very engaged with his guests.
Last but not least are the small boats. Often called "6-Packs" because they're limited to 6 passengers, these tend to be the most personal tours, if you can get one. Ride on the Rum Runner and you'll get a great lecture from a (very fun) marine biologist. Ride on the Can Can and you'll get to experience life in Alaska the way I experienced things growing up here. Some boats, driven by retired Coast Guard officers will give you an entire maritime history of the USCG, etc... The smaller boats also can be a bit more versatile with the route of your tour. For example, if you're on a large boat with 100 people, and you want to see Sea Lions and Eagles, you won't likely get to vote. On a small boat, the whole tour can be entirely up to your wishes and whims.
Next, look at how much time you'll be spending on the water, then compare the pricing. A $115 tour comes out to $46 per hour if it's a 2.5 hour tour. A $138 tour may seem more expensive, but if you're getting 3 hours on the water, the cost is the same between the tours. While we're on the subject of time, be sure to ask about the ground transportation to and from the small boat harbor. Some tours may include it in the fee, and some may charge extra. Also, the drive time between the cruise ships downtown and Auke Bay averages to about 30 minutes each way. Many of the 3.5-hour tours you see are really 2.5 hour tours with a 30 minute bus ride before and after.
Once you've made a decision based on time, take a look at what the tour includes. Most boat trips in Juneau should include "Alaskan Snacks," soft drinks, and coffee. Some of the longer trips will include a lunch, but be sure to ask. (ie: Adventure Bound sells lunches, snacks, etc. on their Tracy Arm trips, Alaskan Marine Adventures includes all of that in the price, etc.) Different tours are becoming known for their unique snacks. Harv & Marv can often be seen meeting Eileen in her kayak to deliver fresh baked cookies. Alaskan Marine Adventures usually serves an assortment of smoked salmon, crab dip, reindeer sausage, cheese, crackers, etc.... don't hesitate to ask! Not that snacks will make or break your decision, but I think it's important to consider whether or not you can customize things when you're booking.
Once you've narrowed the selection down a bit more, it will really come down to the personality of the operator. Some tours are very scientific, spouting facts and figures at you for 2 hours as if their HighSchool biology class grade depended on it. I always try to take a different approach and share a bit of my perspective on what life up here can be like. While other guides were studying and memorizing a bunch of facts and figures (and a script), My crew and I were out LIVING in the area, and learning about the animals and world around us from a first-hand point of view.
Another point to consider is the concern for safety and overall safety record of the boat/operator you choose. Larger vessels are required to be inspected on a regular schedule by the USCG. The small boats are not, but there's a voluntary "5-Star" inspection program that more of the smaller boats are participating in. It basically means we've gone above and beyond the required minimums where safety is concerned.
Update: Have heard that Allen Marine bought 4 Seasons early in 2008. So that makes this tip more of a memoir than a useful tip, but will give you a feel of what a whale watching tour is like.
Took a whale watching / salmon bake tour on Four Season's vessel, The Baranof Wind, out of Auke Bay. Left at 10 AM and back to shore by 3PM. A great trip on a good sized vessel with plenty of room to roam around on deck or inside. The Baranof Wind is a 72' steel hulled catamaran that cruises at 22 knots. The ship holds 212 passengers, but there were only about 50 people onboard the day we went.
Four Seasons isn't owned or committed to cruise companies only, although you can book them through most cruiselines, so tend to be less crowded and more laid back. We can talk about vertical integration some other time :)
Saw many Humpback Whales and Steller Sealions, Bald Eagles, and the hind end of a Black Bear diving into the bushes to get away from us. We stopped at Orca Point Lodge for a great BBQ salmon lunch. The salmon was so good, I got the recipie from the cooks and use it all the time at home. They gave us time to walk around this remote area - never felt hurried. On the way back to Auke Bay, just as we were turning the corner into the harbor, an Orca came up right next to the boat - an outstanding experience!
While we were in Juneau, we did a whale watching boat ride that was excellent. We saw three humpback whales, as well as a number of sea lions in the two hours that we were on the boat. There are few private companies that offer whale watching tours from Auke Bay, a small port near Juneau. Which one you choose partially depends on what size boat you want to be on. We went on one that had a boat that held about 100 people and that literally guaranteed that you will see a whale - if you don't they will give you a refund.
We went in the evening, and they served a decent buffet dinner on the boat, complete with drinks. The only drawback was the weather, which was rainy, so we got pretty waterlogged while going outside to take pictures. Nonetheless, it was still very much worth the effort. After about an hour, we spotted a mother and infant whale about 100 meters from the boat. The captain stoped the boat and we watched the whales play for about 30 minutes. It took a few tries, but we were able to get some whale pictures. While we were out in the bay, we also saw some Stellar sea lions, an endangered species, who were lounging on a buoy.
When we passed through Juneau on an Alaskan cruise, we decided to skip the cruise's whale watching excursion and book our own through a local operator. We'd heard great things about Captain Larry's whale watching tours through Orca Enterprises and were not disappointed! Captain Larry's tours take place on a "mammal-friendly" jet boat that is considerably smaller than other operators' boats, making for a less crowded and more fast-paced experience. Captain Larry guarantees a sighting, and we saw both humpback and orca whales on our outing, as well as many sea lions. The scenery itself (beautiful Auke Bay) is worth the trip - but getting close to these massive, majestic animals in their natural habitat is awe-inspiring and exhilarating. Captain Larry and his crew are naturalists, so you will also learn a lot on board. Bring your binoculars and your camera and go with Captain Larry!
We opted for and loved the Tracy Arm Cruise to see whales and the tidewater glaciers. We got very lucky and spent time with many whales, though they tell you up front that whale watching is secondary to glacier viewing. Translate: It is a long trip to Tracy Arm and they can't go too far out of the way to see whales and keep the schedule. An 8.5 hour tour might not be within your time frame. If whale watching is your primary focus, Captain Larry's is the best tour to take, and it is only a 3.5 hour tour.
Captain Larry has consisitently recieved rave reviews by cruisers who book excursions independently. Whale sightings are gauranteed.This personalized whale watching excursion begins in Auke Bay. (15 minutes north of Juneau) Auke Bay is well positioned within 30 minutes of some of the best feeding grounds for the endangered Humpback Whales in the area. They occasionally see whales and orca from the dock. Transportation can be arranged for free from the downtown area.
The Auke Bay departure point allows for a cruise along the shorelines of Admiralty Island, known as the "home of the bears". It boasts the largest concentration of Alaskan Brown Bears and nesting Bald Eagles in the world. While cruising around islands in Stephens Passage you will encounter and photograph the endangered Humpback Whales and Stellar Sea Lions, along with Harbor Seals, Dalls Porpoise, regular sightings of Orcas (Killer Whales), an occasional Otter, and a variety of sea and shore birds. $105.00
If you are also considering a helicopter tour, Captain Larry can arrange transport to a Coastal Helicopter Flight in conjunction with the best whale watching excursion in Juneau. Book early with him beacuse he is booked months ahead by independent travelers who just happen to be on cruise ships.