5 Iconic Alaska Wildlife Cruises by Small Ship

March 6, 2024 • Todd Smith
Brown Bear. Orca. Humpback Whale. Moose. Mountain Goat. Check these animals off your Alaska wildlife list (maybe all in one week) with our expertly chosen ships, itineraries and tips that maximize your chances.

If you are looking for the best (and most efficient) wildlife viewing in Alaska, go by small ship cruise.

Skip the day tours. Skip the big cruise lines.

Choose an Alaska wildlife cruise by small ship. Here is why:
  • Access: Small ships can pull up right along shore, navigate into narrower and shallower waterways where animals reside.
  • Intimacy: Smaller ships and groups sizes offer closer, more personal experiences with better opportunities for observation and photography.
  • Authenticity: Zero crowds compared to larger cruise lines. Wildlife encounters are tranquil, and often seem like a special show just for you.
  • Flexibility: Without set itineraries, small ships stay longer at wildlife hotspots and can easily divert to follow wildlife than big ship, land-based, river or air viewing.
  • Activities: Guests can hop into Zodiacs, kayaks or even paddle boards to gain prime viewing and intimate encounters.
  • Naturalists: With smaller groups, you’ll have better and more access to knowledgeable onboard naturalists who can offer detailed insights into Alaska’s wildlife.
  • Variety: Day tours focus on finding only one type of animal, aboard small ships you’ll spot lots.
  • Duration: Day tours may offer 4-6 hours total of searching. Small ships offer 6 or more full days.

All small ship Alaska trips are likely to see Alaska’s abundance of wildlife, but we list a few standout itineraries and ships below. To further customize your wildlife viewing, there’s no better resource than talking with our experts. We understand the nuances to the best time to visit Alaska, and after listening to your wildlife seeking goals can recommend the best Alaska small ship cruises for you.


ON THIS PAGE Top Alaska Wildlife Cruise Picks:
Brown Bear
Humpback Whale
Mountain Goat
More Resources for Alaska Wildlife Cruises


Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage are a hotbed of bear viewing. Pack Creek on Admiralty Island and Glacier Bay National Park are top locations for brown bears. They can also be spotted along the shores of the ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof & Chichagof Islands) which are on the route of most small ship cruises in the region. For spotting brown bears in the Inside Passage, choose an itinerary during peak brown bear season (June-August).

For a Alaska wildlife cruise that’s solely focused on brown bear viewing we recommend the Alaska Grizzly Encounter: Kodiak to Katmai. The homebase is the no-frills 8-guest Ursus, but she enables the most up close and personal as you’ll ever safely get with wild bears. Along side bear experts you will seek out coastal grizzlies in Katmai National Park on foot often witnessing them just feet away. Learn more about this trip and see the incredible action in this AdventureSmith-written Great Alaskan Grizzly Encounter Review.


See our full lists of wildlife cruises in Alaska.
Search by specific region based on your wildlife interest.


Orcas in Alaska travel far distances and are unpredictable. While they’re seen in all ocean waters of Alaska, only about 1 in 3 cruises may see them. You can increase your chances in a couple ways. One, by taking a longer cruise. And two, by going where their populations are highest or where known “resident” pods live.

Longer 13, 14 or 15 day cruises leaving from Seattle or Vancouver double your time and possibilities of seeing orca. They will sail through both the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, searching for many known resident pods.

Orca are also known to reach some of their highest populations in Prince William Sound. Our choice would be the 8-day Prince William Sound Explorer since it circumnavigates the entire sound, covering far more ground than most cruises in this region.

Orca sightings in the Gulf of Alaska are also very common. Choosing the 11-day Aleutian Islands cruise not only gives you extra time, but also checks off a massive section of the Gulf of Alaska, including Prince William Sound, Kenai and Katmai National Park, Kodiak Island and a selection of Aleutian Islands. So the orca odds are high.

Whale tail and a whale beaching in front of a small ship cruise in Alaska.


Did you know humpback whale bubble net feeding behavior was first observed in Glacier Bay, Alaska? Humpbacks are frequently encountered during all of our week-long small ship Alaska itineraries. Sightings may be a couple whale tales in the distance, or you could be lucky and find yourself surrounded by a massive pod of hundreds.

For the most intimate whale encounters, going by a historic yacht like 12-guest Catalyst or 8-guest Westward. is simply more dramatic. Based on ship size alone, being aboard brings you are nearly to eye level with the mammals. The Catalyst’s Alaska’s Eastern Passages itinerary was featured in National Geographic Magazine’s Top 50 Tours of a Lifetime, and whales are a big reason why. It’s route navigates through Frederick Sound, one of the migratory humpback whales’ prime summer feeding grounds. Todd Smith writes about a special humpback whale encounter aboard this very ship in his review.


Find your Alaska wildlife cruise.
Speak with a specialist today.


While Glacier Bay National Park is famed for its namesake glaciers, what travelers don’t know is that it’s full of wildlife surprises, namely moose, a species that’s frequently spotted by land but rarely spotted on cruise routes. And in Glacier Bay, those lucky to see them often spot them swimming in the water! Spring is the best time to spot moose in Glacier Bay as the snow in the mountains above makes the beaches wildlife highways.

The Sea Wolf Glacier Bay Adventure aboard the 12-guest Sea Wolf is a top Glacier Bay wildlife cruise, as it spends most of its itinerary days within the park.

Captain Kimber Owen is a wealth of knowledge, and notes that moose, only first spotted in Glacier Bay in the late 1960s, are now spreading quickly along the coast by Dundas Bay. Some recent insights from her: “We see moose 8 or 10 times a summer and mostly swimming from one location to another. They swim long distances and are helped along by their hollow guard hairs which help with buoyancy.”

Three mountain goats climbing on rocky cliffside seen on a small ship tour in ALaska.


According to the Glacier Bay National Park Service, goats may have been among the first land animals to recolonize Glacier Bay after the ice retreated, coming over the mountains from Lynn Canal to the east. You will find them most at home on the steep rocky cliffs in the mid-to-upper bay. To see them, go early season, as these white-haired rock climbers follow the disappearing snowline that by mid-June brings the animals too high to be easily seen.

Start your research with our list of Glacier Bay cruises, and eye an early departure when there is still snow. The 8-day Glacier Bay Adventure Cruise is a well rounded itinerary, includes 2 days within Glacier Bay National Park and has some mid to late April departures, some of the earliest reaching the park.


See the full list of trips to Glacier Bay Alaska

Alaska Small Ship Cruises
Alaska Yacht Charters
Luxury Alaska Cruises
Alaska Cruise Guide
Alaska Cruise Deals
Small Ship Alaska Cruise Reviews
Best Alaska Cruises for Families
Small Alaskan Cruise Lines
Glacier Bay Cruises
Alaska Inside Passage Cruises
Alaska Whale Watching Cruises
Alaska Trips
Alaska Tours
Visiting Denali National Park
Alaska National Park Tours
Best Time to Visit Alaska

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