In one of the more bizarre stories of this week a female walrus capsized and sank a Russian Navy landing vessel to protect her calf. Whilst this is admittedly quite funny it also very symbolic of the problems facing walruses across a changing Arctic circle.
Last week whilst exploring the Franz Josef Land archipelago a joint expedition between the Russian military and geographical society came under attack from the most unlikely of foe. Whilst going ashore in a landing vessel from the rescue tug ‘Altai’ several crew members were forced to abandon ship when a female Walrus capsized and sank the vessel. Nobody was hurt in the attack which was believed to be the result of defensive maternal behaviour to protect the walrus’s calf. The comical catastrophe has been shared widely online due to its entertaining nature. However it is also very symbolic of the very serious issues walruses are facing in the Arctic because of human driven changes.
Don’t mess with Mum
The expedition to Franz Josef Land archipelago, a Russian Arctic territory, was undertaken last week by a joint crew from the Northern Fleet and Russian Geographical Scoiety (RGO) on-board the rescue tug ‘Atlai’. Their aim was to make glaciological observations and study the flora and fauna of the area. Unfortunately for them they got a little too close to some of that fauna. Whilst travelling ashore to Cape Geller researchers and naval personnel were sent overboard into the freezing arctic waters when a female walrus attacked the small vessel. The RGO told The Moscow Times that “the boat sank, but a tragedy was avoided thanks to the prompt action taken by the squad leader” and that “all landing participants safely reached the shore”. The researchers on board suspect that the vessel got too close to the mother and her calf which caused aggressive defensive behaviour. It is unsurprising given the strong maternal protection provided by female walruses and their susceptibility to marine noise pollution which likely startled them.
It is not the first time walruses have been reported to capsize boats or show aggressive behaviour towards humans. Because of this they have become a very misunderstood marine creature. So what are walruses really like? First of all there are actually two species of walrus in the Arctic, the Pacific walrus and the Atlantic walrus. Both reach a very similar size with males reaching over 3 metres in length and weighing over one and a half tonnes. They have large tusks which the males use for territorial and reproductive disputes but are also present in females. They can live to around 40 years of age, of which most of their lives will be spent in very shallow waters. They very rarely enter the deep ocean which is why they were found so close to shore in Franz Josef Land. The only real difference between the two species is where they rest when they are not in water. The Atlantic walruses spend lots of time hauled out on the shore whereas Pacific walruses tend to rest on ice sheets as they feed further out on the continental shelf.
Struggling to adapt
Walruses are no strangers to conflicts with humans however it is normally us who are negatively affecting these gentle giants. The Atlantic species were hunted close to extinction in the early 20th century as they were targeted alongside whales by arctic nations for their pelts, tusks and fat. They have since recovered but today it is the Pacific walruses that are in trouble. The culprit is unsurprisingly climate change. As previously stated the Pacific species spends long periods of time resting on ice sheets which are now disappearing in the Arctic at an alarming rate. The consequences is that the walruses have to swim hundreds of miles to rest on the shore. This can be energetically exhausting but more seriously these walruses are not well adapted to staying on land. Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’ series followed the Pacific walruses on land and discovered that hundreds of the tired mammals die from falling off steep cliffs because of this. Check out the behind the scenes footage below.
(WARNING: This video contains some very distressing footage)
Unfortunately there is very little that can be done to prevent this as the loss of ice is irreversible and only going to increase as climate change increases into the future. It provides us with a stark warning that many of the oceans keystone species are struggling to adapt and will likely die off unless the climate emergency is tackled urgently.