Quite often in our wildlife conservation jobs, we find ourselves spending far too much time at our desks, instead of viewing the very wildlife we work to protect. That changed for me this past weekend, when I was thrilled to volunteer at the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) to help care for a walrus calf that was orphaned in July when it was separated from its herd off of Barrow, Alaska.
The ASLC is the northern most arctic marine research facility, the only permanent stranding facility for marine mammals in Alaska. It also houses a research facility and a public aquarium. In my role as a trained volunteer, I’ve assisted with the care of Steller sea lions, arctic seabirds, and seals. Working with the walrus calf was a very unique experience.
Walruses, or more specifically in this case Pacific walruses (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), are large flippered marine mammals that live in remote arctic locations. Adult males can weigh more than 3,700 lbs. and, among pinnipeds (the family that includes walruses, seals, and sea lions), are exceeded in size only by the two species of the elephant seal. Walruses prefer to haul out on sea ice over the continental shelf, near their main food source of mollusks and crustaceans. But as Arctic sea ice shrinks each year, it becomes more difficult for them to find a safe location to rest and raise their calves safely near their feeding grounds.
Knowing about the challenges walruses face made meeting the orphaned calf even more special. Staff and trained volunteers at the Alaska SeaLife Center care for the calf (who I called Walter) and another walrus calf 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I worked three four-hour shifts, during which we prepared walrus formula and fed the calf every three hours. He now weighs about 300 pounds! When we were not feeding or cleaning up after him, we spent time with him while he played in his pool filled with icy cold water or explored his pen. He has since been named Pakak, which means “one who that into everything” in Inupiaq. This adorable video was taken soon after he arrived:
Walrus are very tactile and social animals. The dedicated staff and volunteer caretakers provide the social interaction that he would otherwise receive from other walruses. Walrus calves almost immediately habituate to human care, and therefore cannot be released into the wild after being rehabilitated. So the two orphaned walrus will be placed in an aquarium with other walruses in the fall. Like the iconic polar bear, they will become ambassadors for Arctic wildlife.
Here’s Pakak in a later video enjoying his baby pool, which it looks like he may outgrow very soon!