The Unexpected Walrus

It’s smarter, more dangerous—and more musical—than you might think.

This story appears in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On ice floes and rocky beaches in the far North Atlantic, cinnamon brown blobs pile up in living heaps. Some weigh more than a ton. Some are longer than ten feet. Each is a rumpled portrait of buckteeth and whiskers, deep scars and bloodshot eyes. They nap, burp, squabble, and bark—“something between the mooing of a cow and the deepest baying of a mastiff,” noted a 19th-century explorer.

Walruses may seem familiar from Beatles lyrics and Lewis Carroll verses, but most of us will never see a herd in the wild. And few photographers have documented this dangerous, musical, and socially sophisticated pinniped, a fin-footed kin to seals, sea lions, and sea elephants.

“I used myself as bait,” says Paul Nicklen, who spent three weeks aiming his lens at Atlantic walruses with the help of Swedish diver Göran Ehlmé. “I sat on the shore, and the walruses would come along. They’d get curious. But they have to hit you with their tusks to figure out what you are. And for a walrus to hit one of us can be lethal.”

Indeed, their ivory tusks can be nearly two feet long. Hooked into ice like an ax, they help a walrus clamber from the sea. They also jab rivals and fend off predators. Punctured polar bears have been found floating dead in the ocean.

The mustache is the other iconic feature. Hundreds of stiff, straw-colored whiskers bristle over walrus lips, thick as quills and sensitive as fingers. Using those vibrissae, walruses can tell the difference between objects half the size of an M&M. More practically, they can locate buried clams on the seafloor. To remove the meat, they use their mouths’ vacuum-force suction—strong enough to pull the skin off a seal.

These powerful creatures are tuneful too. During the January to April mating season “adult males erupt with singing and all kinds of strange sounds, like castanets and bells and strums of guitars and tapping on drums,” says Erik W. Born, senior scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. “The best singer is hoping his song attracts a beautiful lady walrus.”

Fifteen months after he does, a hundred-plus-pound calf is born. Over the next two years that pup will be cradled like a football by its doting mother, given piggyback rides, fattened with rich milk. If all goes well, it might live 40 years.

That used to be less likely. Ninth-century Vikings slaughtered herds for blubber and hides. Medieval Europeans carved chess sets from tusks. From the 16th century to the 20th, commercial whalers exploited walruses, reducing a range that once reached to Nova Scotia.

Today hunting is mostly restricted to Inuits, who rely on walruses for food, clothing, tools, ivory crafts, and fuel oil. But it’s impossible to say how many once swam in the Atlantic—perhaps hundreds of thousands. These days there might be 20,000 to 25,000. Yet even with aerial surveys and satellite monitoring, figures are elusive.

“Walruses are not easy to weigh, and they’re very not easy to count,” says Canadian research scientist Robert Stewart. “They’re found over a big area and in clumps. We don’t have data from 50 years ago either, so there’s no evidence to say whether numbers are up or down.”

The loss of sea ice would seem to be a major challenge. Walruses favor ice floes for feeding, birthing, and hauling out. Forced ashore, they’re vulnerable to polar bears. Anecdotal evidence suggests some populations are already affected.

Born agrees there’s cause for concern but also offers a sunnier prospect. The areas where Atlantic walruses eat clams “used to be covered with ice,” he says, “and walruses couldn’t gain access until the ice broke up. Now they can feed longer. So the retreat of sea ice could be beneficial.”

The time may come when more troubles roil the walrus’s world: Poaching, overhunting, large-scale shipping, and oil exploration top the list. But for the moment at least, the Atlantic walrus can enjoy its briny clams and splendid isolation.