From skyline to shoreline, more than 400 animal species call Alaska home, and this vast number—as varied as the land itself—lures millions of adventurers to the Land of the Midnight Sun every year. We’ll let you in on a little secret: exploring Alaska and its untouched terrain is best done by sea.
When you cruise in Alaska, the journey on the Inside Passage provides unprecedented access to the region’s captivating wildlife in its natural habitat. The somewhat narrow channel is located between hundreds of smaller islands and rocky outcroppings to the east and the mainland to the west. Lined with rainforests, mountains, inlets and glaciers—home to the land’s distinctive animals—it’s the ideal location for spotting Alaska’s “Big Five”: grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, grey wolves, and moose. Here are some of the natives you’ll want to “meet” on your trip.
1. Bald Eagles
Alaska lays claim to the largest population of bald eagles in the world—up to 30,000 of the birds are estimated to live there—hence the running joke that bald eagles are as common in Alaska as robins are in Ohio. With a wingspan of about seven feet, this majestic national bird easily is identifiable in the wild, thanks to its distinctive white head of feathers.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), you can find them along the coast, offshore islands, and interior lakes and rivers. You’re likely to find high concentrations of the birds of prey on the islands of Southeast Alaska, where they’ll nest in old-growth timber along saltwater shorelines and mainland rivers. Since fish are the bald eagle’s main food of choice, you may be lucky enough to see one diving to hunt them directly in the water.
An estimated 50,000 black bears and 35,000 brown bears live in Alaska, making it one of the world’s best places to see bears in the wild. Black bears, which actually range in color from jet black to white, can weigh between 200 and 500 pounds; while brown bears, known as grizzlies, tip the scales at 500 to 800 pounds.
Depending on the availability of food sources such as salmon, berries, roots, and even moose and caribou, there can be as many as one grizzly bear per square mile in parts of southern Alaska, according to the ADFG. You’re likely to spot them in spring and summer during dawn and dusk, when they’re looking for food. It’s also common to see them along the shoreline, scouting fish and other food that may have washed ashore.
Caribou are one of the most recognized symbols of the great wild north, and reportedly, they outnumber Alaskan residents. Much smaller than moose, caribou typically weigh between 175 and 400 pounds, and they are the only member of the deer family to have both males and females grow antlers.
They migrate regularly in pursuit of food like plants, mushrooms and shrubs, and travel some 400 miles between summer and winter, but they prefer treeless tundra and mountains, says the ADFG. In summer, you’re likely to spot them in remaining snow patches in the woods, where they’re trying to avoid insects.
4. Dall Sheep
Dall sheep can be seen clambering in white bands along high-altitude mountain ridges and other steep terrain. Males (rams) are distinguished by their large, stately curled horns and slender but agile legs. Alaskan mountain goats are equally adept at traversing this rocky terrain and look similar, but they sport pointed horns and appear bigger, because of their long fur and fluffy beards.
Look for moving spots of white along cliffs and steep mountainsides—Dall inhabit all of Alaska’s mountain ranges, according to the ADFG, and you’ll find them in herds as they navigate the high-altitude interiors they love so much.
5. Grey Wolf
The grey wolf is likely the rarest sighting among Alaska’s “Big Five.” An ancestor of the domestic dog, grey wolves can be grizzled grey, all black or all white, and closely resemble German shepherds or malamutes. These striking animals live, travel and hunt in packs, and are known to roam great distances in a single day. Even without spotting a grey wolf, you might hear its haunting howl in the early morning or evening.
The largest of Alaska’s “Big Five” land mammals, a bull or male moose stands seven feet tall at the shoulder, can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and can grow an 80-pound antler rack in one summer. These surprisingly graceful animals don’t always stick to the wilderness, either—you may be as likely to spot one crossing a parking lot in town as grazing in a marsh.
7. Whales (And Friends)
Humpback, Beluga, Grey and Minke whales all can be spotted in these waters. Humpbacks are the largest of the group, growing to between 40 and 50 feet, and they put on a show when breaching: slowly coming up, all the way out of the water, before crashing back into the ocean. You also may come across playful porpoises, along with seals, sea lions, otters and fish.
Alaska is rich in wildlife, and an Inside Passage cruise offers a front-row seat to see it all. If you can’t glimpse one of these animals from the main deck or your stateroom balcony, look for them on an immersive shore excursion, or one of our rich multi-day experiences on land, which you can take before or after your cruise. For more information, take a look at Royal Caribbean’s Alaska itineraries.