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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2000

We are the walrus of the Chukchi Sea


An ethereal mist, hanging over the Chukchi Sea, lent a magical air to a seemingly endless expanse of broken sea ice making it difficult to judge sizes. A distant gull seemed huge; a dark lump on the edge of an ice floe seemed like a small stain on the snow -- at first. As the "World Discoverer" closed with the ice edge the "small stain" shifted size, the mistiness revealing it for a large seal, and not just any large seal, but the largest in the northern ocean -- a Pacific walrus.

The walrus is a member of the "wing-footed," or pinniped, family. Like its relatives, the sea lions, the walrus can turn its hind limbs forward, something other seals cannot do. Whereas other seals must drag themselves laboriously along by clawing and wriggling, the flexible forelimbs of the walrus enable it to lift itself up so that it has a much greater ability to move on land than other seals.

Nevertheless the walrus' gait is an ungainly, four-legged waddle. Yet their particular agility, combined with the long tusks that also set them aside from other pinnipeds, enables them to haul out, to climb onto rocky beaches or up onto ice floes.

The Pacific walrus was an animal I had long dreamed of seeing and my first sighting, in the Diomede Islands, had been a nerve-racking affair.

In the Bering Straits there is a pair of islands, Little and Big Diomede. Though linked in name, they are divided by time and politics. Big Diomede lies inside Russia, while its smaller nearby neighbor is American and the home of a supposedly subsistence group of indigenous people.

Among the wildlife that these people are allowed to hunt are walrus, and when I spotted a small group swimming along just offshore I was afraid that my pleasure in sighting them might be short-lived if the locals were to see them and kill them. The weather was on the side of the walrus; I was told that the sea was too rough for a hunt.

My next sighting, on the ice-edge, was a much more enjoyable and informative affair, far less nerve-racking as the only hunters in sight were armed with cameras. The walrus lying on the Chukchi ice was clearly unperturbed by the temperature. An unclothed human would last only minutes in such an environment, but the walrus was just resting.

Walrus are bulky and heavy with few protruding features, and below the light brown leathery skin there is a thick layer of insulating fat. The animal's insulation is such that they may even have more trouble keeping cool than keeping warm.

On Big Diomede, across the international border and so not accessible to the hunters from Little Diomede, we found a haul out where a whole group of animals had dragged themselves on shore and were resting. Those that had been on shore for sometime were a rich, rosy brown, whereas those just emerging from the sea were an almost deathly pallor.

This clear difference in color is because those emerging from the water have closed down the surface blood vessels that serve the skin, in order to preserve body heat, while those on shore become darker in color as the blood supply is returned to the skin to radiate heat. Their thick wrinkly skin is their protection against the cold and against one another when jousting, though it is not sufficiently thick to protect them from their three main predators: the polar bear, the orca and most lethal of all -- the killer ape known as man.Although they are most easily seen when hauled out, walrus spend most of their time in the sea, of course, where they dive to find their food which consists of shellfish, particularly clams, crabs, octopus and shrimps.

Traditional wisdom had it that walrus used their tusks as scrapers and diggers to reach their food. We now know, however, that walrus first use their long sensitive mustache to feel for food on the sea bottom. They then blow to loosen or expose their prey, or to scare it into moving and proceed to use their powerful, thick, fleshy lips, with which they generate a powerful suction force, making it possible for them to suck their prey from the sea bed.

On their rich seafood diet, walrus grow to a considerable size and weight. Reaching up to 3.5 meters in length and weighing twice as much as the average polar bear. At up to 1,700 kg, they are the largest animals in the Arctic.

The ivory tusks, their greatly enlarged canine teeth, are found in both bulls and cows, though they are larger in the bulls and may grow to over a meter in length. Rather than for feeding, the tusks may be used in display, and as grappling hooks when hauling out.The Arctic ice dominates the lives of these huge animals. The walrus is an animal of the pack ice edge, migrating north and south with the seasons as the extent of the Arctic ocean ice expands and contracts. During April or May, females haul themselves out onto the ice to give birth to their calves there, and as adults they spend much of each year close to the influence of the ice.

The range of the Pacific walrus is mainly in the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, though amazingly there are a handful of records from Japanese waters, presumably of animals that have traveled south down the cold water current that flows from the Arctic to Japan's Pacific coast.The walrus has long been an important source of food and materials for native peoples of the north, but in today's modern world with rifles, and high-speed outboard engines being used for hunting, not to mention supermarket supplies brought in by helicopter, the human population is larger than would be natural if they were truly subsistence hunters. In the past, walrus meat was an important staple, though when I asked young people of the villages whether they liked it the replies I received were the equivalent of "not on your life."

In a few communities, boats known as umiaks, made from the tanned split skin of female walrus, were still to be seen upturned on cradles, though none of the boats I saw seemed in seaworthy condition; the hunters prefer imported aluminum boats. Walrus ivory is a popular item for local carvers as it allows more delicate work than bone.

I was shocked to find it a rather popular item among people that might easily have been called ecotourists but for their taste in souvenirs. The skin, the ivory, the meat are all usable, as is the blubber, which can be eaten or rendered for oil which was used for lamps and heating. The intestines are waterproof and so were used to make rain clothes, translucent window coverings and floats for use when hunting.

I had expected more from people who claimed subsistence hunting rights of such animals, but was disappointed to find that despite their claims they are just hunters, and wasteful ones at that. Don't get me wrong, I see a role for hunting, it is just that I found myself increasingly cynical at the use of the "subsistence" tag so as to be allowed to hunt an otherwise protected species.Walrus that escape the attentions of human hunters and avoid other predators may have a natural life span of up to 35 years. How do we know? Well, walrus share something in common with trees -- growth rings. Just like the growth rings that can be counted in the trunks of trees, so rings can be counted in the cross sections of walrus teeth.

If you have questions or comments, you can reach me via e-mail (markbrazil@compuserve.com), or via snail mail care of The Japan Times.


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