National Geographic : 2013 Dec
ATLANTIC WALRUS 121 O n ice floes and rocky beaches in the far North Atlantic, cinnamon brown blobs pile up in living heaps. Some weigh more than a ton. Some are longer than ten feet. Each is a rumpled por- trait of buckteeth and whiskers, deep scars and bloodshot eyes. They nap, burp, squabble, and bark—“something between the mooing of a cow and the deepest baying of a mastiff,” noted a 19th-century explorer. Walruses may seem familiar from Beatles lyr- ics and Lewis Carroll verses, but most of us will never see a herd in the wild. And few photogra- phers have documented this dangerous, musical, and socially sophisticated pinniped, a fin-footed kin to seals, sea lions, and sea elephants. “I used myself as bait,” says Paul Nicklen, who spent three weeks aiming his lens at Atlantic wal- ruses with the help of Swedish diver Göran Ehlmé. “I sat on the shore, and the walruses would come along. They’d get curious. But they have to hit you with their tusks to figure out what you are. And for a walrus to hit one of us can be lethal.” Indeed, their ivory tusks can be nearly two feet long. Hooked into ice like an ax, they help a walrus clamber from the sea. They also jab rivals and fend off predators. Punctured polar bears have been found floating dead in the ocean. The mustache is the other iconic feature. Hundreds of stiff, straw-colored whiskers bristle over walrus lips, thick as quills and sensitive as fingers. Using those vibrissae, walruses can tell the difference between objects half the size of an M&M. More practically, they can locate buried clams on the seafloor. To remove the meat, they use their mouths’ vacuum-force suction—strong enough to pull the skin off a seal. These powerful creatures are tuneful too. Dur- ing the January to April mating season “adult males erupt with singing and all kinds of strange sounds, like castanets and bells and strums of guitars and tapping on drums,” says Erik W. Born, senior scientist at the Greenland Institute of By Jeremy Berlin Photographs by Paul Nicklen Jeremy Berlin is an editor at the magazine. Paul Nicklen’s photographs of Mexico’s sacred cenotes appeared in the August 2013 issue.