10 facts you might not know about the walrus
The Arctic is home to some of the world’s most spectacular and sought-after wildlife. But it is not all about polar bears. On our Svalbard trips you are most likely to see the mustached and long-tusked walrus spread out onshore or on ice floes.
There are two separate walrus subspecies, the Atlantic and the Pacific and they never mix. Pacific walruses are mainly found in the seas separating Alaska and the Russian Far East, while Atlantic walruses live off the Eastern Seaboard of North America, around Greenland and on archipelagos such as Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Ocean. Thanks to strict protection efforts the Atlantic population nowadays numbers around 30 000 of these ocean mammals again. Here are ten facts about the walrus.
1) Experts have speculated about the walruses’ diving habits for many years. Now we know that they will dive up to a hundred meters for about 30 minutes in search of food. Physiologically they are well equipped for these dives because walruses can greatly reduce their heartbeat and cut off oxygen supply to much of their body tissue except for the brain and the heart.
2) Walruses have incredible hearing. The Inuit who used to hunt walruses would imitate their calls and receive answers from up to 1.6 kilometers away as proved by scientists from the University in Anchorage, Alaska. The eyesight of walruses, on the other hand, is quite bad.
3) Their massive tusks are the most obvious feature of the walruses. They could not survive without them. The tusks are tools for climbing, defense, searching for food and for stabilizing the walruses on the ice.
4) Walruses usually mate in the water. The females reach sexual maturity at the age of five to six years old. The males not until they are ten. And since a male does not become interesting for a female until he reaches a certain weight and position within the group’s hierarchy most bulls will not have a chance until they are around 15 years old.
5) There is shocking high mortality rate in calves. Only 20% of the calves survive. Polar bears are one of the causes but also an increase in algae due to higher ocean temperatures. Healthy walruses can live up to 30 years.
6) Male walruses can sing! During mating season, they produce a variety of wonderful vocalizations. These can include barks, clicks, grunts and bellows. A session of continuous singing can last up to two and a half days.
7) Their skin can change color. A walrus skin, which can be around four centimeters thick around their head and their neck, is generally a cinnamon brown color. However, on a very warm day their skin can change to a rosy, pink color in the sun. And after a long swim in the icy cold water their skin can go to a cool white.
8) Walruses have only two known predators besides humans: orcas and polar bears.
9) The walrus mainly eats clams, shells and crustaceans, but it has happened that they have also been seen hunting seals. Scientists have even found tiny family members in the stomachs of some bulls.
10) Walruses must sleep between their dives to conserve energy. They like to sleep close together to keep each other warm.
Since 1999, we have taken travellers on once-in-a-lifetime trips to Svalbard. From May to September our three small expedition ships, carrying only 12 and 50 passengers, explore this magnificent Arctic archipelago. Unpredictability and flexibility are the main keywords when you travel with PolarQuest as the exact route depends on weather, ice conditions and wildlife encounters. Sometimes you might be woken up in the middle of the night if a polar bear has been spotted on the ice.