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Through the Killing Field to See Walruses

To get relatively close to a trio of walruses on a beach at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya, the third largest island in Svalbard, we had to skirt a killing field littered with bones of the corpulent marine mammals. Preserved as a cultural relic, along with a couple of huts once used by trappers and researchers, the skeletons are a stark reminder of how close walruses came to being exterminated on Svalbard. Thousands were slaughtered for ivory and other body parts; many of them apparently died or were butchered on the very spot where we had come to see their descendants.

Photograph by David Braun
A Zodiac transports Lindblad-National Geographic explorers to the walrus cove. Photograph by David Braun
Passengers from National Geographic Explorer arriving on the beach to see the walruses. Photograph by David Braun.
Passengers from National Geographic Explorer arriving on the beach to see walruses. Naturalists are always armed with rifles in case of unexpected encounters with ravenous polar bears. Photograph by David Braun.

The walruses were spotted by the naturalists on National Geographic Explorer, and arrangements were quickly made to ferry passengers by Zodiacs to the beach. We landed several hundred yards from the walruses, then were ushered in small groups to quietly approach the basking animals from their landward side, so as to not disturb them or get between them and the sea.

Lindblad-National-Geographic-Expeditions

David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.   

All posts in this series   Photo album

As we sidled in silence toward the lounging animals, we were treated to the arrival of a fourth walrus, which slowly hauled out of the ocean and lumbered its way up the sandy spit. The newcomer seemed to prompt a brief re-arrangement of the way the walruses had parked themselves, with a couple of them exchanging positions. There was much posturing, but no one seemed too aggressive, and all settled down for a snooze.

Photograph by David Braun
Photograph by David Braun
Atlantic walrus hauling out at Kapp Lee. Photograph by David Braun.
Atlantic walrus hauling out at Kapp Lee. Photograph by David Braun.
Atlantic walruses can weigh a ton or more, and their tusks can grow to three feet. Photograph by David Braun.
Atlantic walruses can weigh a ton or more, and their tusks can grow to three feet. Photograph by David Braun.

We were close enough to the walruses to see their whiskers, which we learned are used to locate clams deep underwater. Walruses ferret the mollusks out of the sea floor, sucking up hundreds of them in a feeding session, spitting out the shells. Tusks, which are enlarged canine teeth, are used to probe, dig, defend, and haul their big bodies out on the ice.

A painting portrays walruses feeling for mollusks with their whiskers. Copyright National Geographic.
A painting portrays walruses feeling for mollusks with their whiskers. Copyright National Geographic.

Svalbard’s walruses were hunted down to a few hundred survivors before they came under the protection of Norway some 60 years ago. Between 2,500 and 3,000 walruses may now be using Svalbard as their home, and the Norwegian Polar Institute reports on its website that they are starting to haul out on land that has not been used for many decades.

Thousands of walrus bones are a grim reminder of how three centuries of relentless hunting almost caused the extinction of the marine mammal in the Svalbard archipelago. Photograph by David Braun.
Thousands of walrus bones are a grim reminder of how three centuries of relentless hunting almost caused the extinction of the marine mammal in the Svalbard archipelago. Photograph by David Braun.
Walrus bones on Edgeøya are a monument to the slaughter of Svalbard’s animals. Today Edgeøya is part of a large nature reserve where Arctic life is rebounding. The island is home to growing populations of walruses and reindeer. Photograph by David Braun.
This photograph, "Fifty Unusually Magnificent Walrus Heads", was published in National Geographic in March 1911. The walruses pictured were hunted in Alaska.
This photograph, published in National Geographic in March 1911, illustrates how walruses were hunted a century ago. Today they are protected for the most part, and instead of people paying for their tusks they now pay to see walruses in the wild. How we treat the walrus today is an encouraging reminder that humans can change and repair much of the damage caused by earlier generations.

The Svalbard population is part of the Atlantic walrus subspecies, which may number around 25,000 animals spread around a zone stretching from Eastern Canada, through Greenland and Franz Josef Land to the northernmost reaches of Russia. (See the range map below.) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species indicates that there is evidence of declining populations in the Atlantic subspecies, although there is a deficiency of data to make an assessment. Climate change is expected to have negative consequences for walruses, IUCN adds. (See the IUCN web page for walruses.)

The current range of the Atlantic walrus. Illustration copyright National Geographic.
The current range of the Atlantic walrus. Illustration copyright National Geographic.

Every group from our ship had about ten minutes with the walruses, time enough to enjoy being with them on an Arctic beach and, judging by the constant camera clicking, to make a great many photographs. We then withdrew as gently as we had come, back to the landing site on the other side of the bone field, where the Zodiacs were waiting to speed us to the warm interior of National Geographic Explorer. The hotel staff had high tea waiting for us: an enticing selection of pastries and cakes served with a variety of hot beverages. Some passengers preferred the bar.

We were to get one more excellent siting of a walrus on the expedition through Svalbard, when our ship glided softly up to a young animal resting on ice. More than a hundred humans peered down on the walrus, wanting to take nothing from the magnificent animal but photographs.

Photograph by David Braun
A lone walrus on a floe was much photographed and appreciated by National Geographic Explorer passengers. Photograph by David Braun

In my next post I write about Svalbard as a summer paradise for birds.

National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic

Land Of The Ice Bears: An In-Depth Exploration Of Arctic Svalbard

Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.

More about the National Geographic Explorer

Photograph by David Braun
National Geographic Explorer’s hull has been strengthened for cruising through ice. Photograph by David Braun

Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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