I Am the Walrus: An Arctic Animal’s Existence

Life in the Arctic can feel surreal, unlike anything you’ve encountered before. Especially when you spy the walrus.

This almost prehistoric creature seems larger than life, with lengthy tusks and whispered lips.

Once, there were 20 species of walrus. But there are now thought to be only two species left – the Atlantic and the Pacific walrus. Aside from location, the primary difference between these cousins is their size. On average, the Pacific walrus weighs more than 3,745 pounds (1,700 kilograms), while the smaller Atlantic walrus comes in at 3,200 pounds (1,450 kilograms).

Having been around for millions of years – between 20 and 26 million – they have evolved to survive in unforgiving and constantly changing icy environments.

Walruses in Svalbard
Storøya, Svalbard/Lucia Griggi

Home is Where the Ice Is

The Arctic is a giant playground for these mammals. Like other Arctic animals, walrus live and die by the ice. The Atlantic walrus is mostly found within the Arctic Circle in northern Canada and Northern Europe. During the winter months, they follow the edge of the ice south, while they spend their summers resting and foraging, also around the ice in the northern Arctic.

Brasvelbreen, Svalbard
Brasvelbreen, Svalbard/Lucia Griggi

And though one might worry about their welfare in the harsh Arctic climate, know that they are more likely to overheat than be too cold. Thanks to a thick layer of blubber made of fats and collagen, walrus are well equipped to handle the worst Mother Nature can throw at them.

“Walrus can thermoregulate by sending blood to the surface of their skin to cool down. That’s why they can change color from brownish red to a very pink color,” says Cory Ann Hom-Weaver, a Marine Biologist and Ecologist on Silversea voyages.

When you come across a herd of walrus hauled out on the beach, all you see is various shades of brown (and a bit of pink) for almost miles. The loud honks, the smells and the sheer volume of the animals overwhelms.

Though they mostly prefer to rest on ice, in the summer months the ice recedes, leaving only sandy beaches with sometimes thousands of same sex walruses hauled out together. During breeding season, one bull can find himself with a harem of up to 20 cows.

Torellneset, Svalbard/Denis Elterman

The Evolution of Tusks

Over millions of years, the walrus has evolved canines into magnificent tusks. Their purpose is varied but their importance to the animals’ survival is constant. They’re used to help pull these enormous animals onto ice to rest, to maintain breathing holes in the ice, and to fight with others when needed. Walrus are the only pinnipeds  – a class of carnivorous marine mammals that includes true seals, eared seals and the walrus – that grow tusks. And both males and females have them.

“Walrus are still poached and hunted, as their [ivory] tusks can fetch a high price on black markets,” explains Hom-Weaver. “They’re also used in customary carvings from villages in the remote Arctic regions of the world.”

This makes us, humans, the walrus’ biggest threat and primary predator.

Polar bears and orcas are certainly above walrus on the food chain and occasionally hunt younger and more vulnerable walrus. However, the sheer size of a walrus makes it difficult for these predators, causing them to expend too much energy trying to catch one.

Kvitøya, Svalbard/Denis Elterman

A Feast of Oysters

To maintain their gargantuan size, these creatures enjoy a feast fit for Arctic royalty.

“Walrus have a very specialized diet,” begins Hom-Weaver. “They have capitalized on a food resource that no other pinniped has tapped into.”

Their whiskers serve a very special purpose: scouting for choice morsels on the seabeds. They dive up to 260 feet and their whiskers help feel around for bivalves and invertebrates.

With a powerful jaw, their cheeks create a forceful suction that draws clams right out of their shells.

It was Lewis Carroll who wrote: “And all the little oysters stood and waited in a row,” in his poem, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ It really is almost as if oysters (and other molluscs) just lay in wait for the walruses to come swoop them up, as if to pay testament to the majesty of the animal.

Poolepynten, Svalbard/Lucia Griggi