Pacific Walrus

Pacific Walrus Photo
Strong and graceful swimmers, walruses can dive down to 100 meters to root out krill, clams, and mussels from the ocean floor.
Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
Pacific Walruses Photo
Walruses gather on a beach at Cape Serdtse-Kamen, in Chukotka, where as many as 100,000 have been reported on land at one time. Scientists took this photo in 2011 while monitoring haul-outs in far eastern Russia, with support from WCS.
© Chukot-TINRO
Photo
As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters.
Chukot-TINRO

Built for the extreme conditions of the Arctic, walruses spend about two-thirds of their lives in frigid waters, and the other third on land. These marine mammals, relatives of seals and sea lions, migrate with the pack ice, traveling south during the Arctic winter and north during spring.

Strong and graceful swimmers, walruses can dive down to 100 meters to root out krill, clams, and mussels from the ocean floor. Generally, they forage underwater for 2 to 10 minutes at a time, before hauling out on ice or land to rest. They use their tusks and flippers for traction on slippery surfaces. To sustain themselves, these hefty mammals need a lot of food, usually shellfish such as clams. Males can consume more than 100 pounds per day.

Pacific walruses are one of two subspecies of walrus, and probably number about 200,000 individuals worldwide, although no survey has ever provided a reliable estimate. As climate change accelerates in the Arctic, their wellbeing depends on cross-cultural collaborations between conservationists, industry, indigenous peoples that rely on them, and international governments working to conserve our oceans.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameOdobenus rosmarus divergens
  • Gregarious creatures, thousands of walruses can be seen packed right up against each other on ice floes and beaches. Recently, as many as 100,000 walruses have been found together in a single area.
  • During the mating season, walrus bulls court females with elaborate, booming songs that can sometimes be heard from up to 10 miles away.
  • Male walruses can tip the scales at 2700 pounds, while females weigh closer to 1900 pounds. 
  • In the summer, walrus herds have usually segregated by sex. Calves remain with their mothers on the sea ice, while males stay onshore until the sea ice returns in the late fall. Calves stay with their mothers for at least two years. 
  • Walruses have weak vision but use the stiff bristles around their snouts, called vibrissae, to find food on the sea floor.

Challenges

Historically, females and their calves have used sea ice to rest, eat, and float to new feeding areas during summer. But with the warming polar regions, the rapidly degrading summer Arctic ice has become restricted to areas over deeper waters. Since walruses cannot feed at such depths, and need to rest much more than seals, they are increasingly forced to forage in shallow coastal waters, and rest on land. This phenomenon poses new threats to Pacific walrus populations. They can more easily exhaust the food supply near the coast, and their calves are prone to injury and death if caught in walrus stampedes. In their tighter, land-bound quarters, these happen regularly, whether triggered by rocks falling from a cliff or seabirds taking off in a flock. A young walrus can easily be crushed in the ensuing chaos.

Village dogs may also harass land-bound walrus herds, and industrial activities, particularly those involving planes and helicopters, can cause problems. Of particular concern, hauled-out walruses on some Russian beaches may number as high as 100,000. Furthermore, for such dense populations, localized accidents, such as oil spills, could pose serious dangers.

Industrial disturbances are expected to markedly increase over the coming years, as offshore developments are planned in the Chukchi Sea. In spring and fall, the vast majority of walruses migrate through the narrow Bering Strait at the sea’s southernmost limit. As they swim, they will now face greater risks from potential oil spills and industrial noise that interferes with their need to feed, rest, communicate, and raise calves.

WCS Responds

To protect walruses, WCS studies haul-out use, population demographics, disturbance factors, and causes of mortality. We support conservationists devising new techniques to count and monitor walruses that gather in increasingly large herds. They are also developing guidelines to help wildlife and industry managers address conflicts that may arise when walruses haul out at coastal sites near development activities or villages.

In addition, WCS works to address threats stemming from the surge in international shipping traffic and natural resource extraction in the increasingly ice-free waters between Alaska and Russia. These industrial developments imperil not just walruses, but also whales, seals, and polar bears, along with the local human communities that rely on marine mammals for food security and cultural identity.

WCS has actively supported research at several sites along the Chukotka Coast through a Russian Federation partner. On both sides of Bering Strait, we collaborate with indigenous groups such as the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which undertake their own stewardship activities to protect walruses on land. We are also working to engage local communities and their representatives with regulatory decisions by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. and Russian Governments, and the International Maritime Organization that will affect fragile Arctic habitats.

From the Newsroom

Mitik's Fight to SurviveOctober 23, 2012

Animal lovers from around the globe are smitten with Mitik, the orphaned walrus calf who recently joined the New York Aquarium. Writing for the Huffington Post, WCS's President and CEO discusses Mitik's condition, as well as larger concerns about protecting wild walruses and their habitats. 

A Fat, Mustachioed Orphan Finds a HomeOctober 10, 2012

After being discovered off the coast of Alaska, two unrelated walrus orphans received treatment at the Alaska SeaLife Center. One of the marine miracles is bound for a new life at the New York Aquarium.

Walruses Move Ashore as Sea Ice MeltsMarch 30, 2012

As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters. Because this phenomenon poses new threats to walrus populations, conservationists are adopting new strategies to monitor and protect them.

In the Arctic, Fewer Icebergs, More ShipsMarch 16, 2012

Marine mammals contend with new industrial developments in the Arctic as local waters become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall.

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