Tens of Thousands of Walruses Are Stranded on This Alaskan Beach

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
This image, taken in 2017, shows thousands of walruses crowding on the shore of Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

No, there isn't a walrus convention on the banks of Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Tens of thousands of pacific walruses have been gathering on this beach every year since 2007. And not by choice.

Typically, walruses spend most of their time on sea ice. As floes move, the animals sail along with them. They dive into shallow waters for food, while saving themselves the exertion of having to swim too far.

In fact, walruses can spend entire days dropping into the water, gorging on clams, snails and worms, and then lazing on the ice.

Rinse, repeat. Get fat.

The trouble is that sea ice has been getting harder to come by.

Walruses on an ice floe in Alaska.
Walruses typically spend their days on ice floes diving in shallow waters for food. USFWS/Brad Benter/Flickr

So "haulouts" — massive congregations of walruses on land — are becoming more common. Every fall, the animals find themselves stranded on beaches when there's no ice left for them to set up shop. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, last year's haulout on the Chukchi Sea beach, which started in the first week of August, was the earliest on record.

This beach near Point Lay sees anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 walruses pile up, far from their ideal feeding grounds. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates the walruses may be as far as a 250-mile round trip from the shallow waters they need to forage in.

The young calves among them wouldn't be able to make that journey.

A crowd of walruses on an Alaskan beach
With sea ice disappearing, walruses are increasingly crowding on beaches far from their feeding grounds. Maksimilian/Shutterstock

Walruses wouldn't be the only animals who have to travel farther and farther to find food because sea ice is disappearing. Polar bears in the same Alaskan region are also expending more energy than ever as they travel eastward on what researchers call an ever-faster "treadmill of sea ice."

Polar bear family swimming toward sea ice.
Polar bears are also finding ice floes few and far between these days. EhayDy/Shutterstock

Like polar bears, walruses go with the floe — until there's no more floe. But unlike solitary bears, they tend to wash up in these massive congregations on shore. A crowd of these massive animals can be a serious threat to people — and themselves.

Last year, 64 walruses were found dead on these very shores, with wildlife experts suggesting they were spooked — anything from a passing car to a plane or boat can spark a stampede. In the chaos, they will often trample each other.

Walruses gather in a haulout on an Alaskan beach.
Walrus gatherings on the shores of the Chukchi Sea have only gotten bigger since 2007. Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

The problem has gotten severe enough that the local tribal government is asking outsiders to steer clear of the area, even releasing an educational video.

Because as spectacular a draw as these majestic animals may seem for tourists, the entire region is, increasingly, on thin ice.