A Whale’s Song: The best wildlife cruise in Sitka, Alaska

(Last Updated On: September 7, 2021)

If you really want to see wildlife, A Whale’s Song Expeditions offers the best wildlife cruise in Sitka, Alaska.

All Whale’s Song tours include a comfortable and well-equipped boat with a knowledgeable and personable captain, a professional naturalist/photographer, and a hydrophone (so you can hear the whales communicate with each other). That sets the stage for a fabulous day out on the water — even without whales.

island with odd geology in Sitka Sound

But let me back up for a moment.

I was pretty apprehensive as I waited to board Cat Daddy (a boat equipped for whale watching) for a morning whale and wildlife tour on Alaska’s Sitka Sound. Wildlife sightseeing cruises in Alaska are not cheap, and the day before a tour with a different (much bigger) tour company (on a much larger boat) was a disappointment. Not horrible, just boring and uncomfortable.

Now I was back on the same dock, about to embark on an even more expensive tour in an area where I (now) knew there wasn’t a lot of whale activity at the moment. Despite my general belief that almost any day on the water is a good one, I feared this was going to be a significant waste of time and money.

But when it’s too late to back out, you have to hope for the best and move forward.

Which sometimes leads to unexpectedly wonderful things.

A spectacular tour even without whales

Spoiler alert: Rather than spending the morning observing just a few whales, we chose instead to watch birds and sea otters and enjoy the scenery. And we had a wonderful time. It was well worth our money and one of the highlights of this summer’s southeastern Alaska trip.

Touring Sitka Sound

Unlike tourist stops along the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska, Sitka faces the open sea across Sitka Sound. Our wildlife tour with A Whale’s Song took us by a couple scenic islands along the coast near Sitka and then across the sound to the national wildlife refuge on Saint Lazaria Island. The route back took us along a slightly different (but equally scenic) part of the coast as we returned to Sitka.

map showing a bird and whale watching tour route in Sitka Sound Alaska

We made our first stop not far from Sitka to look for eaglets in a nest high above the shore.

bald eagle nest in a tree

An adult bald eagle kept an eye on the nest from a nearby tree, but there were no baby birds yet.

Since we’d already seen so many eagles in Alaska, we didn’t linger long. Instead, we turned our attention to the gorgeous scenery (and a few very odd rocks) all around us.

pine-covered island with a crescent-shaped rock

Moving on, I spotted a humpback whale spouting in the distance and was rewarded with the flash of an almost totally white fluke.

At this point, we had a decision to make: Head toward the whale or focus on birds instead?

Knowing that few whales seemed particularly active at the moment and having seen lots of whales in Iceland, on our previous Alaska trip, and other places, we choose birdwatching with a side of sea otter spotting.

sea otter floating in Sitka Sound

I was surprised by the number of sea otters we saw around Sitka floating together in large groups called rafts. There were many more than I saw on my previous Alaska trip.

18th century Russian and American fur traders all but hunted sea otters into extinction. In Alaska, the few survivors lived in very, very remote areas. But sea otters play an important role in the ecosystem and during the 1960s a few were reintroduced in Sitka Sound. The healthy population I saw is one of those rare good news wildlife stories.

Bird Island

Not surprisingly, the birdwatching is great along Saint Lazaria Island (Kanasx’ée in Tlingit), a designated wilderness area often referred to simply as “Bird Island.”

rocky island with sea birds in Sitka Sound Alaska

Saint Lazaria Island is a very small island. However, despite its diminutive size, it is home to about a half-million breeding seabirds.

black and white sea birds perched on rocks

Bird Island itself is likely a lava plug that formed in a side vent when nearby Mount Edgecombe was active long ago. Those volcanic origins are obvious in the island’s twisted rock formations.

rocky island in Sitka Sound Alaska

As fascinating as the landscape looks, visitors should NOT step ashore to explore. Birds nest on or below pretty much every single bit of Saint Lazaria Island. Stepping on the island destroys those nests and any eggs or baby birds in them.

And there’s no need to go ashore to get a good look at the island and its many birds.

The birds of bird island

Of course, we started to see large numbers of birds we reached Saint Lazaria Island itself.

Being a puffin geek, I was thrilled to see tufted puffins almost everywhere I looked.

tufted puffin in the water of Sitka Sound Alaska

But puffins weren’t the only birds worth getting excited about.

A bit more wildlife as we return to Sitka

While it would have been great fun to spend the whole day out on the water (especially as the clouds began lifting), it was time to head back to Sitka.

But there were a few more things to see along the way.

Like sea lions.

sea lions swimming in Sitka Sound Alaska

As in Petersburg, the sea lions’ preferred rest stop in Sitka seems to be bright red buoys. However, there’s never enough room for everyone, which leads to near constant jockeying for position.

