On thin ice

Pacific Walrus. Photo by Donna Dewhurst, USFWS.

Okay, maybe they’re not as cute as little sea otters. But I’ve always loved walruses because they’re so completely weird, and I’m really worried about them today. Because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted, tens of thousands of walruses have hauled out of the Chukchi Sea and stretched themselves out for more than a mile on the rocky shores of Point Lay, Alaska, a town with a population of 234, almost 90% of whom are Alaskan native Inupiat Eskimo.

Tiny red NW dot is Point Lay.

Scientists say this massive move to shore by walruses is unusual, though not unprecedented, and the migration has wildlife experts like Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife, a bit worried, too.

Walruses are bottom feeders, diving down to forage for clams, crabs, sea cucumbers and worms in the sandy ocean floor. They rely on sea ice to rest, to take care of their young, and to flop down and relax after a hard day’s feeding.

But because they’re so – well, fat – with the males tipping the scales at 2700 pounds and the females at a svelte 1900, it takes a pretty strong block of ice – at least 60 cm. thick – to hold a posse of walruses. Unfortunately, sea ice is melting at a shocking rate, getting thinner and blacker, with floes melting from the middle, below and above. This is driving animals that live on the arctic ice, like polar bears and walruses, to haul out in far greater numbers than normal, as their habitat disappears.

Togetherness ...Photo by Bill Hickey, USFWS

Defenders of Wildlife, the Alaska SeaLife Center and others are trying to piece together the puzzle of how coming ashore will affect the arctic animals, so they can help these amazing creatures navigate the change and survive. But walruses are notoriously difficult to study. They live in some of the most remote places on earth, with virtually the entire population occupying the pack ice of the Bering Sea in the winter, then moving north and spreading out in the Chukchi Sea in the summer. These giant pinnipeds love to clump together in a beautiful mass of brown fur, whiskers, ivory tusks and blubber, but they are easily spooked by the odor of man, the sound of planes, or the barking of dogs. And when they’re spooked, they stampede and will rush anything in their path to get to the water, often trampling baby walruses and juveniles who can’t get out of the way quickly enough.

Family portrait, Photo by Liz Labunski, USFWS

That’s one of the dangers of this disturbingly huge haul-out; the other is when walruses come ashore, they’re easy prey for predators like polar bears and man. Walrus make up an important part of the diet of many coastal Alaskan natives– but I’m hoping that with just 230 people in town, a little walrus-hunting in Point Lay will go a long, long way.

What a beauty! Photo by Bill Hickey, USFWS

In fact, nobody really knows how many walrus are living, although estimates put the number at 250,000. The federal government is currently investigating if walruses should be placed on the endangered species list, with the report due out in January 2011. My $100 today is going to support Defenders of Wildlife in buying remote cameras to capture data on walruses, learn more about how they live, and how we can help them adapt to this brave warm world of ours.

What's not to love? Photo by John Sarvis, USFWS

Since 1947, Defenders of Wildlife has been working to preserve and protect endangered wildlife and their habitat, with a staff of 150 professionals in science, research, legislation and law—and 500,000 ardent members. They do great work! To join, click here.

One thought on “On thin ice

  1. They look so huge and so vulnerable at the same time. I also didn’t realize their habitat was limited to such a small area. Thanks for the peek into the lives of this exotic animal. Let’s hope our great-grandchildren will know what a walrus is.

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