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Why is it called Walrus Island?

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11 Aug 2010
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Walrus Island, Hudson Bay (63N, 84W)

After a morning zodiacing around this small island at the top of Hudson Bay, the vast inland sea that looks like a gouge out of the middle of the Canadian landmass, we are under way again. It is a perfect day – clear blue sky, no wind and water as flat as glass. Look down and you see jellyfish and other creatures moving beneath the surface. You can see the keel of the Lyubov Orlova glimmering above her anchor chain that drops down into increasing darkness.

The pool has been filled and so with the great bay to port, the students and many staff don bathing suits and jump in to raucous chanting and applause. The “pool” is big enough to hold about six people at a time. With water at 2 degrees Celsius, the pool is more for dipping than diving anyway.

It’s good practice for the polar swim that will come later in the trip. Hitting the water is a shock. Nerves shut down, numbness takes over, breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Two dips and I headed for a warm shower, the taste of salt in my mouth. All I could think of was the thousands of walrus on the nearby epinonimous island.

This morning we saw approximately a thousand of the massive sea mammals hauled up onto the smooth, eroded gray rock shoreline. Their voices – snorting and grunting – carried across the water in the still morning air. So did their aroma, which smelled strongly of the bivalves they consume at the bottom of the sea. Those that weren’t roaring and grunting were sleeping in the sun, their skin many hues of brown and pink. Walrus circulation systems are designed to keep then warm by drawing blood into their core of their bodies during their long, deep dives foraging for food. Hauled out on the warm shore of the island, blood vessels open and push blood to their extremities and out towards their skin to keep them cool.

We floated in quietly, engines cut, so we wouldn’t disturb the animals. Occasionally something would rouse them – perhaps it was five black zodiacs bobbing 30 metres off shore. Heads up, tusks glinting in the sunlight, heads swinging back and forth, small eyes scanning, nostrils scenting. One or two animals would move towards the water’s edge and followed by dozens of others into the water.

These are not small animals. Walrus can weigh several hundred kilos without even trying. They feed on clams that burrow into the seabed, digging them out with their flippers. They can spend up to 20 minutes under water and hold their prey in their lips and suck the insides out whole. It takes a lot of clams to fill a walrus stomach. How their food source will respond to changing water temperatures and increased ocean acidity due to climate change is a question that begs research.

This is the second day we have explored a living island. Yesterday the sheer cliffs of Digges Island hung thick with Black-billed Murres. The Arctic is often mistakenly described as “empty” but we have seen and felt that it is very much alive.

Credit: Students on Ice.

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