Sea lions crowd a buoy in Sitka Sound Alaska

From the buoy, we wove between islands along the shore of Baranof Island.

coast alone Sitka Alaska

There was no place to look where you wouldn’t see a fishing boat — or four or five of them.

We noticed them moving into position the night before and learned there were more here than usual, as at midnight Alaska’s commercial fishing fleet gained access to areas beyond those assigned specifically to them.

Purse seiner boat, tender, and net in Sitka Sound Alaska

Like Petersburg, Sitka has a very large fishing fleet and commercial fishing is a large component of the economy.

(Almost all the boats we saw were purse seiners. These fishing boats use a small boat to set a large net around a school of fish. They begin hauling the net in, closing it around the fish as they bring it in.)

But fishing boats weren’t the only things we saw along the shore. There were also a few more eagles and ducks.

bald eagle on a branch

And then it really was time to head back into Sitka.

Plan your Sitka whale and wildlife watching adventure

Sitka is located in southeast Alaska on Baranof Island. The city faces Sitka Sound and the open sea beyond, putting it on the outside edge of the Inside Passage. As such, it isn’t always included on cruises or other tours through the Alaska’s Inside Passage.

But Sitka is a great tourist destination. You really should go there and you should stay at least a couple of days.

When to visit Sitka

Sitka’s location in a temperate rain forest means the climate is generally wet (over 90 inches of rain a year) and cool (the average summer high is just over 60°F). But winter temperatures are also pretty moderate, with few days where they fall much below 20°F.

Not surprisingly, most visitors to Sitka arrive between June and August. And, while Sitka’s usual weather is cool and rainy, we had almost no rain and temperatures in the 70s during our late June/early July visit.

(But weather can change quickly here, so no matter when you decide to visit, bring layers and a good waterproof jacket!)

There are plenty of things to do year-round in Sitka. However, if your primary outdoor interest is whale and wildlife watching, some seasons are better than others.

Getting to Sitka

You cannot drive to Sitka and, once you are there, you can’t drive very far.

My original plan was to take the ferry to Sitka. However, we ended up flying there from Petersburg (via Ketchikan) on Alaska Air. This is not my recommended route, but I didn’t realize how limited the Alaska ferry schedule is these days. A commercial flight made it possible to make my planned stops in the time I had available without spending a fortune. It also gave me the chance to see some of southeast Alaska from the air.

Choosing a whale and wildlife tour in Sitka

We did two whale and wildlife tours in Sitka. One was an standard evening tour with a larger group and other was the tour with A Whale’s Song Expeditions. While the tour with A Whale’s Song was more expensive, for us it was money well spent.

Wildlife tour options in Sitka (and southeast Alaska generally)

There are a number of regularly scheduled general whale and wildlife tours available out of Sitka, ranging from large group tours to very small group and private tours.

Touring with A Whale’s Song Expeditions

From the moment we stepped on board Cat Daddy, I was pretty sure I would enjoy the morning’s tour no matter what wildlife we came across. Not only was the boat well-equipped and comfortable, but it was immediately clear that Captain Neil McDermott would be a great traveling companion.

Why A Whale’s Song is the best wildlife cruise in Sitka

Of course, A Whale’s Song is not the only tour operator in Sitka that does very small group and private tours. And, obviously, I haven’t tried the city’s other small boat options. (I’m open to invitations if someone wants me to give them a try!) However, there are a few things about A Whale’s Song that seem to make it stand out even among similar small tours.

  • All tours are with Neil McDermott, a highly qualified, knowledgeable, and extremely personable captain with a real passion for whales and other wildlife.
  • A professional photographer/naturalist is included on every tour.
  • Cat Daddy is a particularly good boat for this sort of touring, with an unusually well-designed, comfortable cabin that offers both great views and space to set up, change, store, and charge equipment. And, as a catamaran, its more stable than a similar-sized monohulled boat.
  • Onboard sound equipment lets you hear the whales communicate with each other.
  • McDermott is truly committed to marine conservation. The World Cetacean Alliance has certified A Whale’s Song as a responsible whale watching tour. A Whale’s Song is also a NOAA WhaleSENSE partner and donates 5% of profits to the Alaska Raptor Center and the Alaska Whale Foundation.

Additional resources

The Sitka Wildlife Viewing Guide (PDF) published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has tips for wildlife watching and a map of prime wildlife watching spots.

A Whale’s Song Expeditions has fact sheets on the wildlife you may see in and around Sitka Sound.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service timeline provides a history of Saint Lazaria Island since the Russian period.

The photographer/naturalist on my tour, Lione Clare, has published a story on Saint Lazaria Island.

Sea otter with text "the BEST wildlife tour in Sitka Alaska"

 

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