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Why 10,000 walruses crammed onto this barrier island

October 01, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • An estimated 10,000 walruses crammed onto an island in northwestern Alaska. Why? They didn't have much choice.
An estimated 10,000 walruses crammed onto an island in northwestern Alaska.… (Stan Churches / NOAA )

Call it the Great Walrus Haulout of 2013.

Look closely at the picture above and you'll see an estimated 10,000 walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) that have hauled their great girth out of the water and onto a small barrier island in northwestern Alaska to rest between food-foraging dives.

It's an emerging walrus city (zoomable photo here), and it has grown steadily over the last few weeks.

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On Sept. 12, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studying arctic marine mammals counted 1,500 to 4,000 walruses piling onto the island. By Sept. 22, the number had grown to 5,500 to 8,000. And on Sept. 27, it was approximately 10,000.

And remember, the Pacific walrus is not a small animal. It can weigh more than 3,700 pounds.

It is also quite noisy.

A walrus gathering of this size is not unprecedented. Back in 2011, an estimated 30,000 walruses congregated on a 0.6-mile stretch of beach near Point Lay in northern Alaska, according to a NOAA report, but researchers say these walrus haulouts are a recent phenomenon. 

Traditionally, walruses have used ice in the northern Chukchi Sea to rest between their dives for clams, snails and worms, but the Chukhchi has a lot less ice than it used to, so now walruses are resting on beaches instead.

In addition to the burgeoning walrus city, the researchers made some other interesting discoveries. 

Megan Ferguson, a marine mammal scientist with NOAA Fisheries, said NOAA scientists had also documented more bowhead whales, including calves and feeding adults, in the Beaufort Sea this summer compared with  2012, as well as more gray whale calves in the Chukchi Sea than in recent years.

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