Late last summer, a scientific research team reported a pitiful sight: abandoned and apparently doomed baby walruses swimming aimlessly in the open sea, apparent victims of an Arctic heat wave.
Their mothers were not in sight; neither were the ice floes that even in late summer usually throng that part of the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait. Singly or in pairs, nine young walruses swam up yelping to the ship at seven separate locations where it had stopped to make oceanographic measurements, a scientist aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy told U.S. News.
A first. "No one on board had ever seen an orphan walrus pup before," says Sharon Smith, chair of the marine biology and fisheries department at the University of Miami. Outside experts confirmed the researchers' suspicion that the event was unprecedented.
The research team on the Healy--led by cruise chief scientist Lee Cooper and fellow University of Tennessee biological oceanographer Jackie Grebmeier--speculated that the youngsters could not keep pace as adults pursued the retreating ice. "Since calves nurse for two years, these are goners," Smith says. "They were all quite fat and full of energy, suggesting they had only recently been separated from the moms." It was unlikely that the pups could survive more than a month on their own nourishment, mammal experts said.
The scientists said they had no practical means to try to help the pups, and no one knows for sure what became of them. -Charles W. Petit
This story appears in the November 8, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.