Walrus? (EH)

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edwardhancox_dlIt seems that the humble walrus is making a comeback. Not only were several walrus spotted on Icelandic shores this summer, they’ve cropped up on bizarre situations recently too.

A walrus was spotted sunning himself on the beach Hofstrandarsandur in Borgarfjörður eystri, East Iceland, at the end of September. It is believed to be the same walrus seen observed on Skjálfandi bay off Húsavík in Northeast Iceland just a few days before. There have been five other walrus sightings in Iceland this year.

Vladimir Putin was recently photographed shaking hands with one, a walrus skeleton was found beneath St. Pancras station in London and Kevin Smith is working on a horror film, where victims are forced to dress up as a walrus for up to two hours a day, to please an old, but deranged, seafarer. It’s called Tusk. Oh, and there is that Beatles song too.

I thought I’d find out a bit more about this large, flippered, slightly- ugly marine creature. I’ve seen one, once. I was in Alaska though, not Iceland. Sightings in Iceland are rare and the animals are probably nosey visitors from the Greenland continental shelf.

Walruses come in three varieties, the Pacific, Atlantic and a lesser known species that lives only in a specific location in the Arctic and no one bothers about those much. These sociable creatures are huge, and can way up to 1,700kg, although Atlantic Walrus tend to peak at a not so measly 900kg. That’s still big enough to give you a nasty shock though, isn’t it? Also, bear in mind that walruses can move quickly on their stubby flippers; they can even out run humans.

The animals can live up to 35 years, although their tough Arctic lives tend not to lend themselves to this, and hunting, although now limited, shortens this even further.

The Icelandic name for Walrus is rostungur. The word ‘walrus’ is supposedly related to the old Norse ‘wal’ for whale, and ‘rus’ for horse and the Latin names translates as ‘tooth walking sea horse’. This is probably due to the walrus hauling out of the sea with its huge tusks and looking like a stranded, blubbery horse.

Those tusks, by the way, can grow up to a mammoth one meter long and like trees can be used to determine the age of a walrus, with the number of rings inside denoting a year. Don’t tell a walrus about this, though, they might not like it.

The tusks are used for breaking through ice, scouring the sea bed for food, hauling out, and having a good old fashioned fight. Usually over a female, at mating time. The longer a males tusks, the more important he is in his social group. By the way, the walrus has the longest penis bone of any land mammal. Just saying.

Walrus can spend up to 30 minutes underwater, have a special air-sac to allow them to bob and sleep in the sea, have skin up to 10 cm thick and blubber up to 15 cm to keep nice and snug in the icy seas. This is probably a good thing, as they spend up to two thirds of their lives in the water.

The animals have poor eyesight so they can’t actually see each other’s ugly bodies but have highly sensitive whiskers on their faces. These are similar to the whiskers of a cat, and are actually called vibrissae. They are used for snuffling out tasty morsels on the sea floor, such as snails, worms, crabs, small fish and for a bit of salad and sea cucumber. Their favorite, though, are clams, which they use their tongue to suck them right off their shells.

The children’s show Pajanimals has a character called Coach Whistler. He is a walrus. It’s not clear why. But then it’s not clear why there is one shaking hands with Vladimir Putin, buried under London or visiting Iceland either.

Edward Hancox – edhancox@live.co.uk

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.