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Among Arctic Giants
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Foxe Basin

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By Norbert Rosing

In rarely seen images from the Arctic, Atlantic walruses, vital to Inuit culture, nurse calves and battle polar bears.

Arctic sunlight bathes Canada’s Foxe Basin, where bodies clumsy on land swim with fluent grace. This fleeting glimpse at Atlantic walruses was hard earned. Equipment failures and impossible weather doomed my initial attempts to photograph these notoriously difficult subjects. In 1994, four trips to the Arctic yielded only one productive shooting day. But when I traveled to Igloolik in Canada’s Nunavut territory in 2000, I often found seas smooth as blue glass. Two Inuit guides adroitly kept our 23-foot (7-meter) boat away from dangerous currents that could have wedged us between crushing ice floes. I was rewarded with rarely photographed scenes of polar bears attacking walrus herds and walrus females bestowing tender care on calves just hours old.

Walruses can dive 300 feet (90 meters) to feed on the ocean floor for as long as 12 minutes before surfacing. Weighing an average of 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms), they have enormous appetites. Stiff whiskers help locate clams and other shellfish, which they hold with their lips to suck out the soft tissue. Predators, including humans, killer whales, and polar bears, attack walruses—but at their own peril. Tusks reach some three feet (0.9 meters) and are brandished with such lethal force that polar bears rarely take on adults. Bears were always on our minds, however—and with good reason. Once I was caught flat-footed as a white giant galloped straight at me. I grabbed my camera and ran toward our tent 900 feet (275 meters) away. The bear passed by, plunged into a walrus herd, and made a kill.

Atlantic walruses were seriously depleted after centuries of wholesale slaughter by commercial ships, which harvested blubber for oil and tusks for ivory. The animals today number between 10,000 and 50,000, far below the Pacific population of more than 200,000. Thanks to the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Atlantic population is growing. Inuit can legally hunt them, but each family is allowed only four kills a year.

The walrus is tightly intertwined with the Inuit culture, providing food as well as skin and bone for clothing, shelter, tools, and weapons. If hunters kill a walrus during the summer months, they will cut out the stomach, bury it until winter, then dig it up and feast on it as a delicacy. I politely declined offers of Inuit food. Instead I stuck to instant noodles, chocolate bars, and a feast of photographic wonders.

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VIDEO Photographer Norbert Rosing talks about the behavior of these land-lumbering but swift-swimming Arctic animals. Click Here

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Watch a predator in action as a polar bear attacks a walrus herd.

Photos can be seen in the September issue, pages 74 to 75.
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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

All living walruses belong to a single species: Odobenus rosmarus. Odobenus, the first—or generic —name, is derived from Greek terms meaning “tooth walker” or “one who walks on his teeth.” Early observations of walruses using their upper canine teeth, or tusks, to help hoist their bodies out of the water, climb up rocky slopes, or scramble over slippery ice, certainly explain the origins of this name. The second—or specific —name, rosmarus, is derived from an assortment of Scandinavian names for the walrus, for example rosval and rosm.

—P. Davida Kales

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology$narrative.html
An ultimate source for information about the walrus, including facts, photos, and explanations about its physical characteristics, geographic range, food habits, reproduction, behavior, habitat, economic importance to humans, and conservation.

Sea World Education Department Resource
General facts about the walrus as well as book suggestions for young readers.

Arctic Animals
An educational site that includes basic information on walruses and other Arctic animals, walrus stories, fun facts, and images.

Norbert Rosing
Log on to learn more about photographer Norbert Rosing, his books, and slide presentations. Then browse photos of naturescapes and polar bears in the wild.


Knudtson, Peter. The World of the Walrus. Sierra Club Books, 1998.

Perry, Richard. The World of the Walrus. Taplinger Publishing Company, 1967.

Reijnders, Peter, and others. “Seals, Fur Seals, Sea Lions, and Walrus,” Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Seal Specialist Group, 1993.

Vlessides, Michael. “In Search of the Tooth Walker,” International Wildlife. November/December 2000.


Rosing, Norbert. “Bear Beginnings: New Life On the Ice,” National Geographic (December 2000), 30-39.

Albanov, Valerian Ivanovich. “In the Land of White Death,” National Geographic Adevnture (November/December 2000), 121-132.

Hodges, Glenn. “The New Cold War: Stalking Artic Climate Change by Submarine,” National Geographic (March 2000), 30-41.

Ray, G. Carleton. “Learning the Ways of the Walrus,” National Geographic (October 1979), 564-580.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Nomad’s in Alaska’s Outback,” National Geographic (April 1969), 540-567.

Nelson, Edward William. “The Larger North American Mammals,” National Geographic (November 1916), 385-472.


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