Walrus herds pass Nome Headed North
The appearance of walrus on the ice off Nome added some excitement to the onset of spring. People were lining up on the beach on Friday morning, glassing for the walruses that could be heard and seen resting on the edge of the broken up sea ice. The big pinipeds were out of cell phone camera range but with the naked eye one could count them. Although most said they have never seen them this close to town in large numbers, others said the sight is nothing new.
“They’re always headed north this time of year,” said Ben Apassingok, originally from Gambell but now living in Nome. “I used to come here often for work and I’d see walruses real close right in front of Nome. You could see them from the windows of the bars here on Front St. It’s not unusual. I’ve been seeing them for years, I’ve been hunting them for years. But what’s unusual is the ice, the open water.”
Apassingok and his crew had just pulled their boat up the beach in the harbor after a hunt Saturday which was cut short by wind and waves. He described the season as way shorter and way earlier. The sea was rough and the lack of ice made the wind a problem.
“It went out pretty quickly, March 10th,” he said. “Now that south wind we’re having sure ate up all the good ice. Usually it would stick around through May, even to the end of June.”
According to Kawerak’s Subsistence Director Brandon Ahmasuk the lack of sea ice has made it difficult to launch a boat. “You have a like three-foot straight drop off or a six to eight foot drop off,” he said. “Those are not favorable conditions to be launching a boat from.” The area around the port has been active with hunters coming and going as the ice is still there and almost right at sea level.
Ahmasuk said hunters in the villages are able to get seals and walrus without problems despite the early spring and thin sea ice. “Some of the island communities are having it a little bit harder harvesting bowhead, just because of the lack of sea ice,” he said. “With the lack of sea ice you have more open water, with more open water it’s more susceptible to high winds and big waves. I just heard Gambell just landed a whale.”
Michael Slwooko and his crew returned from a hunt Sunday afternoon with two bearded seals, young ones. Conditions were good at first but when the wind came up they headed in, pulling their boat out at the port. He said he’s been out hunting three times himself. He’ll continue to hunt seals, go to Sledge Island for murre eggs, and catch geese, swans, and cranes “all over and up and down the coast.”
Walruses are herd animals and prefer to be in family groups said Ahmasuk. Because of climate change there are fewer ice floes so they are hauling out on land. “They could have ten, fifty, eighty thousand walrus out on a haul out,” he said. “As long as they don’t get spooked they seem to be OK. But when something spooks them and they stampede and they’re trying to get themselves into the water calves and even smaller animals get crushed.”
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guideline, walruses are highly sensitive to boats, planes and human presence. Noise and smells as well as sights may cause them to react and stampede.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassment, their hunt, capture or killing, except for Alaska Native subsistence hunters who are allowed to harvest walruses for subsistence.
Ahmasuk added that he notified the DNR Nome field technician to alert offshore miners of the presence of walruses. He said that it could potentially be dangerous to be diving in proximity to the walruses. Adult females weigh up to 2,000 pounds whereas an adult bull walrus can be weighing about 4,000 pounds. USFWS recommends vessels smaller than 50 feet to remain at least half a mile away from walruses hauled out on land or ice in order to avoid disturbances.
Winds came up in the afternoon. As waves battered the outer edge of the ice floes, it diminished visibly and the walruses were gone by evening on Friday.