ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Large herds of Pacific walruses have begun gathering on the northwest coast of Alaska, again forsaking sea ice for sand in what has become a symbol of climate warming in the region.
A contractor taking part in federal marine mammal aerial surveys over the Chukchi Sea spotted about 5,000 walruses Wednesday on a beach north of Point Lay. A second herd of 3,000 walruses rested a short distance away.
In winter, Pacific walruses are found at the edge of sea ice in the Bering Sea. Older males remain in the Bering Sea for the summer, but mothers and their young ride the edge of sea ice as it melts north through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea.
Female walruses and their young have come ashore during late summer and fall in four of the last five years on Alaska’s northwest coast. The phenomenon began after sea ice melted far beyond the relatively shallow continental shelf to waters of the deep Arctic Basin.
Walruses can dive to 600 feet to find clams, snails and other food on the ocean bottom. Water beyond the continental shelf can be 10,000 feet deep or more.
In 2007, several thousand walruses gathered on Alaska’s northwest shore for the first time. They returned in 2009, and last year gathered in unprecedented numbers. Upward of 20,000 animals were counted near Point Lay, an Eskimo village 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.
Walruses face danger from stampedes when they gather on shore. More than 130 mostly young walruses were crushed in September 2009 at Alaska’s Icy Cape in a disturbance that could have been caused by a polar bear, human hunters or an airplane.