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Pacific walrus (Odobenus obesus)

Pacific walrus (Odobenus obesus)The walruses, or "sea horses" of the old navigators, are the strangest and most grotesque of all sea mammals. Their large, rugged heads, armed with two long ivory tusks, and their huge swollen bodies, covered with hairless, wrinkled, and warty skin, gives them a formidable appearance unlike that of any other mammal. They are much larger than most seals, the old males weighing from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds and the females about two-thirds as much.

These strange beasts are confined to the Arctic Ocean and the adjacent coasts and islands and are most numerous about the borders of the pack ice. Two species are known, one belonging to the Greenland seas, while the other, the Pacific walrus, is limited to Bering Sea and the Arctic basin beyond Bering Straits.

The Pacific walruses migrate southward through Bering Straits with the pack ice in fall and spend the winter in Bering Sea and along the adjacent coast of eastern Asia. In spring they return northward through the straits and pass the breeding season about the ice pack, where they congregate in great herds. One night in July 1881, the U.S. steamer Corwin cruised for hours along the edge of the ice pack off the Arctic coast of Alaska and saw an almost unbroken line of walruses hauled but on the ice, forming an extended herd which must have contained tens of thousands.

Walruses were formerly very abundant in Bering Sea, especially about the Fur Seal Islands and along the coast north of the Peninsula of Alaska, but few now survive there. Owing to the value of their thick skins, blubber, and ivory tusks, they have been subjected to remorseless pursuit since the early Russian ccupation of their territory and have, as a result, become extinct in parts of their former range and the species is now in serious danger of extermination.

Like many of the seals, walruses have a strong social instinct, and although usually seen in herds they are not polygamous. They feed mainly on clams or other shellfish, which they gather on the bottom of the shallow sea. On shore or on the ice they move slowly and with much difficulty, but in the water they are thoroughly at home and good swimmers. When hauled out on land or ice, they usually lie in groups one against the other. They are stupid beasts and hunters have no difficulty in killing them with rifles at close range.

Walruses have a strongly developed maternal instinct and show great devotion and disregard of their own safety in defending the young. The Eskimos at Cape Vancouver, Bering Sea, hunt them in frail skin-covered kyaks, using ivory- or bone- pointed spears and seal­skin floats. Several people told me of exciting and dangerous encounters they had experienced with mother walruses. If the young are attacked, or even approached, the mother does not hesitate to charge furiously.

When boats approach the edge of the ice where walruses are hauled up, the animals plunge into the sea in a panic and rise all about the intruders, bellowing and rushing about, rearing their huge heads and gleaming white tusks high out of water in an alarming manner. As a rule, however, they are timid and seek only to escape, although occasionally, in their excitement, one has been known to attack a boat and by a single blow of its tusks to do serious damage and endanger the crew.