Mary Pemberton
Mary Pemberton

Another mild winter and early spring has some Alaskans scratching their heads and wondering if this is the new norm for the Last Frontier. But there is an upside for Alaska’s tourism industry: The weather is great for business.

The scenic town of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula is just one example. Propelled by the warm weather, visitors are traveling to the town to watch one of nature’s most impressive displays: the annual parade of humpback and gray whales migrating from Hawaii and Mexico to Alaska and their summer feeding grounds farther north.

Tour operators and hotel owners say demand for whale-watching tours is increasing, and this year looks like the best yet. While most of the visitors in the spring shoulder season are winter-weary Alaskans eager to enjoy the nice weather, the town considered the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park is seeing more out-of-staters and foreigners arriving in April and May to kick off the tourist season. Seward received its first large cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, on April 26.

Humpback whales make their way back to Alaskan waters from Hawaii each spring.
Humpback whales make their way back to Alaskan waters from Hawaii each spring. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Major Marine Tours

Seward’s tour operators are offering discounts and deals to entice visitors to the town. Seward is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Anchorage. The whales are just a short boat ride to the mouth of the Gulf of Alaska where they can be seen cruising through on their way north to the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Alaska has just come through its third mild winter. Spring is early again this year, and that means an earlier start to the tourist season. For the first time this year, the Seward Migration Festival is being held to celebrate the arrival of the gray whales and the humans who want to see them.  

When the whales show up in the waters off Seward, they are hard to miss. Gray whales can grow to 50 feet and weigh 40 tons or more. Hunted almost to extinction, there now are an estimated 20,000 or more Eastern North Pacific gray whales, making the species one of conservation’s most compelling success stories. The Western North Pacific gray whale remains critically endangered.

“Demand is strong. I would advise people to book ahead,” said Ron Wille, general manager of Kenai Fjords Tours, adding that booking online gets the best deal.

Tour companies are offering packages for visitors that include stays at Seward hotels and visits to other nearby attractions such as the Alaska SeaLife Center and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, where guests can see moose, grizzlies, bison and some of Alaska’s other iconic animals.

Wille said he knew it was going to be a good year when on the very first cruise Kenai Fjords cruise on March 25 a gray whale breached three times.  

“It was a terrific way to start the season,” he said.

If no whales are sighted, it is almost guaranteed that visitors will see something awesome, perhaps humpback or orca whales, bears, mountain goats, eagles, sea lions, sea otters or harbor seals, all against Seward’s gorgeous landscape.

Lindsey Middendorf, director of marketing for Major Marine Tours and Harbor 360 Hotel, said their cruises began a couple of weeks early on March 18. The first gray whale was spotted six days later. Numbers have been increasing since and 10 were spotted recently. The tour company recently bought the hotel, formerly a Holiday Inn, and guests now go right from the hotel to the dock behind the hotel and onto the tour boat.

Not only does gray whale watching kick off the 2016 visitor season but is a wonderful boost for the town of about 3,000 year-round residents during the shoulder season when things are waking up after a quiet winter. 

“It is a pretty exciting time,” Middendorf said.

The whale in the image with this article is a humpback whale. It was misidentified as a gray whale in a previous version of this article. In addition to gray whales migrating from Mexico, humpback whales also head to Alaska each year from Hawaii.

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