Snorts and grunts…splashes… whiskers and tusks surged towards us with inquisitive urgency.
We were sitting in a small inflatable dingy in the waters around Cape Ostantsovy, a peninsula on Hayes Island in Franz Josef Land the world’s northernmost archipelago situated in the Barents Sea north of mainland Russia and east of Svalbard; and as yet – we hadn’t been given our presentation on the ‘walrus’.
I was quite startled to see this small group of animals powering ahead towards us. Bow waves, whiskers, nostrils and flashing tusks. Perhaps we were unwelcome intruders in their territory? … or…Perhaps we WERE welcome and this was the ‘meet and greet’ party?
Not that the subsequent presentations by Elena and Grisha on the walrus would have prepared me for the exhilaration of actually having them surging towards us. Learning about these pinniped’s tusks – which are adaptations of the canine teeth; how their whiskers – vibrissae, are used for sourcing their favourite food of clams and crustaceans on the sea floor; their age of around 7 for sexual maturity; their weight of 600 – 1500kg; their social behaviour of gender grouping ice floes and haul-outs; the females maternal instincts and nurturing behaviour…. none of these facts would have indeed prepared me at all for this half a dozen or so of the world’s population of approximately 230,000; to be powering toward our inflatable boat.
Tusks. Inflatable boat. Defending territory. Hmmmmmmm. My adrenaline surged as this group resurfaced flashing their big spiky tusks. Perhaps they were just being as inquisitive as we were; investigating something new. Many of us had never witnessed a large haul-out of walrus on the rocky shoreline… and I’m certain the walrus had not encountered many mobile floating objects with brightly coloured blobs perched on rounded black strips!!!
The walrus were so fast in the water! The facts we were to learn later about them being able to swim between 7km/h and up to 35km/h would not have prepared me for the speed at which they undulated toward our zodiac.
Inquisitive … yes.. inquisitive I convinced myself and I was hungry to see more of these incredible Arctic mammals. They are sooooooo cool. I felt my own laughter and joy amongst splashes, snorts, nostrils and peering eyeballs. How amazing was this!!! In the Arctic – with walruses coming up to check us out!
Grisha was cautious, and recognising the fine line between inquisitiveness and aggression, clicked the idling zodiac motor into reverse and we backed away slowly from our welcoming arsenal.
This phenomenal experience was one of the many encounters we had with the walrus.
A group of about 20 animals hauled-out and huddled on a small rocky isthmus at Pronchishcheva Bay, Taymyr Peninsula. We saw in real-life a behaviour which was explained to us in one of our presentations. Safety in numbers – and all packed together to increase their perceived size. Overnight we moored in the bay, and before breakfast I saw a young polar bear casually approach this group of large mammalian boulders.
I laughed many times as the tentative youngster appeared to be trying to remember what his mum had taught him about hunting walruses. Polar bears are often no match for the large tusks of an adult male walrus, so the polar bears are rather more opportunistic in this regard, and hope to startle the huddle of walrus to crush young in their cumbersome retreat to the water. An easy meal… from just going – BOO!
In this instance nothing like that was happening. This was one single youngster; not a couple of large polar bears. I am fully aware of my anthropomorphism here, but the young polar bear just seemed to be trying to put his grown-up pants on approaching the walrus group… but it was so daunting – and he just needed a nap; as later that day on our way back past the haul-out, we saw the young polar bear asleep alongside the group; and lifted his head upon hearing the sound of our zodiacs returning to the ship.
Scouting for whales one day out in the zodiacs proved to be more of a walrus experience as we found ourselves in the midst of what seemed like thousands of walrus; in scattered groups of about 15 or so. Adrenaline was again running fast and whilst chugging slowly along I was grabbing glimpses of all the commotion around us; the zodiac lurched and I immediately looked down to my right and saw the stunned look on the face of a walrus that I think surfaced under the pontoon of the zodiac. Some passengers were concerned that it was an act of aggression, but I didn’t get that feeling when I saw what happened.
Maternal care is a universal phenomenon for most mammals and although the presentation by Grisha on the walrus’ maternal care brought most of us to tears; nothing was like actually seeing a young calf riding piggy back on its’ mums back. That’s when I felt such tears of joy, and the real emotion of feeling the wonder of existence.
Sometimes I couldn’t see the walrus. No white glistening splashes in the distance. No snorting misty spouts catching the sunlight. No whiskers and bobbly eyeballs. No bulbous grey pudgy skin. But what I COULD hear was bellowing. The bellowing; a groaning calling-out was noisy!
Once I had seen and heard the accompanying sound… every time I heard that sound again; I just knew what was around the cliff or along the shoreline in the distance.
A herd of a thousand or more animals all squished up together along the shoreline with the natural amplification of tall rocky cliffs, made for a bellowing cacophony of epic proportions. No information about their sound could have described adequately the experience of hearing the roaring bellowing of these incredible creatures.
As we traversed the Northern Sea route from west to east, the ocean terrain changed. Solitary slumbering walrus speckled the icy seascape.
I can’t recall when I didn’t see the last walrus as at some point we must have sailed out of Walrus territory, but what an experience! What an amazing experience to be able to not only witness these wonderful mammals in their natural habitat… but also have interactions with them, as it seemed as if they too were as inquisitive with us, as we were with them.