A humpback whale breaches in Prince William Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries research biologist John Moran of NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories

Whale watching is an important economic driver for Alaska’s coastal communities, and is estimated to generate over $86 million and hundreds of jobs, particularly in the Juneau area, according to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The industry caters primarily to cruise ship passengers, who sign up for whale watching excursions when their ship makes a port of call in places like Juneau, where there are some 72 whale watching vessels owned by over 20 companies offering two- to three-hour tours. 

Managers from competing companies have banded together since 2013 with a commitment to sustainability through best practices by adapting an existing program, Whale SENSE, to serve the unique needs of the industry in Juneau, NOAA officials said. Within two years the program debuted in Juneau with four companies that helped pioneer the program and have been annual members since. 

They include Allen Marine Tours Juneau, Gastineau Guiding Co., Juneau Tours and Whale Watch, and Rum Runner Charters. 

Cordova’s Orca Lodge, its name notwithstanding, offers a variety of adventures from hiking the Copper River Delta to wildlife photo trips and tours of Orca Inlet wildlife, not including whale watching, although guests at the lodge may indeed catch sight of whales during their visit there. 

The number of companies signing on to Whale SENSE, a commitment to responsible ecotourism, continues to grow, with now nearly all of Juneau’s whale watching firms participating. Primary sponsors of the program are NOAA Fisheries and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA.  


The acronym SENSE stands for: 

  • Stick to the regional whale-watching guidelines 
  • Educate naturalists, captains and passengers 
  • Notify appropriate networks of whales in trouble 
  • Set an example for other boaters 
  • Encourage ocean stewardship 

Participating firms are required to train their staff annually on program requirements, common species observed and their behaviors, responsible whale-watching practices, general principles of marine conservation, and applicable laws and guidelines. The training offers information on basic marine mammal biology, current research, and tools for inspiring marine conservation. 

Participating firms give back to the marine environment through beach clean-ups or in-kind donations, NOAA officials said. 

These companies are also evaluated during the season to ensure compliance. 

Suzie Teerlink, one of NOAA Fisheries Whale SENSE Alaska coordinators, said that an important foundation of the program is the ability to follow up with operators on their commitments and ensure that they are walking the talk. To that end NOAA practices dockside visits, and soliciting experiences from passengers and observations from the public.  

NOAA Fisheries also does onboard “secret-shopper” style evaluations, where trained experts book tickets with operators and evaluate the on-the-water behavior of boats while watching whales.  

“Along with a thriving whale watching industry comes a large pool of passengers, a staggering 300,000 in Juneau alone,” explained Teerlink. “There is a hidden opportunity here to educate these passengers on marine conservation and inspire them to be advocates for whale conservation and recovery and to generally be good stewards of the earth and oceans. Whale SENSE helps provide tools for the crew so that they can make the most of their time with passengers to share these messages.” 

The Whale SENSE Program offers an ecolabel-type recognition for operators who voluntarily adopt increased standards for education, marine stewardship, and responsible whale watching practices. The program originated on the East Coast in 2009.