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Wildlife in Alaska - by Margarett Waterbury
As I sit down to write this, I face the opening of the Dixon Entrance. I'm sailing on the Alaska Marine Highway, and about five minutes into work on my article “Wildlife in Alaska,” I've abandoned my computer at a booth in the snack bar without a second thought and dashed outside to watch a group of humpback whales feeding alongside the ship. It seems almost superfluous to say something like “Alaska is a great place to see wildlife,” but it's best to start with the basics. If you're interested in viewing some of the largest and most charismatic animals in North America, Alaska is a terrific place to look.
Alaska is home to some of the most recognizable large predators in the world. Black, Grizzly, Brown, and Polar Bears, Wolves, Coyotes, Mountain Lions, Wolverines, Orca Whales, Sea Lions, and Bald Eagles all live in Alaska, often in greater numbers than anywhere else in the United States. They're some of the most popular animals in Alaska, luring thousands of visitors each year with the hope of a glimpse. With some planning, you can increase your chances of seeing them.
When it comes to wildlife watching in Alaska, bears are at the top of the list for many people. Three kinds of bears can be found in Alaska: Polar bears, Brown or Grizzly bears, and Black bears. Polar bears, technically classified as marine mammals, live in the far north, along the southern edge of the polar sea ice. There are a few communities in Alaska inside the range of the Polar bear, most notably Barrow and Nome. Polar bears are quite large, comparable in size to coastal brown bears, and unless you're a very ambitious or motivated traveller you probably won't see them on your trip to Alaska.
Brown bears and Grizzly bears are members of the same species, though they differ in appearance. The term Brown bear is used to refer to coastal populations, while Grizzly bears are found inland. Due to the abundance of food in coastal regions, Brown bears are much larger than Grizzlies, with large males weighing as much as 1500 pounds. Large Grizzly males can reach 500 pounds. Black bears are the smallest of the three, and the most common. Reaching over 200 pounds, they are most often associated with forests, and have larger ears and curved claws adapted for climbing trees.
Bears may be much more common in Alaska than in the lower 48, but they're spread out over a large area and more difficult to see than you might expect. When they're not hibernating, most bears are busy consuming as much food as possible before the onset of winter. They congregate in large numbers around rivers full of spawning salmon, and there are certain areas in Alaska with a higher population of bears. Both Denali and Katmai national parks, as well as the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, boast robust bear populations. Although lodging in those areas can be costly, the sight of large groups of bears fishing together, or leading their cubs through the wilderness is truly remarkable. Anan wildlife observatory, outside or Wrangell, is also an excellent place to observe bears.
Alaska is also home to a number of large ungulates, or hooved mammals. Moose, Caribou, Reindeer, Elk, Dall Sheep, Mountain Goats, and Deer are all found in the North Country, sometimes in great numbers. Moose are so abundant in the interior of Alaska that they've become a road hazard, and almost a milion caribou range through the tundra. Dall Sheep and Mountain Goats can be spotted in alpine areas–look for clusters of white animals along slopes or rocky ledges. Wolves and Coyotes are also distributed over nearly all of Alaska's territory, and even if they aren't seen, can often be heard.
Some Alaskan whales are migratory, while others live there year-round. May brings the first of the migrating Humpback whales, many of whom have traveled over eight thousand miles from their breeding grounds in the south. They give birth in the safety of the shallow seas off the coast of Baja California each winter. While it may be a terrific nursery, the tropical ocean can't provide enough food to sustain these enormous animals; adult whales fast during this time, supporting themselves (and their offspring) with the reserves of fat accumulated during their time in the Alaskan summer. They feed enthusiastically while they're here, and if you're lucky you might see them lunging through the water with open mouths.
Orcas, or Killer Whales, live along the coastlines of Alaska and British Columbia. Pods can number up to 40 individuals and are led by a matriarch. Many pods have a defined territory; these pods are called “residents,” and feed mainly on fish like salmon, cod, and halibut. Other “transient” pods or individuals move from place to place, and are more aggressive in their feeding habits, preying upon seals, sea lions, otters, fish, birds, and even smaller whales.
Seals and Otters are also common in Alaska's seas and rivers. Like so many Alaskan mammals, they follow the migrations of salmon and other fish. Sea otters are especially plentiful in Prince William Sound.
A number of important bird migration corridors and breeding grounds can be found in Alaska. Millions of sea birds take part in the annual arctic feast that attracts the whales, and bald eagles congregate in rivers and streams to feed on spawning salmon every summer. If you're interested in birding, contact us for reccomendations regarding timing and location.
Planning Your Trip
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), grizzly bears and orca whales won't be leaping out of the shrubbery the moment you arrive in Alaska. It's possible you won't see a single wild animal during your entire time in Alaska (though certainly not probable). To dramatically increase your chances of seeing animals, you need to go to them, though this doesn't necessarily mean you'll need to go far. Opportunities to interact with wildlife can be found in every part of the state, in extremely remote settings, or just outside of major towns and cities.
Here is a list of valuable links for more information on wildlife in Alaska.
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