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September 11, 2006

side view of walrusBreakfast yesterday started out just like any other breakfast. I had just put some bread in the toaster when an announcement came over the loudspeaker in Russian. I listened for the tell tale words “beloi medved” (white bear), but did not hear it. But a few of the Russians rose from their tables and looked out the window, so I knew something was up. A walrus was out on the ice! And better yet, it was just off the port side of the bow. Art and I bolted to our rooms and grabbed our camera gear and coats. When we reached the deck, the huge beast was still resting on the ice and the ship had eased right along side it.

Walrus (called Sea Horse by Timo, my Estonian friend) are large sea mammals, with males weighing up to 1,400 kilograms and reaching about three and a half meters in length. Both sexes have tusks, but the females' are generally shorter. The scientific name for walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, means “toothwalker”. The function of the tusks has been much debated, but it now appears that they serve mainly in ritualistic fighting, as protection against predators such as polar bears and for hauling themselves out onto ice floes.

Walrus are primarily bottom feeders and can dive to depths of up to 80 meters. They use their bristly moustache of whiskers as sensory feelers for finding their primary food, clams. A feeding walrus will suck the clam’s soft body and siphons out, leaving the two halves of the clam’s shell behind. Other prey includes small fish and marine invertebrates. There are occasional reports of male walrus attacking seals. Walrus are not animals to be taken lightly as they have been known to attack boats, even puncturing inflatable craft with their tusks.

close-up of walrusOur walrus seemed the opposite of aggressive — lethargic and uninterested in the massive ship towering above it. As the ship drifted closer, the walrus finally moved away with undulations of its great bulk. As it moved, I could see countless scars on the walrus’ folded skin. The snout had a few open wounds. Were these from feeding mishaps or scuffles with other walrus? As with most of the fleeting glimpses of life we have had in this stark environment, we were left to wonder.

As we pulled away, I was satisfied with some good wildlife photos at last. Then I began to wonder...how burnt is that toast?

—Mike Dunn

 

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