Reporter's Notebook: Hanging Out With Walruses

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The native Alaskans in this region, the Yupiks, call Round Island Qayassiq, "reachable by kayak." This was their traditional walrus hunting ground. But when Captain Cook sailed passed here in 1778, he renamed it. Neither name sounds too original, but they fit—it's close enough to get here on a kayak, although I wouldn't want to try it, and it's definitely round.

As I approach the beach, I'm not quite sure what I should be looking for. Since the beach is rock, not sand, it's tough to discern the slick, gray rocks from what I know are dozens of gigantic mammals lining the shore.

As we inch closer, we need to keep our voices way down and try not to make sudden movements—otherwise we could "spook" the walruses. This is their island, not ours, and we want to make sure they don't leave on account of us. I also must admit, the thought of 30 or so nervous and angry walruses swarming around our tiny, overloaded rubber dinghy is less than appetizing. There haven't been any accounts of walruses maiming people, but they have been known to put their tusks through many a boat.

Researchers Mary Cody of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Joe Mehan from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game quietly stake a claim for us on the beach. We offload our gear, and climb a 50-foot (15-meter) wet and slippery rock cliff to get off the beach. While you can get pretty close to walruses here, within 30 feet (9 meters) in some cases, you're not allowed to be on the beaches, so conversations are kept to a minimum and there's a rush to get up.

We immediately follow Cody and Mehan on their rounds of the island. As they begin their counts, we become familiar with the intricacies of walrus life. We finally get close enough so that the single blobby walrus mass starts to break down into distinct creatures and I'm amazed at just how different they are from one another.

Beyond variations in size, scars that cover their bodies, chipped tusks and other defining characteristics, what is most striking are the varying shades of pink—from a deep reddish brown to nearly bone white. It turns out it all has to do with how long they've been soaking in the sun or chilling in the water.

A typical week for a male walrus summering on Round Island is as follows—three days of lying like a lump on the rocks, broken up by some scratching, snorting, and roughhousing with the other guys to mix things up. This is when they take on the deep reddish-brown.

Once they've had enough of lazing, it takes them about 20 minutes (to what I could swear was an hour for one big guy) to arduously drag themselves over the rocks to get to the surf.

For the next three days, they eat, swimming about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from shore to dive for clams. In Bristol Bay, this is a veritable feast. The mollusks are plentiful and the water doesn't get much deeper than 50 feet (15 meters) so the dives are shallow. They move their tonnage through the water effortlessly; it's a wonder they ever leave it.

But the water is frigid and even the most blubbery walrus can't stay out there forever. When they return, they're as white as ghosts. Blood that just a few days ago was warming their most external extremities is now blanketing only vital organs.

They repeat this sleeping and eating cycle throughout the season until summer ends and they make their return trip back to the females up north.

The massive male migration has long been a mystery to biologists. But at the end of the day, as the midnight sun beams its way through my tent, my mind drifts to simpler thoughts. Here in the southern reaches of the Bering Sea, on this remote and beautiful island, where tall grasses and exotic wildflowers cover the ground and hundreds of thousands of seabirds line the cliffs, thousands of male walruses continue to book their summer vacations, and a noisier, smellier beach would be hard to find.

Liquid Planet Resources

A. Animals and Nature

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National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide: Go >>

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B. Sharks

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Follow the progress of this National Geographic expedition to the Florida Keys:
Expedition Report One: Scientists Study Nurse Shark Mating Habits
Expedition Report Two: Researchers Tag Sharks to Study Breeding Habits
Expedition Report Three: Crittercams Provide Insights into Nurse Shark Behavior
Creature Feature: Great White Sharks
Ten Cool Things That You Didn't Know About Great White Sharks
Print 'N' Go Coloring Book: Great White Sharks
Shark Surfari: Online Quiz

Related Lesson Plans:
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Lesson Plan: Does the Hammer Help?
Lesson Plan: Sharks—Setting the Record Straight
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D. Environment

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E. Geography

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National Geographic Magazine: Deep Sea Vents: Science at the Extreme

F. Lesson Plans

Bob Ballard (Undersea Exploration):
Grades 3-5: Ocean Exploration Museum
Grades 9-12: The Science of the Deep Sea

David Doubilet (Oceans and Photography):
Into the Ocean
Using Photography to Help Save the Ocean
Ocean Conservation: Getting the Word Out With Photographs
What's Wrong With the Oceans? Can Photography Help?

Manatees:
Grades K-2: What Are Manatees?
Grades 6-8: Working Together for the Manatee

Right Whales:
Grades K-2: Right Whales and People
Grades 9-12: The Best Hope for Northern Right Whales

Aquarium vs. Natural Environments:
Grades 3-5: Aquarium Habitats

Artificial Reefs:
Grades 9-12: The Pros and Cons of Artificial Reefs

Crocs:
Grades K-2: Alligators and Crocodiles
Grades 3-5: What Did They Eat?
Grades 6-8: Crocs, Then and Now
Grades 9-12: Survival of the Fittest?

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