Whiskers perhaps …

Our intrepid leader, Pete Oxford, had with him an underwater camera, lighting and the most heavy-duty waders I have ever seen. No wonder his luggage was slow to arrive. His hope was that he would be able to get close to a Walrus either under water or half above and half below. Given the puncture wounds we had already seen this was to be a hazardous venture.

But you don’t make the cover of National Geographic without taking a risk.

Pete Oxford … before.

But it was the turbidity that got him not the tusks.

The visibility under water was poor and this in the period when the sun doesn’t set. There can’t be much to see when it doesn’t rise. This is likely the reason that the Walrus has such impressive vibrissae …


Likewise the Bearded Seal

Bearded Seal

As well as assisting in finding food it has been suggested that the whiskers help to find breathing holes.

Apart from the Walrus, sole representative of the Odobenidae, the remaining seals in the Arctic are all members of the Phocidae, True Seals. There are no eared seals above the Arctic circle. The Phocids are the master divers but the waters we were in are fairly shallow. The records all go to the Elephant Seals in the southern hemisphere.

Bearded Seal
Bearded Seal

Among their adaptations for diving seals have nostrils that are closed at rest. It takes a muscular effort to open them to breathe. It may not seem much but it means that a little less oxygen is required when oxygen is scarce and energy is needed to pursue food. This can be seen well in the Harbour Seal photos below.

Harbour Seal – nostrils at rest
Harbour Seal

Even without a heart-shaped nose they look ineffably cute, you can understand why they have their admirers …

The Time Has Come …

The call came at about 2am. First encounter …

The time has come,the Walrus said, 
   To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
   Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot 
   And whether pigs have wings.

   Lewis Carroll

The seals and their allies are grouped as the Pinnipedia consisting of three families, the Phocidae – True or Earless Seals with about 18 species; the Otariidae – the Eared Seals, about 15 species; Odobenidae – the Walrus sole member of its family.

A newborn Walrus weighs about 55kg. Around Svalbard a fully grown male will be about 3 metres long and weigh about 900kg. Add about 10% to that for Pacific specimens.

They reach this impressive size mainly on a diet of clams which they identify with their sensitive whiskers, clear the shell of covering substrate with a jet of water from their mouth and then suck out the contents with a powerful piston-like movement of their tongue. Under no circumstances insert any part of your body into a walrus’s mouth.

They dive to a maximum depth of about 80 metres and generally do not stay submerged for more than about half an hour. As pinnipeds go this is small beer.

The Atlantic population plunged almost to extinction in the 19th century due to hunting for blubber and ivory. It is now on the way up again.

You may not find walruses particularly handsome but this one finds himself adorable. I nicknamed him Narcissus …

pining away …

It is reported that their eyesight is poor. After watching them at a haul-out for a couple of hours I am amazed that any still have eyes at all.

I have about 3 000 photographs of Walrus. You may see more.

Wall to wall walrus …

It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
Dreadfully sad news for the Walrus.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Pacific walrus that can’t find sea ice for resting in Arctic waters are coming ashore in record numbers on a beach in northwest Alaska.
628x471It’s another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the group’s Arctic program, by phone from Washington, D.C. “The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change.”

I’m sure it brings a tear to the eye …

I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.’
Funnily enough this strange new behaviour, hauling out on land, has been noted before. The walrus was virtually unknown to Europeans until 1604 when the good ship “Speed”, commanded by Stephen Bennet, on its way back from the Kola Peninsula, came across a haulout of Walrus. Naturally they slaughtered a goodly number for their tusks, leaving the meat to rot on the beach.
The size of this gathering could be seen as good news, plenty of oysters, perhaps. It may even be the result of creating a reserve for their protection

The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary (WISGS), protects a group of seven small craggy islands and their adjacent waters in northern Bristol Bay, approximately 65 miles southwest of Dillingham. The WISGS includes Round Island, Summit Island, Crooked Island, High Island, Black Rock and The Twins. The WISGS was established in 1960 to protect one of the largest terrestrial haulout sites in North America for Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). The sanctuary also protects important habitats for several species of seabirds, Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) and other marine and terrestrial birds and mammals. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) manages the sanctuary primarily to protect these important habitats and wildlife species, and secondarily to provide for public use and enjoyment of these resources including the opportunity for scientific and educational study, viewing, and photography.

Best known among the WISGS islands is Round Island, where each summer large numbers of male walruses haul out on exposed, rocky beaches. Round Island is one of four major terrestrial haulouts in Alaska; the others are Capes Peirce (Togiak NWR), Newenham (Togiak NWR), and Seniavin (near Port Moller). Male walrus return to these haulouts every spring as the ice pack recedes northward, remaining in Bristol Bay to feed they haul out at these beach sites for several days between each feeding foray. The number of walrus using the island fluctuates significantly from year to year. However, up to 14,000 walrus have been counted on Round Island in a single day.

So maybe it’s business as usual for the walrus they just gather round and talk

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.’
You can read Lewis Carroll’s poem <HERE>.