Pakak the orphaned walrus at the Alaska SeaLife Center
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.
The young walrus is healthy and happy, thanks to excellent care by volunteers and SeaLife Center staff.
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!
Summer is coming to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, and to say it was not a good year for Arctic sea ice would be something of an understatement. In fact, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that this August was the second lowest month ever for sea ice since satellite record-keeping began in 1979 (higher only than an all-time low in 2007). But the melt season isn’t over yet–and with one more week to go, sea ice already covers less than two-thirds of the area it covered in the early 1970s. Both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea route appear to be open, and several large areas of open water (polynyas) have opened within the ice pack.
What does this mean for the marine mammals who call the sea ice home? This August, as many as 8,000 walruses gathering sought refuge on the northwest coast of Alaska. But an early haul-out on the beach is no safe alternative to their customary sea ice. Not only do the walruses lose access to the shallow waters of the continental shelf where they dive for clams, snails and other food, but large groups of the animals on land also face the danger of stampedes. In September 2009, more than 130 mostly young walruses were crushed after a disturbance spooked a walrus herd at Alaska’s Icy Cape.
Ice-loss trends are having serious impacts on polar bears. As sea ice melts, reports of bears swimming miles from shore, drowning and even resorting to cannibalism have become alarmingly frequent. Without sea ice providing them access to seals, they must search farther inland for food, risking interaction with people and communities.
Scientists are at work to figure out why the ice is disappearing so fast, trying to collect better data through new satellite, plane and submarine observations–even drilling holes and poking a tape measure down to measure ice thickness. They say the thinning of ice over recent decades may hasten an ice-free summer as soon as 2020.
This news comes at a bad time for the Arctic mammal. Climate change is causing sea ice in both the Bering and Chukchi Seas to disappear at an alarming rate, diminishing important Pacific walrus habitat and availability of prey and increasing the chances of deadly stampedes. And shrinking sea ice isn’t the only thing walruses have to worry about. Foreseeable harm to walrus populations also includes increased shipping, potential oil spills and ocean acidification, which will further reduce the walrus’ prey base of clams and other shellfish.
Bob Irvin, senior vice president of conservation programs for Defenders said, “By melting Arctic sea ice on which Pacific walrus and other wildlife depend, climate change is stacking the deck against their ability to survive. As Pacific walrus habitat shrinks, it becomes harder to find food and the animals are forced to crowd together in fewer areas, increasing the risk of deadly stampedes. With all of these threats, the life of a Pacific walrus is pretty tough. Today’s decision just made it tougher, failing to provide the help Pacific walrus will need to survive the impacts of global climate change.”
What Defenders Is Doing
Defenders is co-sponsoring a Pacific walrus remote camera monitoring project, placing five cameras at a walrus haulout location. The goal of the project is to record haulout disturbances and what the causes are and how long they last.