2003 Expedition Blog - Day 12

Date:

Friday, 6 June 2003, 07:41

From:

Val Byfield

Expedition:

2003 Expedition

Subject:
Walrus
Attachments: 5 images
Members of the expedition crew ashore watching for walrus

'Walruses, walruses!'

Banging on the door. "Get up! Walruses!"

I'd only just gone to sleep! Or had I? It was light, but a quick look at my watch showed just after midnight. I struggled into my warm clothes and waterproofs and lurched up on deck. Sleet and snow...

A group of walruses were swimming alongside the boat, ducking and diving, coming up of air and snorting - only a few metres away!

My camera was back in the cabin...

They were still there when I got back up, but further away, and more under than over the water. Oh, well - judge for yourself from the attached photo. I went back to bed.

Only to be woken a moment later - "Walruses!"

Actually, this time it was about six in the morning. But no walruses to be seen anywhere. Instead tea and coffee were waiting, and everyone rushing about getting their waterproofs and life jackets and cameras and whatnots for an early morning walrus trip to Kong Karl's Forland.

It was light, but grey and snowy, with Kong Karls Forland barely visible low on the horizon. Almost horizontal sleet as we climbed down into the zodiac. Large waves; the people at the front got sprayed with seawater. Not a good idea to take photos with a digital camera. And nowhere obvious to land the zodiac either...

Finally we found a small patch of pebble beach. We stumbled out, but faced a climb up a 1.5m wall of snow and ice with very little foothold. I was dragged over the edge, just as my feet slipped, and I flopped belly down onto the dirty ice. It was still snowing, and not a walrus to be seen anywhere.

It's hard to walk on pebbles wearing your wellie-boots and so much clothing that you resemble Michelin man. I began to regret having come. A nice warm cup of coffee - or even better, a warm bunk would have done nicely.

Then, suddenly, in a dip in the beach, close to the sea - a group of male walruses. Huddled together , resting after their nights feeding. Possibly the same group we saw swimming and feeding at midnight.

The walruses watched us, following our every move with their baleful, red eyes. But they did not seem particularly afraid, just alert, watching.

Walruses have few enemies. Orcas and polar bears may take some animals - particularly calves. In the past man was probably their greatest enemy. Walruses were hunted particularly for their tusks. In 1600 there were probably thousands living in Svalbard. By 1952, when they were finally protected, there were only about 100 left. Since then the population has increased to around 1000.

The walrus is the largest of the Svalbard seal species. The males can be as much as 4m long, and may weigh 1500 kg! The size, and the large tusks of our group, showed they were all adults, well over three years old (youngsters have almost invisible tusks). The tusks were thick and straight, so these were males - females have thinner tusks, which are often slightly curved.

Walruses feed on the bottom, shellfish and other bottom-dwelling animals, although they may catch fish, and some will eat carrion (dead animals). Because they are bottom-feeders, usually find them where the water is shallow enough for them to dive down (less than 100m). They like areas with drift ice, where they can rest on the ice floes, but they also have resting places on pebble beaches close to deep water. Just the sort of beach where we found them.

These huge animals are clumsy and slow on land, but see them swim, and there is nothing clumsy or slow about them. That's why they like to rest where they can find deep water close by. Exactly in the kind of place where we found them.

Walruses mate in February, and the young are bore in May -June the following year. The pup is over 1m long and weighs about 60kg when born. They stay with their mother, suckling her for up to 2 years.

We stayed with the walruses a long time, taking loads of photos. Eventually they'd had enough. Heaving their heavy bodies over the pebble bar between the resting hollow and the sea, they escaped into the water, where they stayed, still watching us. No doubt at all what they were thinking. "Get away, you stupid humans. We want to go back to bed!" 

Val

2003 expedition route map