It’s an annual late-summer event on Alaska’s northwest shore. Each year, residents of an Inupiaq village report hearing walruses. Thousands of thick-skinned, flippered, tusked mammals gather onshore as the Chukchi Sea’s ice level reaches its yearly minimum. This year, the herd came ashore on August 22. In the past, it has been as late as September 21.
Spotters photographed an estimated 25,000 walrus cows and their young on a barrier island near Point Lay. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Andrea Medeiros says keeping tabs on the herd is a community effort: “We are monitoring the herd with the help of local people and the U.S. Geological Survey staff who are on site doing research.”
Walruses use their long, stiff whiskers to unearth clams and snails from the sea floor. They rest on sea ice between dives. But when the ice recedes in summer, walruses head to beaches to catch their rest. It’s important that the herd not get unnecessarily startled when on land. The thousands of animals lie shoulder to shoulder on the beach. But if alarmed by a predator—like a polar bear—they will stampede to the water for safety. Young calves are vulnerable to being crushed in such a stampede. Human presence or an airplane or boat engine can also cause this fear response. So the wildlife service tries to protect those little ones. It attempts to prevent stampedes by notifying pilots and boat operators to stay away from herds on shore.
U.S. Wildlife Service biologist James MacCracken says the agency will monitor the walruses until they choose to leave. As they do each year, the mammals will eventually reenter the ocean and spend the winter along the edge of the ice in the Bering Sea. Mature males remain in the Bering Sea all year. In spring, adult females, calves, and juveniles migrate north through the Bering Strait. They feed in the Chukchi Sea, staying near the edges of the ice as it melts off and recedes north. Sea ice usually reaches its minimum in September.
Conservationists tracking weather in the Arctic are concerned for the walrus populations. They fear the ice is melting earlier, leaving the herd on land longer. If climate patterns really are changing, it may mean more protective measures must be taken to keep the creatures safe. But while humans work to provide that protection, believers know that God is working too. He promises that, as long as the Earth exists, “cold and heat, summer and winter . . . shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)