The Largest Animals In Alaska and Where to Spot Them…Safely

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Alaska is renowned for it’s wildlife. In fact, some of the largest animals in North America can be found in this northern-most US state. But with their large size comes big responsibilities on the part of the viewer: for example, don’t ever approach one too closely to get a photograph. This isn’t the zoo after all. For this post, we interviewed nature guides in Alaska to learn where to see these larger-than-life animals and how best to interact with them to ensure our safety.

Bald Eagles

If you’re on the market to spot a bald eagle – so-called because they have white heads, and “bald” used to mean white, not hairless – connect with Capt. Rob Holston, a retired school music teacher who has been guiding in Alaska for 13 years, and who guarantees showing you eagles and their nests on his wildlife excursion to Guard Island Lighthouse. Capt. Rob knows bald eagles like the back of his hand; when asked about Alaska’s largest resident bird of prey, he impressively spewed off a list of facts including:

Babies eagles grow so fast (the size of your fist to a bird with a 6 1/2 to 7 feet in a matter of 3 months!) because they eat the healthiest diet in the world: the Alaskan seafood diet, which comprises herring, flounder, pollock, rockfish, and salmon, which is their favorite. In fact, because eagles chow down so much salmon, in 1917 the Alaska Territorial Legislator imposed a bounty system on Eagles, and over the next 36 years, over 100,000 eagles were killed. The bounty was removed in 1953, and in 1956, the American Bald Eagle was provided federal protection under the Bald Eagle Act set up in 1940, which makes it illegal to possess any Eagle (dead or alive), or to possess any part of an eagle including their feathers!

Humpback Whales

In addition to bald eagles, Nature-loving Capt. Rob’s Lighthouse, Totems & Eagles Excursion treats you to humpback-whale-spotting, but he does warn, “be vigilant: we spot them about 25% of our days out.” Capt. Rob says he and his guests, “marvel at the appearance of the monster of the deep whose head is adorned with knobby tubercles containing course hairs,” but reports, “the most spectacular humpback whale sightings is seeing a breach…this is when the whale jumps into the air before crashing back into the ocean’s surface.” Whale-impassioned, Capt. Rob also kindly gives us some tips on how to spot a humpback whale. He instructs:

  1. Look for the spout..and some mist: When whales surface, they immediately exhale the air they’ve been holding in their lungs, and because they are warm blooded, the exhaled air is warm, so when it meets the cool ocean air, it creates a plume of mist.
  2. Look for something dark that changes size: In the distance, whales look nearly black, and since they come to the surface and then dive down again, they appear to get larger, then smaller.
  3. Look for explosions: When whales crash back into the water after they breach, their 45-ton bodies make the water fly up energetically around them.

Black Bears

Sudevi Burich, a hiking-and-yoga obsessed German transplant who hasn’t left Alaska since falling in love with the state three years ago, says of her trips into the wild, “We frequently see black bears roaming the mountain sides and hear rumors of grizzlies grazing off-trail,” which isn’t all that surprising considering 100,000 of their species inhabit the state. Word of advice: when looking for one of these omnivorous animals that are pray to other bears (mainly brown), and that can weigh up to 350 lbs., be sure to look beyond the black: black bears can be white or cinnamon-colored. If you really want to do the bear thing in Alaska, hop on board Zack Tappan’s Alaska Bear Viewing Day Tour where “you will walk along the same trails as the bears do, sit on the same river banks as they do and observe them as they go about their day to day life.”

Moose

Since Male Alaska Moose can stand over 7 ft at the shoulder, and weigh over 630 kg (1,386 lbs), you wouldn’t necessarily want to come into close contact with them. But Sudevi reports it’s fairly common to see moose in the summer closer to town “as it seems to be a more protective environment for cows to raise their new-born calves.” Though their size and weight is intimidating, Sudevi says, “It’s always a welcome surprise to see baby moose with their moms along the trail systems in town” before they start “congregating in the valleys outside of Anchorage, getting ready for their mating season” in September.

Grizzly Bears

Besides two areas in Montana and Wyoming, the best places to view Grizzly bears are at Katmai and Denali National Parks in Alaska. As Zack Tappan will point out on his Alaska Bear Viewing Day Tour that takes guests down the same trails that bears walk, and to the same banks where bears fish, The Alaskan Grizzly varies in colour from blonde to black, but, most commonly, they are dark brown. Other features that will help you decipher a Grizzly in the wild are its concave face, hump between its shoulder blades, and long front claws that are all the better for catching salmon. Although they are hefty, and thus look like big meat-eaters, Alaskan Grizzlys mainly eat plants, seeds, and berries. As the undisputed monarchs of Alaska, Grizzly bears display an unpleasant temperament more frequently than other bears, but there are certain aspects of the species that humans can learn from:

  1. Healthful eating: Grizzlys are omnivorous and adaptable (they eat depending on what’s available locally)
  2. Resourcefulness: Grizzlys kill the likes of rodents, moose, and caribou, but they also eat animals they happen upon that are already dead
  3. Good resting habits: Grizzlys hibernate from October or November until April or May

Caribou

David Patrick’s tour, The Alaskan Adventure, takes you deep into several of Alaska’s awesome National Parks where caribou (hefty herbivores otherwise known as reindeer) are aplenty, though they do tend to prefer treeless tundra. Don’t have the fortune of seeing one in the flesh? Don’t panic: you can enjoy them in food-form; Alaskans are known to make a mean caribou stew!

Sea Lions

If you’ve never seen a sea lion, there’s no better way to rectify that problem than on Neil Nickerson’s Scenic Paddle Boarding trip through the waters of Juneau. Cozy in a wetsuit, Neil will take you to stunning spots where sea lions sunbathe amid a backdrop of glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Fun fact: Stellar Sea Lions are also commonly incorporated into Alaskan cuisine in the form of barbecued ribs, burgers, and stir-fries. The Alaska Sea Otter and Stellar Sea Lion Commission also suggests eating sea lion liver or heart by soaking the organ overnight, and then cutting it into small steak-size pieces, dipping the pieces in seasoned flour mix (flour, salt, pepper and garlic powder), and then frying them in grease. Their final advice: serve with fried with onions.

Otters

The likelihood of seeing a classic Alaskan wolf on Vicki Taylor’s sea cycling tour of historic Ward Cove is slim, but that’s no biggie when there are otters galore! Vicki Taylor will not only tell you cool bits of information like, “sea otter fur is perhaps the finest in the world,” she’ll also take you to a place where you can pull in a crab pot like a real Alaskan fisherman.

Dall Sheep

Steve Busby notes that a highlight of his Anchorage Private Tour is “visiting the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, a protected wildlife habitat home to many migratory species of birds,” but perhaps even more cool is seeing Dall sheep at Turnagain Arm. Did you know that horned Dall sheep are males, and their age can be determined by counting the annuli (rings) around their horns? And did you know that their horns only grow during spring, summer, and early fall? Hire Steve as your guide, and in no time you’ll know everything about this stately animal. Your friends will be mega impressed, and mega envious.

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