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The Walruses of Round Island

June 18, 2023

The bachelors hauled out. A sudden noise can send them stampeding for the water.

We left Dillingham in the morning and rode the outgoing tide down the Nushagak River south and rounded Cape Constantine, turning northwest. The sky was thinly overcast with breaks of blue, the sea was utterly flat, and there was a three-knot whisper of breeze from our stern. The shallow water alarm went off several times. I made a few turns but wasn’t overly concerned. The shore was low and the beach and bottom were all sand, with no rocks in sight.

Four hours later we could see Round Island clearly. From the north, it’s a flattened dome with a ring of spring-green grass around the base and dark brown rock rising above, pocked with white snow here and there in crevices. On the far northwest side, there was a sharp pile of rocks, a bit separate from the island, marking the beginning of a long reef heading away from the island. During the spring and summer, walruses gather at that end of the island — lots of them, almost all males, having swum a thousand miles down from the north to haul out together at this particular spot. Already, we could see them on the beach, pinkish blobs covering the sand. In my 16-power helm binoculars, I could see details.

Walruses are huge and immensely fat, with large males almost 12 feet long, weighing over 3,000 pounds. They have small eyes, bristly whiskers, big sloppy lips, and giant ivory tusks – overgrown canine teeth – sticking two or three feet down from the upper jaw. On land, they move like giant goofy pink maggots. They use their tusks to climb up on ice and fight predators and each other. Researchers used to think they also used them to plow the sea floor to uncover clams, but they don’t. They brush the sand away from the clams, worms, snails, and crabs with their front flippers, then suck them up with those big fat lips (guided by those whiskers) and crunch them with their molars, spitting out the sand and shells.

Given what they eat, walruses need shallow water and a place to rest between meals. In the past, they coped with seasonally-reduced ice up north by taking a summer vacation south to predator-free beaches with shallow water offshore, heading north again in the fall as the ice reformed. This annual migration gave their food stock a chance to rebound. But with so much less of the ice reforming, it's become harder to find safe places up north to feed and rest.

Walruses are hard to count, but we know that only 20 years ago, 14,000 walruses would come here to Round Island in the spring. Now we’re seeing 2,000 to 5,000, in a good year.

In early 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Pacific Walrus under the Endangered Species Act. The listing was warranted, they ruled, but because of “inadequate agency resources and other priorities” they couldn’t grant it.  The Pacific walrus’s federal status remains in limbo.

In the meantime, the state of Alaska set up the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, managed jointly by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It took our BBC crew two years to get a permit to come here and film.

The problem is stampedes. Walruses are skittish. One loud noise, like an airplane passing overhead or an outboard motor too close, and a thousand walruses, a ton-and-a-half each, rush to the water. Smaller and slower animals get trampled and die, sometimes as many as ten percent of the herd.

Somewhere on the island are two women – Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees – living in a small cabin. It is their job to watch over the walruses, record their comings and goings, and keep boats and planes away.

We hailed the women on the radio and made contact. The woman on the radio said they had heard us coming for the last two hours – it was that calm. She also said, sternly, that we were too close (I had misread the regulations). At her direction, we dropped anchor three miles off the island in 96 feet of water, completely exposed, and got the skiff ready to go in and meet the walrus minders.

-- Bill Urschel

A satellite image of the northwest finger of Round Island. The pink dots are walruses.


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