Very Big Boys
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Only whales exceed walruses in size. A walrus is a behemoth. An adult male walrus can weigh up to 4000 pounds and, in appearance, resembles a blubber-covered SUV.
Our arctic adventure brought us into contact with walruses more than once. On a couple of occasions we encountered adult males lying in groups on sandy beaches, sleeping and basking in the low arctic sun.
These giants paid us virtually no notice. An adult walrus has no known predator. Its size and mass make it immune from polar bear attacks. To the extent that they noticed us at all, they would briefly raise their massive heads, stare at us with what seem to be perennially bloodshot eyes, and almost immediately go back to sleep. Approaching these animals to distances of about 15 feet without disturbing them was a piece of cake.
The most prominent feature of a walrus is its tusks. Older males sometimes sport tusks that are more than two feet long. The walruses use their tusks to assist in digging clams — their favorite food — from the sea bottom. Bull walruses potentially may fight with each other and in that circumstance the tusks may become weapons. But, in fact, it’s pretty difficult for a walrus to seriously damage another walrus in a fight, given the toughness of the animals’ hides and the very thick coats of fat (blubber) that these they sport.
Walruses are social animals and the groups that we saw lying on the beach are pretty typical. They tend to segregate themselves by sex except during the breeding season. The walruses that we saw were all males. They lay in piles, their bodies heaped one atop the other, and they slept peacefully. Occasionally a walrus would raise its head and every once in a while there would be a bit of grumbling within the group, especially when one walrus put too much weight on another.
Many of the walruses that we saw displayed pink skin. That’s not an irritation or a sign of injury. Walruses are kept very warm by their thick coats of blubber and they can overheat. When they lie in the sun the blood rushes to their skin, so as to enable the animals to shed heat more efficiently. Thus, they appear to be blushing.
Walruses were hunted ruthlessly in previous centuries for their ivory, meat, and fat. The walruses of Svalbard were nearly wiped out. They are protected now, and are gradually making a comeback.
All photos taken with a Canon 5Diii. The first photo was made with a 70-200 f4 L zoom lens. The remaining photos were made with a 400DO. Settings and ISOs varied.