Reporter's Notebook: Hanging Out With Walruses

July 29, 2002

It's one of nature's biggest bachelor pads. Each summer, thousands of male walruses leave their mates on the ice floes in the northern Bering Sea to tend to their young, while they swim a thousand miles south to Alaska's Bristol Bay. Here they laze around on various island beaches doing what many human males would if given the chance—sleeping, eating, scratching, and making all kinds of strange noises.

No one is exactly sure why this parting of the sexes occurs, but most likely it's to ease the strain on the limited food supply in the Arctic.

The largest of these island "haulouts" in Alaska is Round Island, one of the seven islands that make up the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. So far this summer, some 2,500 walruses have been counted along the beach in a single day…in the past there have been up to 14,000.

It's a truly wondrous sight—dozens of pink, blubbery behemoths, each weighing up to two tons, piled one on top of the other.

But if you're going to get there, you really have to want it. Round Island is remote and expensive.

Cameraman Norris Brock and I were shooting several stories in nearby Kodiak, Alaska and, since the timing was right and the male walruses were doing their thing, we took a sidetrip.

In addition to just the walruses, we went to meet the two researchers that live on Round Island all summer long. They greet campers and keep an eye on the walruses, but their main job is to count—every day—each and every walrus on Round Island's beaches—1, 2, 3…3,000! This, I thought, was fascinating, and so we wanted to learn how and why they did this.

First we need to get to Dillingham, a dusty fishing town off of Bristol Bay, which has the largest red salmon run in the world. (Although for the past few years, things have been slow.)

A tiny floatplane carries us for about an hour to a desolate, grassy, mosquito-ridden beach called Nunavachak. Our pilot tells us to watch out for bears, and sure enough we spot a shadowy figure trouncing around at the mouth of a creek just a few hundred yards away—apparently sockeye and coho were on the menu.

You've got to take a boat the rest of the way and luckily our captain, Terry Johnson, is ready and waiting. We haul our camera and camping gear, all 600 pounds (270 pounds) of it, onto a tiny rubber dinghy and putter out to his boat.

The 20-mile (32-kilometer) cruise across the bay is about 2 hours when it's calm, and even though today is pretty cold, wet, and gray, par for the course in Bristol Bay this time of year, we still catch glimpses of some of the stunning inactive volcanoes dotting the surrounding landscape and Round Island on the horizon.

Continued on Next Page >>


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