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FROSTY’S RAMBLINGS He hitched a lift on a passing iceberg

PETER FROST meets a very rare sea creature that has come floating into British waters

RAREST of marine mammals, an Arctic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) has been spotted in Wales a week after being seen in Ireland.

In home Arctic waters they usually live in open water, and in large groups near to shore or on ice floes. 

They mainly eat shellfish and other invertebrate marine animals. They sometimes catch fish and even small seals and other smaller marine mammals.

Our Arctic walrus has been seen on rocks near Broad Haven South beach, Pembrokeshire, before moving further south to Tenby where it is currently hanging out. It is thought to be the same one also seen previously off the coast of Co Kerry.

Climate change has resulted in more and more ice floes and icebergs breaking off the Arctic glaciers. 

Our walrus, it seems, hopped on a berg floating south and was spotted first in Kerry, Ireland, then in Pembrokeshire.

Sea Rescue Ireland said: “The tired young walrus last spotted on Valentia Island, Co Kerry … and has been spotted in Wales.

“The walrus has since gone back out to sea and is undoubtedly tired after another long journey, so if you spot it in your area, please remember that this is a sensitive species and to avoid disturbance.”

Cleopatra Browne of Welsh Marine Life Rescue told the BBC: “It was about the size of a cow. It was a whopper. I’ve seen them on telly and the news but it was huge.”

Walruses are more often found in the subzero temperature Arctic seas from Alaska, Canada and Greenland to Russia. They are not usually seen as far south as the British Isles.

The moustached and long-tusked walrus is most often found near the Arctic Circle, lying on the ice with hundreds of companions. 

These marine mammals are extremely sociable, prone to loudly bellowing and snorting at one another, but are aggressive during mating season. 

With wrinkled brown and pink hides, walruses are distinguished by their long white tusks, grizzly whiskers, flat flippers and bodies full of blubber.

Walruses use their distinctive long tusks for a variety of tasks. They use them to haul their enormous bodies out of frigid waters and to break breathing holes into ice from below. They can hang in these blowholes in the ice using their tusks. 

Their tusks, which are found on both males and females, can extend to about three feet, and are, in fact, large canine teeth, which grow throughout their lives. 

Male walruses, or bulls, also employ their tusks aggressively to maintain territory and, during mating season, to protect their harems of females, or cows. 

The walrus’s other characteristic features are equally useful. As their favourite food, shellfish, is found near the dark ocean floor, walruses use their sensitive whiskers as detection devices. 

Their blubber layer — up to 15cm (six inches) thick along with one of the toughest hides in the animal kingdom — allows them to live comfortably in the Arctic.

They are also capable of slowing their heartbeats in order to withstand the icy temperatures of the polar waters.

Though walruses have few natural predators, man has hunted them since the ninth century. 

Hunters have stalked them for their oil, ivory and skin. Because of this, walrus populations have dropped to extremely low levels, although they have recovered at several points in human history.

Walrus oil — made by boiling walrus blubber at high temperatures — was used for lamp oil, soap and as a machine lubricant. 

Between 1860 and 1880, approximately 10,000 walruses were killed a year in the eastern Arctic alone. 

Now only native populations who rely on the walrus as a source of food are permitted to hunt the animal. 

In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 not only protects the walrus from hunters but also prohibits the trade of walrus ivory. 

The only ivory that can be legally traded must predate the 1972 law or been carved by an Alaska native. 

Although the walrus is not endangered, it is listed under Article III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). 

This status gives it some protection by placing restrictions on the global trade of walruses and walrus products.

After significant fluctuations in walrus populations over the last several hundred years, current populations appear to be stable and may even be thriving. 

Although some illegal ivory trade is inevitable and the effects of global warming remain to be seen, at the moment walruses are enjoying a welcome stability in their total numbers.

Alaska’s first people, the Inupiaq and Yupik, have relied on the walrus for thousands of years. 

Their annual walrus hunt has become an integral part of that culture. Practically every last bit of the walrus is used — even the intestines were eaten or made into raincoats. 

The meat is eaten, stomachs are used as containers and drums, skins are used for boat covers and rope, and ivory is used in art. 

Each village sets a limit on the number of walruses that can be hunted each year, making sure they do not kill more than can be used. 

Walruses can grow very large. Some huge examples have been seen and shot in the past — 16 foot, nearly two tonne males have been recorded.  

Normal bull walruses can be 3-3.7m (12ft) long and stand 1.5m (5ft) tall. They weigh 900-1,600kg (200-3,600lb). 

Walruses have very thick skin and underneath this, a layer of blubber which can be up to 15cm (6 inches) thick. 

They need this kind of protection from the subzero temperatures of the Arctic seas in which they live.

They can live for more than 50 years. Apart from human hunters, their only serious predators are orcas (killer whales) and polar bears. Bears can often be seen off by a large male or protective mother walrus.  

Females reach sexual maturity between six and seven years. Males take about twice as long. Pregnancies last up to two years. 

RSPCA animal rescue officer Ellie West, who checked the animal in Wales, said: “He was resting and, although appearing slightly underweight, thankfully he wasn’t displaying any signs of sickness or injury.”

Our walrus visitor has a lesson for us all. If this fragile animal is being pushed to explore a new habitat due to a changing climate it should serve as great motivation for us all to take action on climate crisis.

Bottlenosed visitors

HERE are more marine mammals moving south, although not such an epic journey as the walrus.

Bottlenose dolphins are not uncommon off the northern Scottish coast. Pods of a hundred or more are often seen in and around the Moray Firth. 

Now the dolphins are appearing more frequently along the Yorkshire coast. A pod of 20 were jumping clear of the waves and entertaining sightseers on Flamborough Head just a few weeks ago. 

Researchers at the University of St Andrews want people to send them photographs of any sightings in England or Scotland. 

Images are used to identify individual dolphins by the notches and other marks on their dorsal fins. 

These are added to St Andrews’s database of many thousands of pictures of individual dolphin fins built up over the last 30 years.

It isn’t clear why the bottlenose dolphins are swimming south. Is it climate change? More likely the animals are simply foraging for food in different areas. 

Maybe it is a lack of boats caused by the lockdown. That is the reason dolphins have returned to a traffic-free Venice Lido.

If you see the walrus or any rare species of marine mammal, please be sure to notify the closest marine mammal rescue centre to you.

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