Reporter's Notebook: Hanging Out With Walruses
National Geographic Today
|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 chancesleeping,
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 sightdozens 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 countevery dayeach and every walrus on Round Island's beaches1, 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 awayapparently 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.
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 fitit'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 movementsotherwise 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 pinkfrom 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 followsthree 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.
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