Walrus: The Tooth Walking Sea Horses in Svalbard
The walruses you have the chance to see during your Svalbard cruise have been a protected species since 1952. For a very simple reason: They were hunted so extensively and intensively during the 1800s their population had become a mere relic of the riches that had gone before. This species was no longer profitable. Just like all the whale species that had gone before it – Bowhead, Fin, Blue, Beluga, Minke… Men could no longer land on a beach, block the Walrus’ shoreline escape route and pick off these lumbering creatures one by one. There were none left to pick.
When a hunting operation becomes unprofitable it is for one reason only. There are not enough animals left to take. For the species it means there are scarcely enough animals left to mate with. For the species it means extinction is conceivable.
Walrus population in Svalbard
In 2015 the Walrus population in Svalbard is sitting above 2000. To call them by their scientific name Odobenus rosmarus, these tooth walking sea horses are alive and well. Travelling around the islands of Svalbard in August we found beaches with piles of Walrus, distinctively slumped atop one another and producing belching and roaring sounds. At Phippsøya, Kvitøya, Storøya and Kapp Lee we watched on as these animals went about their business of doing, well what? Some were lying in a comatose like state with their large tusks pointed to the sky; some were shuffling about as if trying to nudge their neighbour into a more comfortable position; some were galumphing into and out of the shallow water and the others were simply in the water and seemed to be either frolicking or travelling.
The Walrus were certainly in abundance during this voyage. To visit all of these places and find piles of Walrus is a rarity. The herds take to sea for days at a time to forage. Despite a common misconception, the Walrus don’t use their tusks – which both the male and female are adorned with – in their search for prey. The tusks are used for fighting off other Walrus and Polar bears. They are also used to help haul their cumbersome looking mass onto the ice floes they like to inhabit. When it comes to foraging, the Walrus don’t use their tusks. Instead they use their flippers, their mouths and their vibrissae.
Walrus feeding behaviour
Usually feeding at depths of less than 100 metres, a Walrus will stir up the silty seafloor by wafting it with its fore flippers and blowing jets of water with its mouth. The currents created are enough to disturb entire expanses of the benthos. The aim of this disturbance is to find clams and other bivalve molluscs – the preferred prey of the Walrus. To aid in their finding the clams, a Walrus will use its vibrissae much like we would use our hands to feel our surroundings. Supplied with nerves and blood, the vibrissae are highly sensitive and can perceive tiny organisms within the sediment. When a clam is detected this animal doesn’t crunch down the entire shell, instead it sucks out the meat using the power of its mouth and tongue. To sustain a body weight of over 1000kg a Walrus will need to feed on approximately 25kg of clam meat in one day. This equates to taking over 40 clams in one short 10-minute dive. Needless to say a Walrus will spend about 80% of its time at sea diving in order to feed.
While diving the Walrus are streamlined and agile - the polar opposite of their on land appearance. To view a Walrus herd on shore is really rather comical. At Phippsøya in northern Svalbard we watched these animals as they moved around with what appeared to be extreme effort. Then as soon as they slumped into the water it was obvious a weight had been lifted as they gambolled through the freezing water. Observing these extraordinary marine mammals in their natural environment – surrounded by ice, mountains and a freezing ocean – is a remarkable and memorable experience. We are fortunate to have the opportunity during our Arctic cruise. It was very nearly missed.