The walrus is one of the most spectacular marine mammals on Svalbard. From the 1600s, and for almost 350 years there was an intense hunt for walruses, especially because of the valuable tusks. The walrus was virtually eradicated from Svalbard in the early 1900s, but a few hundred survived on the east side. In 1952, it became protected and has since then slowly increased in both prevalence and numbers. Today, the population of walruses on Svalbard is some 5500 animals (2018), with a population that almost doubled in 6 years.
The walrus is very social and forms dense colonies on land. After having sucked the meat out of hundreds of shells on the seabed, they can lie for hours digesting the meal on the ice or a sandy beach. Then, they are easy to smell from a distance.A group of walrus on the beach at Kvitøya island, far east in the archipelago. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
Walrus is the largest pinniped on the northern hemisphere; males can weigh close to 2 tonnes – females half the size of males.
Both sexes have tusks, and in large males the tusk can be over a meter long and weigh 5 kg – some rare cases with 3 and even 4 tusks.
Walrus are very social animals that haul-out in herds of many 10s of thousands (pacific walruses). In Svalbard, rarely more than a few hundred are found together.
The calf stay with their mother for 2-3 years. After weaning male calves join male herds, while female calves stay with the females.
Walrus are the only pinniped where the offspring can nurse underwater (bottlefeeding).
Walrus can also inflate a sack in the throat area, and use it as a float when resting or sleeping at sea.
The walrus feed mainly on mollusks that they detect with their sensitive vibrissae. They don’t chew their food, but then such out the soft part and swallow, while the shell is spat out. Contrary to many believes, the tusks are not really a part of the feeding behaviour. Their function is more to show dominance towards other males, and to be used when hauling themselves up on ice floes.
Since most of their food is found in shallow waters walrus normally dive less than 40 meters. However one instrumented animal from Svalbard is recorded down to 487 meters.
Many walruses also kill and feed on seals, mainly ringed seals. They are also known to kill birds and even reindeer. They may look clumsy and slow on shore but are very fast and maneuverable in the water.
Male walrus can weigh close to 2000 kilograms, and stand quite tall when moving around. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
Groups of walrus often haul out on specific beaches that has the conditions they prefer. These are traditional haul-outs that are used in generations. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes
Even though polar bears often are attracted to walrus haul outs, the skin is too tough for polar bears to be able to penetrate it with their teeth. The bears are of little threat except to calves. Often, the walruses remain calm, and do not seem to be bothered by the bear’s presence at all. Copyright: Roy Mangersnes