Having a few surprise visitors isn’t usually a problem. Sure, you may not have enough food to go around, but it’s generally easy enough to accommodate them. When there’s over 1,000 of them and each weighs around 1.5 tons, taking up around 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) each, it’s a bit more of a problem.
The tiny Alaskan village of Port Heiden – population 110 – experienced this recently when 1,000 walruses unexpectedly rocked up on their peninsula.
In the past they’ve had one or two of these rather hefty creatures turn up for a bit of a rest, but this many en masse is new, and no one is sure why they are suddenly here.
Last month, the village’s Tribal Council president, John Christensen Jr, was out on a beach ride when he came across initially 200 walruses gathered on the beach. Smelling something unpleasant, he followed the scent up the coast until he came across the surprising sight.
“We thought something was dead, so we were looking for dead sea otters or seals on the beach so we could report them to the LEO (Local Environmental Observer) Network,” he said.
“We were wondering what those white things in the sky were. You could see their tusks in the air. When we got closer, we could see their bodies.”
Two weeks later, he was even more surprised to find that the number now more closely resembled 1,000.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joel Garlich-Miller, who specializes in walruses, told the Associated Press that he’s not sure why the toothsome beasts have gathered on the Alaskan peninsula but it could be related to food availability, or a lack thereof.
Walruses, or Odobenus rosmarus, which translates as “tooth-walking sea horse”, usually spend the winter months in the Bering Sea, where the sea ice can sustain huge numbers. When the ice melts, the males and females separate, with the females and their young heading for the Chukchi Sea, and the males fattening up on food before gathering on islands in the Bering Sea to rest.
According to Garlich-Miller, in the 1980s, around 10,000 walruses used to gather on Round Island, part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary, just off Bristol Bay in Alaska. More recently, only 2,000-3,000 have been seen.
This could be to do with the sea ice not forming as far south as it used to and the walruses having to look elsewhere to safely rest. A nice, quiet, and – importantly – unoccupied Alaskan peninsula probably looks pretty good when your options are limited.