Things you don’t expect to see

When you’re cruising around the arctic on a small boat on a wildlife photography trip, there is a mental list of creatures that everyone on the deck is scanning for.  The Money Shot is polar bears, of course, especially a polar bear on ice.  But we’re also looking for whales, harp, hooded, bearded and other seals, arctic fox, and walruses.

I was really looking forward to the walruses, and realized that they fell into that category of Things I Know Exist but Have Never Seen with my Own Eyes.  Like a lot of things on this trip, including icebergs.  (And like a lot of things I haven’t seen, like a pyramid, a hangman’s noose, cocaine, Paris, and the inside of a helicopter).

When we woke up on our most northern day in Svalbard anchored just off Moffen, a little island beyond the top tip of Spitsbergen that serves as a wildlife sanctuary, I was quite excited, and got up at 6 to scan the shoreline of the tiny island.

You aren’t allowed to get closer than 300 m to Moffen, so this was a telescope and binoculars/telephoto lens enterprise.  The scattering of people on deck were huddled around Finch’s scope, looking at the much sought Sabine’s gull.  (Very pretty gull with tri-colored wing pattern).  I looked at the gull, and asked if there was anything else.  “About 50 walruses,” said G.

I looked at the island and couldn’t see the walruses.  From half a kilometre away, they looked like a line of rocks and kelp.

Pre-caffeination, I literally giggled at myself that I’d been able to see the small, delicate gull — but somehow missed the enormous pile of walrusses.  It underlined again how well the creatures and birds in the Arctic have adapted to blend into their environments.  Like the tern chicks that look exactly like their nesting soil, the eider duck chicks that disappear into the desert terrain, the kittiwake chicks that hide in plain sight on grey-hued cliffs — and like the arctic foxes that turn white in the winter and light brown in the summer — the walruses can be easily overlooked on land.

When the walruses realized we were there, they began to lurch into the water, and eventually, came out to investigate us.  Like the dolphins and grey whales on our Baja trip, they edged closer and closer to the boat, and started to directly look at us.  Clearly, genuinely curious.

One came close enough to share my (barely passable, but hot) coffee.

I was chuffed about the pre-breakfast walruses, and thrilled to see their whiskers and tusks.  After our experience of being able to pet the grey whales in Laguna San Ignacio in Baja, I was also half wishing I could stroke the walrus, feel the thick, mottled skin for myself.

When we sailed around the other edge of Moffen, we watched the walruses launch themselves off the beach and then haul back out, and I did have to admire the fact that they can move their enormous bulk on land at all.  A human equivalent in weight would have to be hoisted about with special ropes and gear.

There is a tension, though, about doing trips like this, where everything is a wonder, as you start to create hierarchies of wonder for yourself.  When we were trudging through the pack ice a few days later, someone rang the bell because a harp seal had been spotted on an ice floe.  I happened to be in the lounge at that moment, and started gathering up my binoculars, gloves, goretex shell, hat, switching lenses to my 100 – 400… and looked over and noticed that Ann, another passenger doing a crossword puzzle across from me, wasn’t moving.  “S will take a photo of it,” she said, “and I’ll see it when I get home.”

Clearly, for Ann, a seal wasn’t worth the palaver of bundling up to go outside, at that moment.

To my shame, I reached that point a little bit with the walruses the same day as the Moffen encounter.  We landed on a teeeny tiny island just north of 80°, called Ringestøya, just west of Nordaustlandet, the second largest island in Svalbard.  Ringetsøya is so tiny and remote it doesn’t exist on the internet — even the official tourism map of Svalbard ignores it.  It’s like a secret, mystery walrus colony.

When we were on deck waiting for the three zodiac shuttles to Ringetsøya, someone muttered that there was a dead polar bear on the beach.  Nervous on every landing about bears, our first assumption was that someone had had to shoot it.  Then we realized that there was a tripod standing about 2 metres away from the poor bear, and that there was a smallish sailboat on the other edge of the island.

This far north, anyone else was a surprise… and we couldn’t make any sense of the polar bear/tripod tableau.  As our first zodiac landed, another one whipped up from the other boat, and from our deck, we weren’t sure whether they were going to warn us away from the landing.  But our folks continued to scrabble onto the shore, and the other pair marched toward the dead bear, then retrieved their tripod.

We trooped ashore and investigated the poor thin bear, discerning that it had died of natural causes, likely, and that the people with the tripod had been doing some kind of time-tracked photography over the past day or so to record … something.

Being nosy lens-poky sorts, we all photographed the bear, except for one woman who felt it was exploitative, felt too sad for the bear.  Then we trooped around to find the much buzzed about walrus colony, delicately circumnavigating the pond to avoid further agitating the outraged arctic terns or stepping on their nests.

When we found the walruses, again… it was just a big pile of tangled walrus.

Utterly fascinating, in theory — and in reality…. sadly… a little… boring.

Sometimes they’d inch into the water a bit, then swim back onto shore.  And sometimes they’d raise their heads and show off their tusks.

Or even raise an arm (flipper?) or two.

But really?  <hushed whisper>  They didn’t do much.  They just kind of laid there like people bloated on junk food and bad television.

These are bachelor walruses — all male, they only hang out with the females in breeding time, during the winter.  Apparently a walrus has a special, baseball bat length penis bone, because otherwise they couldn’t keep their soft tissue firm enough in the frigid waters they mate in.

On a really foggy day, we watched a David Attenborough film about polar bears, and got to watch the reaction of a walrus colony as a polar bear preyed on them.  They moved pretty quickly then, lurching about and flinging their bodies around, and even the fierce predator couldn’t sink his teeth through the tough skin of the older pinnipeds.  They are survivors, these beasts, and seem, like many ocean creatures, to have existed far longer in history than any land creature I’ve encountered.

But really?  They were a little… dull… to watch.

Finch, being the buoyant, optimistic photographer he is, stayed fixated on the walrus wallow, even edging his way into the water and apparently not quite noticing.

The cluster of Stalwart Photographers all maintained a similar stance — but the rest of the group gradually flung themselves to the ground, lumped on the beach in the arctic sun, sprawled on our rucksacks and camera bags in four layers of winter gear, enjoying the 3°C warmth and sun on our faces.

I photographed the still anxious arctic terns that kept buzzing us, and teased Christian about flopping down beside me and letting the bear rifle slip into a position pointing right at me. “Oh no!  That’s on the first page of the book!”

Then we noticed just a bit of action.  One of the walruses was… moving.  Adolescent boy indeed, he appeared to be….

… wanking.

Abbey, one of the young women in the group, burst into a cascade of loud giggles and snorts.  Her friend laughed and chided her, and she said, “I can’t help it if that walrus thinks Cate is hot.”

Walruses.  Like taking photographs of teenage boys sleeping in a huge heap after a hockey tournament.



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