Walruses surprise scientists in Alaska

Walruses have surprised villagers and biologists in Port Heiden, Alaska. Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve/CC/Wikimedia Commons

BY HARRY ASHFORD-COX @harryashford15

Scientists are trying to figure out why a group of walruses are gathering on the Alaska Peninsula.

Port Heiden’s tribal council president John Christensen Jr. said he was on a beach ride when he smelled something foul, which he initially thought could be dead seals or sea otters, but instead found a beach full of live walruses.

Residents of the village of Port Heiden in the south of the U.S. state say they see walruses occasionally gathering around a beach just outside of the community, but this week Mr Christensen saw more than 1000 of the walruses together outside of the village. Biologists are not sure why they are gathering together on the Alaska Peninsula but think the reason could be the availability of food there.

Walruses usually gather during winter in the Bering Sea but when the ice recedes due to warmer temperatures they then separate. Females and calves head north towards the Chuckchi Sea and use ice platforms drifting along to dive for clams and molluscs, and also to rest.

While females and calves venture up north, males will usually stay behind in the Bering Sea or remote locations such as Bristol Bay.

From May to August walruses used to gather around the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary at a place called Round Island before moving off as summer began. Since the 1980s fewer have been gathering there. Walrus biologist Joel Garlich-Miller thinks that this could be because sea ice has not formed as far south in past years, and because the male walruses are spending more time in the Bering Sea.

Herds of walruses can be easily startled by loud noises and other contact, which can result in them rushing into the water and in turn result in the deaths of vulnerable animals. Disturbances also drive them away from resting areas, which affects their health because of the resulting higher energy needed for foraging for food.

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