A female walrus protecting her calf has attacked and sunk a Russian naval vessel in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. All aboard are reported safe, and the expedition, which has followed the trail of several 19th-century explorers, continues.
The events took place during a joint expedition with the Russian Geographical Society, who were using the naval tug Altai as part of an exploration of the remote islands. The Altai itself was apparently unharmed, but a press report (in Russian) from the Geographical Society records one of the Altai’s landing craft was victim to a walrus.
“The boat sank, but a tragedy was avoided thanks to the prompt action by the squad leader. All landing participants safely reached the shore,” the statement reports.
The Russian Northern Fleet, from which the Altai comes also reported walrus trouble for the expedition at Cape Geller, mentioning the party was forced to flee. However, perhaps concerned anxious neighboring states might start enlisting walruses, the naval account doesn’t mention the loss of the landing craft, only that researchers had to make a quick getaway from the marine mammals.
The nearly 200 islands of the archipelago are located within around 10 degrees of the North Pole, only slightly further than the northernmost parts of Greenland. Although military bases were established there during the Cold War, the islands have been an uninhabited nature sanctuary since 1994, so the walrus is safe from reprisals.
As the Geographical Society’s photographs show, sailing in the area is currently only mildly impeded by ice. This marks a stark change from the 19th century, when expeditions to the area sometimes saw the islands but were blocked by ice from reaching then, even at the height of summer.
Walruses were once hunted in the area but have been protected since 1952 and their numbers have recovered to more than 1,000. It’s not known if they are suffering the same threats from loss of sea ice experienced by their more numerous Alaskan cousins. Nevertheless, the pinnipeds have plenty of reason to be angry at humans, not only for the historical hunting, but for the threats our emissions pose to their Arctic climate and ecosystems, so brutally portrayed in David Attenborough’s recent Our Planet documentary of the region.
The landing craft destroyed by the walrus is believed to have been of the rubber blow-up variety, but should the native mammals be emboldened by their success to go after larger shipping, perhaps the expedition would benefit from a carpenter.