23 February 2015 by Heather Harris
A huge and un-spoilt region with a human population density lower than any country in the world, Alaska is a haven for wildlife. The vast tundra, mountain ranges, forests and fjords are home to an extraordinarily diverse and abundant fauna, including the Northern version of the Big Five: brown bear, moose, caribou, killer whale and humpback whale.
Because of Alaska's sheer size - several of its parks are six million acres or more - it has intact ecosystems that include a full-range of predators, vast herds of caribou, and incredible returns of wild salmon. Its vast mountains, tundra, glaciers, and big undammed rivers are a particular feature of the state, which are not commonly seen down south, and are an ideal environment for wildlife to thrive.
The best times of the year to visit in order to view this startling wildlife is between mid-May and mid-September, when the days are long, nature is in full bloom, temperatures are at their warmest and wildlife at its most active. The peak bear-viewing season is in their mating season in May and June. Moose are best seen in late August and September, whilst caribou peak from mid-June to mid-July.
There has to be a large, powerful carnivore at the top of every food chain, and the king of the north is definitely the bear. The most commonly found in Alaska is the famous black bear. Numerous lodges offer bear safaris, and June - September are best for seeing bears gather by falls to fish at the annual salmon run, stocking up before their winter hibernation. One of the most populous bear locations is the McNeil River in Katmai National Park, while a visit to Kodiak Island will afford opportunities to see the larger Kodiak bear. The closely related polar bear is also found in Alaska, typically on the Arctic coast in the Far North.
The Alaskan variety of these great antlered elk is also known as the giant moose, and therefore well worthy of a place on this 'Big Five' list. Moose are found in forests throughout most of the state. They're solitary beasts, so don't expect to see a vast herd spread out over a plain, but in late August and September the rut brings local males together to compete for mates. Denali National Park is a great place to witness the sights and experience the powerful scents and cacophonous sounds of this clash of the titans. However, moose can be spotted all over the state – even in Anchorage which has as many as 1,500 moose within the city limits.
Known as reindeer in Europe, huge herds of caribou roam much of the Alaskan wilderness, constantly searching for food. Much like the wildebeest, zebra and antelope of East Africa, caribou engage in an annual mass-migration seen in its most poetic form from the air, as hundreds of thousands of beasts trek to summer pastures in the north. The migration runs in stages, but its peak in terms of numbers is from mid-June to mid-July, just after the calving season, as increased insect activity in warmer climes becomes particularly bothersome to the caribou and they flee north in search of cool breezes.
These large marine predators are amongst the most enigmatic and iconic in the ocean. They're found worldwide, but such is their intelligence that different pods have developed unique forms of communication and hunting techniques, and this observation has increased their mystique. In Alaskan waters you'll be able to find whales in the fjords, straits and sounds of the southern coast, with Kenai National Park and Prince William Sound offering perhaps the best and most accessible opportunities. Here you'll be able to see both the more common resident killer whales, which live in complex social groups and eat mainly fish, and the less frequently seen transient killer whales, which eat mammals and live in smaller, less developed groups. The best time to see them is from June to September.
Another massive marine animal that can be seen on summer whale-watching trips from the southern coast is the humpback, characterised by its huge pectoral fins and, as the name would suggest, its humped head. As with other whales, humpback behaviour has fascinated humans, and it is humpback song that has found fame as whale 'music'. Other than this, humpbacks are known for being friendly with many other whale species, even travelling together in diverse groups. A whale-watching trip should also offer chances to see another key form of humpback communication, as they slap their giant tailfins onto the surface of the water, or, more impressively given their mass, a full breach as the whale leaps right out into the air, coming down with a slapping splash.