What weighs 1.5 tons, is 12 feet long, has enlarged canines that can reach over 36 inches, and is featured in a Beatles song? If you guessed morse, you’re right.
Here in Massachusetts, we tend not to think too much about walruses, but you have the option of virtually traveling the arctic in search of walruses. Here is some context.
I became interested in Bering Sea walruses aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and during my visit to the Siberian Yupik community of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Strait . The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate, three times faster than the rest of the planet. Last March, the temperature at the North Pole was 50 F above average.
The loss of sea ice has been equally dramatic, declining by 13% per decade since 1979. The oldest sea ice, that which persists from year to year, is rapidly disappearing. On the Healy voyage, scientists raced to understand the effects of warming on the Arctic marine ecosystem. Meanwhile, in the face of diminishing ice, the Gambell community struggles to preserve their cultural identity.
Walruses, a marine mammal, are divided into two subspecies, Atlantic and Pacific. They look clumsy and unsightly unlike the orcas, bowhead whales, ice seals and polar bears that share their environment. But appearances are deceiving: walruses are wonderfully adapted to the frozen environment of the Arctic.
Their streamlined body and appendages allow them to swim up to 22 mph; their shape also helps retain body heat. Under the skin, a large male may have 6 inches of fat, a tissue with a high density of blood vessels. Moving blood to or from the outer layer of fat regulates body temperature the same way our bodies move blood to or from our extremities.
A walrus’ color can change from brown to pink or white, depending on how much blood is sent to the blubber. Walruses can stay submerged for 30 minutes and dive to depths of 800 feet, although they concentrate their time in the shallower waters of continental shelf feeding grounds.
Walruses use their tusks to pull themselves up onto the pack ice, keep breathing holes open, and for territorial defense and against predators. They search for clams on the seafloor, their main food, by skimming the seabed with their enlarged, tactile, whiskered lips while squirting water through their nostrils to stir up the bottom. They can consume over 100 pounds of food per day, which can also include crab, snails, and worms.
Walruses are herd animals that spend time on shore in groups ranging from a few to thousands. Sea ice is a critical habitat that they use individually or in small groups. They give birth and care for their young on the ice and use it as a platform for feeding and resting offshore. Moving over, around and under the ice helps them escape predators like killer whales and polar bears.
The absence of ice causes walruses to congregate in unusually large terrestrial herds – terrestrial haulouts are reported in the tens of thousands. Females and young that would normally be off on the ice crowd together into large herds where they are more susceptible to disease and trampling from jostling.
Crowding on land leads to overcrowding on feeding grounds and depletion of prey. As a result, they expend more energy traveling further to find food.
While visiting Gambell, a village of 680, I was invited to the home of Willis Walinga. Willis was Gambell’s second oldest person, an elder and whaling captain, who explained that subsistence walrus hunting is a cornerstone of community life and identity. How to hunt walrus and survive ice boating is passed down from generation to generation.
When a hunt is successful, the meat is divided into “shares”, providing food for the boat’s crew, their families, loved ones and community members in need. Walruses follow the ice, so when there is less ice, there are fewer walruses. When there are fewer walruses, boats have to move away from shore to find them. In an 18-foot boat, it’s more dangerous and expensive. Ice cream, food, culture and identity are part of a whole; we worry and worry about what the future holds.
Across the Arctic, scientists and Indigenous communities are grappling with the loss of sea ice and its impact on walruses. What can we, who live so far away, do to help? The British Antarctic Survey and the World Wildlife Fund offer an interesting opportunity to get involved. Focusing on the Atlantic walrus, they are recruiting volunteers to join their “Walrus from Space” project to answer two fundamental questions: Where are the walruses and how many are there?
Using your personal computer, they provide easy-to-follow training, then send sets of satellite images to review and report the results. Thousands of miles away, this research project creates a simple and fun opportunity to virtually experience the Arctic while making a meaningful contribution to walrus conservation. Find out more at wwf.org.uk/learn/walrus-from-space.
Tom Litwin is a conservation biologist and former director of the Clark Science Center at Smith College. He is retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Farmington, Connecticut, where he served as vice president for education, and continues as a visiting scientist. For more on Arctic sea ice, see pbs.org/wgbh/nova//extremeice/thinice.html.
Earth Matters is a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.