I’m in the high Arctic, far north of Norway at around 78º N latitude in a group of islands known collectively as Svalbard. For a few days I’m a guest on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise while we do a little investigating into the arrival of fishing ships into these waters as the ocean warms and fish like cod shift toward the top of the world. But today it’s something different. We’re going ashore on a wild island of bare rock and still-partly frozen snow patches called Amsterdam Island. They say there are walruses here.
First we get into our dry-suits, then into the small boats. Turns out we’ve found a place where we can clamber onto some rocks for a dry landing. Then the dry-suits come off and we walk around. Everywhere we look, we find evidence of changes.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of driftwood here, much of it milled, and much of it logs from very distant continental rivers. It would be so interesting to know the history and distance and time of each piece, how it got here. And we find a whale rib; it would be interesting and perhaps disturbing to know how that got here. People have killed many whales in these waters.
Less surprisingly, something else that is getting everywhere: plastic. This is a place—one of the many—where, not so long ago, plastic was unheard of. We stop to collect some. It seems an insignificant thing to do but it is important to do things that seem insignificant—because nothing is actually insignificant.
Just behind the beach is a pond. In the pond a lovely Red-throated Look (called Northern Diver here); and about a dozen Common Eiders, ducks who are famous for their thick down.
A little farther along the beach we get dive-bombed by Arctic Terns. They’re nesting here. It seems that there are more terns than there are nests. And when I find tracks of an Arctic Fox, I think I know why.
Our main objective is a sand beach known as Smeerenberg. Smeerenberg means: blubber city. Why that funny name? The reason isn’t funny: Walruses came to rest and molt here by the thousands, and in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the thousands they were killed by people for blubber for oil and for their hides. And of course, many, many walruses have been killed for just their two long front teeth, their tusks. They are the sea-dwelling ivory-bearing “elephants” of the north. And though they are very different from elephants, people are sadly the same in their cruel and wasteful plunder of each.
This is a place—one of the places—where, not so long ago, men slaughtered walruses until men outnumbered walruses. By the 1950s there were almost no Walruses in all of Svalbard. So of course the people left too. As often happens with nature, those who take all are left with nothing. Then logically, and too late, walruses were “protected.” But there were almost none left to protect. What was protected was mainly empty beaches, and the memory of them. And after a while even that faded. But hope did not.
In a way, this is why we are here. Because this is what humans do: come, take, repeat until depleted. And yet we remain hopeful.
There was reason for hope for walruses. In recent decades walruses have been recolonizing this region. Most come from even more remote islands to the east called Frans Josef Land. Thank goodness there were a few left there. Now after nearly 70 years, Svalbard’s walrus population is about 4,000. Their future is far from certain because Walruses need ice, and the clams they specialize on eating need cold water. But Arctic sea ice is shrinking and the ocean is warming.
But there’s one good thing about being a walrus returning to a place that has had no walruses for the span of a human lifetime: at the moment there is plenty of food for them. From the ship we send a remotely operated vehicle to the seafloor. We could see clams and clamshells everywhere.
It was great to see walruses where we expected to find them. It was even better to bump into a group at sea where we did not expect them. That was a terrific surprise.
# # #
Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.