The iconic tusked marine mammal of the Arctic
What you need to know about the Walrus
Our Expert Says… "WIth their tusks up to 1m in length, these animals were very important as a source of ivory for Viking and indigenous arctic peoples. We still don't know what they use the tusks for, but it's certainly not for feeding or defense. The Svalbard population, after a slow start post-protection, is now doing really well."
The walrus is one of the most iconic of the arctic marine mammals. With their large tusks and long whiskers, the adults make a striking sight hauled up on the pack ice. Second only to the elephant seal in size, adult male walrus can weigh as much as 1,800kg (4,000lbs), although more typically they are between 900kg and 1,400kg (2 to 3,000lbs). The walrus has a remarkably thick hide. It’s so dense that it can account for about 20% of an animal’s total body weight.
There are 2 sub-species of walrus, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. The Pacific walruses are larger, typically around 20% bigger than the Atlantic walrus. Despite their size, walrus prefer shallow waters, and they can often be seen diving from ice floes to hunt in the soft sediments of the sea bottom for mollusks. Their favorite food is clams, but they are quite opportunistic feeders and will take other mollusks, crabs, shrimp, and sea cucumbers.
They hunt using their sensitive whiskers to locate prey, and because of their preference for shallow diving, they can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes at a time. Because of their huge size, walruses are only in danger from 2 predators - orcas and polar bears. The walrus is a powerful animal, however, and polar bears will target walrus calves or injured walruses more than they target healthy adults. Orcas, however, may sometimes target young animals in the water and are usually successful in their attacks.
The walruses calve during their spring migrations between April and June. A calf can weigh up to 165lbs and they can swim from birth. They grow slowly compared to other marine mammals, typically taking over a year to wean. The females don’t mate until the calf is weaned, meaning that they typically give birth only once every 2 years. In the summer and fall, walruses tend to congregate in huge numbers on rocky beaches until the sea ice begins to form again.
Walruses played an important part in the lives of several native arctic peoples. As well as hunting them for meat their tough hides were used for making houses and canoes, their tusks for tools and engraved art, and their blubber rendered into oil used for light and heat. The walrus is still important to some native peoples for meat and tusk engraving.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic walrus was almost wiped out by commercial hunting. Although now protected from large-scale commercial exploitation, large numbers of walruses are taken each year by indigenous peoples and there is some concern about their vulnerability given the effects of climate change and their low reproduction rate. Walruses rely on good levels of pack ice to give birth and to come together to mate, and the reduction in ice levels over recent years could have an impact on the species.
Walrus: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Walrus can be observed
On Admiralty Inlet on the very northwest side of Baffin Island.
Named after the whaling ship, the Arctic, in 1872, it is the site of quite a large community (mainly Inuktitut) called Ikpiarjuk, and a popular location to visit for expedition cruise ships. There is a museum and Ikpiarjuk a good place to learn about the culture. The area is great to ship cruise and explore for wildlife.
Austfonna and Bråsvellbreen
The ice cliff here is so impressive it features in the opening credits of The Frozen Planet. It is where the massive ice cap of Austfonna, covering 58% of Nordaustlandet, meets the sea, and the third largest ice cap in the World.
The ice cliff is about 180km long, apart from few rocky out¬crops, and roughly 24m high, with a series of waterfalls along the length when it is warmer. The ice cliff is routinely referred to as Bråsvellbreen, but it is the huge glacier streaming out of Austfonna. It often surges forward and is known as the Sudden Swell Glacier. The section at the southern end of Hinlopenstretet is the most accessible, often as a combined ship cruise and a Zodiac cruise, and it is simply breath taking, a bit like the ice wall in the Game of Thrones!
There is also the chance to check out wildlife on the ice floes and the bergy bits.
Between Ellesmere Island and Devon Island at the entrance to Jones Sound.
It is part of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area and Cambridge Point, with spectacular cliffs that are an important location for breeding seabirds including black guillemot, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, northern fulmar, and thick-billed murre. Offshore waters are also good for marine mammals.
Exploring the pack ice
The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.
It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.
Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge. In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.
Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
Located on the NW corner of Edgeøya at the entrance to Freemansundet, Kapp Lee is the location of a Walrus haul out that is also a good location for Reindeer, the chance of Arctic Fox, and great tundra vegetation.
It is also a site of cultural significance with the foundations of a Pomor dwelling and several hunters cabin including a hexagonal shaped hut that is right next to the Walrus haul out. Just above the shoreline on nearby beach are the remains of a Bow Head Whale where the carcass must have drifted ashore long ago. Now, with isostatic rebound (the land slowly rising up after being pushed down under the weight when the whole of Svalbard was under an ice sheet) the bones are a short distance above the shoreline.
Translating as ‘White Island’, located in the extreme NE of Svalbard it is both a bleak and a beautiful location with most of the island covered by an ice cap, with one rocky peninsula at the eastern end.
Few cruise ships get here, and there are years when it remains in the grip of the pack ice the whole season. It is also the location where the remains of Andrée and his two companions were found, along with the journal, and a tin box containing photographic films. They set off on their ill-fate balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897, then disappeared, a mystery for decades until their remains were found on Kvitøya, 33 years later in 1930, an indication of the remoteness of the island and the scarcity of vessels that sailed through the area or landed. With a memorial to the expedition, and just to step ashore, it is a unique landing. But this is often unlikely with changing weather conditions, where the fog can come in quickly, and the fact that that bears are often found here. It is still a great location for a Zodiac cruise, weather permitting, to explore the rocky eastern end, look out for Walrus and bears, and pause to think of the fate of Andrée.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
A series of hard granite islands that translates as seven islands, islands that are to the north of Nordaustlandet. Being the furthest north in the whole of Svalbard, the islands can remain in the pack ice for much of the year.
Walrus can be seen throughout the area, with at least one popular landing at a haul out. There are plenty of seabirds, and the chance of a bear resting somewhere on one of the islands, sometimes several bears, understandable with the location. With the myriad of islands it is very popular to explore by Zodiac and the area also has important ties to polar exploration. Many of the locations were named after the English North Pole expeditions led by Phipps (1773) and Parry (1827), including Neslonøya, after a certain young midshipman! Not that long ago the whole area could be trapped in ice throughout the year and just to the east was the area where Nobile’ airship, the Italia, crashed onto the ice, with a huge rescue effort.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
This island is off the NE coast of Nordaustlandet and there is a very large Walrus colony, with lots of mothers with young.
Although it is almost impossible to get ashore with the restrictions and all the Walrus, the terrain, and the chances of bears, it is popular for a Zodiac cruise for ships doing a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago.
The highlight here is the large Walrus haul out on the beach, one of the best in Svalbard.
It is also a great location to land, one of the few locations on Nordaustlandet, and experience the polar desert, and to walk up a series of raised beaches to a viewpoint overlooking Hinlopenstretet.
The most westerly of the group, and, like Kvitoya on Svalbard to the west, it is covered by an ice dome. Visited by expedition cruise ships sailing between the two archipelagos. There are two small ice free (almost gravel) areas to land on the wets and north sides – with a decaying weather station at the latter.