Sealife expert Genevieve Leaper explains why Wally the Walrus is targeting boats, and how the Arctic walrus got so far from home
Wally the walrus stunned boat owners last week when he circled boats in the Isles of Scilly and tried to climb aboard dinghies and bathing platforms. PBO contributors Lorraine and Tom Owen managed to film the walrus whilst in Porthcressa, St Mary’s.
“Looking into his calm but quizzical eyes, we could easily have reached down and patted him, although, of course, we didn’t,” said Lorraine.
The young male walrus normally lives in Arctic waters over 80m deep and hauls himself onto the ice using his tusks, explains PBO’s wildlife expert Genevieve Leaper. When you think about his normal habitat, his behaviour isn’t that unusual.
Below, Genevieve shares some fascinating facts about walruses and explains why Lorraine and Tom are extremely lucky to have seen him.
Where does Wally the Walrus normally live?
The Walrus belongs to the pinniped (fin-footed) mammals, along with the seals and sealions. But while there are many species of seal, the walrus Odobenus rosmarus is the only living member of its family, its closest relatives long extinct.
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Wally the Walrus made national news last week when he climbed aboard people’s boats in the Isles of Scilly, where…
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Walruses have a circumpolar distribution but of the two subspecies, the slightly larger Pacific walrus is much more numerous. The population of Atlantic walrus is around 30,000, distributed from Canada to Novaya Zemlya. Most are found in the Canadian Arctic and West Greenland, but Wally probably comes from East Greenland or Svalbard.
What’s the main threat to walrus populations?
Walrus populations were decimated by centuries of hunting but were starting to recover in the late 20th century. Now the main threat is undoubtedly climate change and the loss of sea ice that they need to rest on.
Why does Wally climb on boats?
Walruses live in shallow Arctic waters with moving pack ice, rarely venturing far from the coast as they feed on the seabed. They are usually found in waters less than 80m deep with a gravelly bottom, the habitat of their preferred prey, clams and other molluscs.
Walruses prefer to haul out on sea ice rather than on land so it’s not entirely surprising that Wally chooses the next best floating platform and tries to climb onto yachts and dinghies!
How big can a walrus grow?
A full grown male walrus can weigh nearly 2 tonnes, about five times the size of the grey seal, our largest native pinniped. Even a newborn calf can weigh as much as an adult man. The most distinctive feature, of course, is the tusks. Both males and females have tusks which grow throughout life. Wally’s small tusks suggest a young animal but he could end up with teeth a metre long.
What are the walrus’s tusks for?
It was once thought that the tusks were used for digging prey from the seabed but, in fact, the walrus has an even more remarkable feeding method. The bristles on that whiskery snout are used to detect shellfish buried in the sediment. Instead of breaking open the mollusc’s shell the walrus simply holds it between its lips and sucks the body out with a piston-like movement of the tongue.
The tusks are used for social interactions – such as males fighting over females – and also for hauling out on ice floes and breaking through ice. Unfortunately, a very useful tool for getting a grip on the ice is rather less suitable for hauling out on an inflatable dinghy…
Why does Wally the Walrus like inflatable boats?
Walruses are very social animals and they like to maintain body contact with one another when hauled out – a group of walrus is appropriately known as a ‘huddle’. Maybe an inflatable boat feels comfortingly like lying between other blubbery bodies.
Wally is not the first walrus to come exploring around the British Isles and down to the Bay of Biscay – though with maybe a few dozen individuals over 200 years count yourself lucky if you have seen one!
Where else have walruses been spotted?
Most sightings have been around Shetland and Orkney, most recently in 2013 and 2018, and western Ireland.
What other Arctic species visit UK waters?
Nor are walruses the only visitors from the Arctic – bearded seal, beluga and bowhead whale have all been seen in recent years.
How did Wally the Walrus get here?
Wally may have started his voyage south drifting on an iceberg but clearly he has also swum a considerable distance. Walrus are good swimmers with a top speed of about 18 knots. They spend most of their lives in the water and some walrus populations migrate hundreds of miles every year.
But the open ocean is too deep for a walrus to feed so Wally will need to fatten up on plenty of shellfish before the long journey home.
Where is Wally the Walrus now?
The last we heard, Wally the Walrus had boarded the Star of Life ambulance boat in St Mary’s harbour, despite earlier being towed out to a secluded spot in a RIB he’d climbed aboard. Although Wally likes to climb on boats the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) reminded onlookers that walruses are protected by law and that members of the public should stay clear.
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