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Downtime in the Walrus Islands

July 10, 2023


Bill and Ernie landing the aluminum Scout on the west side of Hagemeister Island.


The month of filming in the Walrus Islands with the BBC went like this:


The winds and seas allowed for filming on half of the 24 days out of the month we were prepared to shoot. On shoot days, I would bring the Endeavour to the three-mile mark at Round Island and radio in to the walrus minders, and if they saw no walruses near Boat Cove I would come into the one-mile mark and anchor. We’d then launch the Zodiac with the big camera and then motor almost silently through the walruses and film as long as the light and weather held.


On the other 12 days, the conditions were too rough, and I took the boat somewhere safe to wait out the wind. Poppy and Usha, the first and second producers, didn’t care for rough water and preferred to camp out on Round Island with the other two BBC crew, so on board, it was usually just me, Ernie (the photographer), and Josh (the first mate).


There are no all-weather anchorages anywhere near Round Island: all are conditional, meaning they are useful when the wind and waves are from a particular direction and uncomfortable or dangerous when from another. Several bays that look good on the chart (Togiak, Kulukak) are too shallow.

This meant I had to predict the wind and wave direction for the next 48 to 72 hours and pick the point of land or island to hide behind. This was hard when there were two sets of waves: swells from the open Bering Sea from the south and wind waves from some other direction. We had to move when conditions changed.


But this was a chance to explore.


On one island we found two dead walruses on the beach and we recovered the skulls and tusks. We later had them tagged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as legally required.


Somewhere else, on a bluff, we found a prehistoric hunting camp – house pits, stone tools, de-calcified butchered bones – over a now-unused walrus haul out. Did the walruses learn this haul out was dangerous and stop coming, or did the old hunters kill so many walruses there were none left who remembered the way?


We found a dead brown bear on a mainland beach and kept its skull. We ran into live bears on the mainland and on Hagemeister Island. On Hagemeister a juvenile male – evidently curious – followed us, then ran when Bella barked, all 27 pounds of her.


We walked the four-and-a-half-mile sand spit on Hagemeister and found it littered with whale bones, including vertebrae too big around to carry. Wherever we went, Josh found blown-glass Japanese fishing floats up in the grass, most of the floats the size of grapefruits, in blues and greens.


Back on board, we read, slept, and worked. Ernie kept trying to fix the waterlogged drone. Josh cooked and did boat chores with me. We also watched movies on the ship’s computer, including the 1922 classic nature documentary, Nanook of the North.


In the entire 24 days we were in the islands we saw no people only two boats: the fast boat sent out from Togiak to find us to swap producers, and a single salmon tender far, far away, heading for Dillingham. That salmon tender told us the sockeye had arrived.


—    Bill Urschel


The Walrus Islands in North Bristol Bay.


One of the dead walruses on the beach.




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