Turns out that there’s nothing more adorable than a walrus cuddle puddle.
We’re currently in coronavirus lockdown here in Slovenia, so I thought it would be a good time for a trip down the memory lane to the wild walrus colony on Prins Karls Forland (island) on Svalbard. I visited Svalbard in June 2019: it was another one of my solo couchsurfing journeys and definitely one of my favourite destinations of all.
Svalbard is an archipelago in the far north, quite close to the North pole (here’s my post with 14 facts about Svalbard). It’s technically a part of Norway and it is super remote with more polar bears than people, so exploring around is a bit trickier than normal. Leaving the main town called Longyearbyen is forbidden without a rifle for safety against the polar bears, so you need to book a tour for everything you want to do.
While it’s expensive, it’s also very worth it, particularly the boat safari tour to see the wild walrus colony. The one I went on was called Two tons of happiness and it was amazing! We took a small boat to Prins Karls island, which is one of the spots around Svalbard where the walruses are likely to be found and of course we had a very knowledgeable guide with a rifle.
It was a beautiful sunny day when we set off from Longyearbyen. We passed the Doomsday Vault on the way, the Global Seed Vault housing all the seeds in the world to ensure their survival, as well as some pretty amazing scenery. There were also a couple of Arctic birds following along with the boat, which I think were Arctic terns, although I’m not really a bird person, so…
On the way
The boat journey was a bit rough with choppy waves, but we made it and managed to drop anchor near the island, where we got our first look at the walrus colony! It was quite large and most walruses were lying in one giant pile at the edge of the island, with some of them playing in the water. We had to be careful not to go near the huge males in the sea, because water is their element and they tend to be territorial, which is not something you want while in a small boat.
All of us were pretty excited and we piled into a little dingy in turns to reach the island. Our group was full of wildlife photographers with too much gear and even two guys filming a podcast, so it took a while, but eventually all of us were on land and ready to get closer to the walrus pile.
First look at the walrus colony
Walruses are giant, awesome animals. They’re carnivorous mammals, which can weigh up to 1.5 ton each and both males and females have huge tusks. They’re super agile in the water and a bit awkward on land, due to their bulk, which is also why they tooth-walk (how awesome is that?). They use their long tusks to drag their bodies around, break breathing holes into the ice and fight for females during mating season, when they can get quite aggressive. The moustached and long-tusked varieties are found in the Arctic regions and there aren’t that many of them left, so they’re considered vulnerable as a species.
They’re also very social animals, which live in herds and tend to lie around in tight cuddle puddles to conserve heat. Walruses are capable of lowering their heartbeat to survive the freezing Arctic waters and they can stay in there searching for food for a couple of hours. The colour of their hides also changes from brown to pink when they’re cold, because the blood circulation slows down. However, once they’re out of the water, they need to get their temperature back up again, which is why they cuddle together.
The larger walruses smash right into the pile and take the warmest spots, so the cuddle puddle is continuously shifting in a struggle for dominance and we got to observe the awkward walrus squabbles while we were there. It was so adorable that my heart was melting the whole time and even more so when we saw a young walrus trying to climb up the hill to reach the puddle and he kept sliding off like the fatso he was. <3
More wild walrus cuddles
Walruses are pretty much the bosses of Svalbard, because they’re huge and dangerous, so all they do is lay around and eat all the time. Even the polar bears, the apex predators of Svalbard, are afraid to take on a two ton walrus, so the walruses lead very happy, cosy lives. One of the males was rolling around in the water showing off for us while we were there and I swear he had the walrus equivalent of a smile on his face. In fact, walrus happy really should be an actual expression. 🙂
They seemed to be in a good mood, so they let us get quite close, although the guide made sure we weren’t disturbing them. In fact, the whole tour was very professional, with respect for wildlife at the forefront of all animal interactions, so I really recommend it, but like everything else on Svalbard it was super expensive (about 250€ in 2019).
We stayed on the island for a while and then headed back to Longyearbyen. On the way back we also sighted the first beluga whales of the season, which we ended up celebrating with champagne, because apparently it was a special occasion that the crew had been waiting for.
The tour included coffee, cookies and sandwiches and lasted for about half a day, so I had lots of time left to explore the town afterwards and maximise my short visit to Svalbard.
All in all this was my favourite experience on Svalbard, which is saying something, because I saw so many amazing things there. If you get the chance and can afford it, then this is something you really must do, because seeing wild walruses in person is absolutely incredible and worth breaking the bank for. 🙂
P.S.: I also wrote a guest post about Svalbard wildlife for the Airbourne for Animals blog, come check it out here.