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The Walrus Minders

July 12, 2023

The landing at Boat Cove on Round Island.

We were up at 0530 and raised anchor, leaving the bight at Crooked Island for Round Island 10 miles away. We had to get the BBC film crew and their equipment off the island by 0900 to make the mouth of the Nushagak River by 1700 to ride the flood up to Dillingham. Up on the top deck, Ernie started disassembling the big GSS camera.

We anchored off Boat Cove and with no walruses hauled out on Flat Rock, at the head of the cove, we took our Zodiac in.

Boat Cove isn’t much of a landing spot. The walls are steep and the shore is a pile of boulders. There is no dock, just a steel cable strung high across the cove with a chain hoist. The Fish and Game’s own Zodiac was pulled up and resting on the rocks above the surge. I stepped out of our boat and Helen, George, and Usha – the exhausted but ever-cheerful BBC crew – were on shore and started passing gear over the boulders and into the boat for the first of many runs out to the Endeavour. Over our heads, a flock of Kitiwakes flew like sparks in the wind.

Amber, one of the walrus minders who lives on the island, led me up a steep path for a tour of the flat shelf above the cove. We walked on trails cut in the tall green grass. There are no trees. 

Amber and Margaret are typically the only minders on duty, but Tara had come out to help during the filming. The minders primary mission is to keep disturbances to a minimum. Walruses are easily spooked and in their stampedes to the sea often crush their young, old, and sick or slow. A loud outboard or a boat whistle can kill dozens. The minders make sure boats respect the three-mile perimeter and only approach Boat Cove when it is walrus-free. One of the minders usually rode in our camera boat when we were filming, sometimes driving. They are there from May 1 through August 15. Margaret has been coming here every season for eight years, Amber for three.

At the outset, there had been a fair bit of tension between the BBC and the minders. The film crew wanted footage. The minders wanted to protect the walruses. Part of the problem was that we were operating under two permits – from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – which were often in conflict and ambiguous. There were satphone calls to authorities off-island. Eventually, each side came to trust each other and their motives.  

Amber led me up to the campground on a long, sloped shelf about 75 feet above the water.

She showed me their cabin, cheerful and well-lit, made for two people but sleeping three. A family of nearly-tame foxes lived under the steps. Nearby, there was a solar-and-wind-powered radio hut, composting outhouse, shower hut, tool shed, and cook tent. The mountains on the mainland were crisp under the blue sky. I asked Amber why she lives out here three and a half months out of the year. She just raised her arms and waived to it all.

She took me down the slope a bit to the campground. There are eight wooden tent platforms, each built over a 6,000-year-old house pit. Water comes from a stream. Anyone can buy a $100 permit, bring a tent, and camp here for five days. Not many people do. But those who do share the cook tent and can help with the twice-a-day walrus surveys.  Late July through August is the best time for weather and walruses, Amber says. You can fly commercial to Dillingham, take a small plane to the village of Togiak, and then get on a small boat for the 35-mile ride to the island. That ride is $1,000 per person, each way.

Back down at the landing, we heard Usha on the radio arranging to leave 10 gallons of gas for the minders, most of it in our empty 1-gallon oil cans.  We also left them some fresh vegetables. It was 0908. Time to leave or we’d miss our ride up the river.

Back on the Endeavour we hoisted the Zodiac into its rack on the top deck. About seven and half hours later we caught the tide at the Nushagak, got up to Dillingham at 2200, offloaded the BBC’s gear, and anchored off in the river to sleep at 0200.  

-- Bill Urschel

Marget Archibald (left) and Amber Stephens, minding walruses on Round Island.

Amber showing me the infrastructure on Round Island.


For more on how to visit and camp on Round Island and count walruses, see

There’s also a good chance I’ll have the Endeavour up in Bristol Bay again in 2025.  If you happen to be a high school teacher or college professor interested in bringing your students up to study walruses, please get in touch.


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