I am the Walrus - Cruising with Arctic Wildlife

Unlike the melodious music of the Beatles sounds of a walrus herd can be loud with lots of bellowing and snorting. These marine mammals might be seen at one of the protected sanctuaries in Svalbard or lying on the ice in hundreds. Although they are quite social they can be aggressive during the mating season with males using their tusks to defend their territory.

Walrus resting

Latin for “tooth walking sea-horse” the walrus uses its tusk for a variety of purposes. Tusks are used to pull the massive, wrinkled body out of the freezing water onto the ice, and to break open breathing holes from below. Both male and female walruses have tusks which are actually canine teeth and grow throughout their lives. Tusks can grow as long as three feet. Once thought to be used for digging, the tusks are actually dragged through the sediment with the upper edge of the snout is used for digging.

The characteristic mustache of the walrus can have 400 to 700 mystacial vibrissae or stiff bristles. They are highly sensitive and able to differentiate shapes 3mm thick and 2 mm wide. Walrus like to forage in shallow shelf regions on the sea floor and often from the sea ice. While they are not the deepest divers of the pinniped family they can submerge to 260 feet for up to a half and hour. They feed on more than 60 types of marine organisms including shrimp, crab, soft corals, tube worms and sea cucumbers. They favor mollusks especially clams. Using the vibrissae to identify their prey, the walrus suck the meat from the shells with its powerful mouth and the rapid movement of the tongue creates a vacuum as they consume the mollusks.

Because of its size the walrus has only two natural predators the orca and the polar bear. Direct attacks by polar bears are rare because even an injured walrus can be a daunting opponent.  The polar bear might rush beached herds and prey on crushed or wounded animals from the dispersion of the herd.  This would most likely be younger or infirm members of the group.

Walrus at rest

Unlike the charging polar bear passengers on an Arctic voyage do get opportunities to approach walrus on shore. Quietly the group spreads out like soldiers advancing at the front. But your group is armed with camera lenses instead of guns. Whether you have a point and shoot camera or use a 300 mm lens everyone’s shutters snapping like the beating of a hummingbirds wings for that perfect photo.

Historically walrus were hunted commercially for their ivory tusks and oil but today that has been greatly reduced. The walrus is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However like many other animals in the Arctic environment the walrus has an intimate connection to the sea ice. Whether using it as a foraging platform or as a hall out to rest or nurse their young the receding ice has an impact on the species.