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Walrus Paparazzi

Walrus Paparazzi

In-flight photography looks at marine mammals in the last ice area.
By Beth Brown
Jul 05
From the July/August 2019 Issue

Scores of academics and scientists descend on the territories each year to poke, probe, and proselytise. It’s not all the stuff of dry dissertations. Some of it is weird. All of it is wonderful. This issue, Up Here is documenting some of the wildest research happening in the North. 

For researcher David Yurkowski, flying around Northern Ellesmere in August hardly feels like work. Especially when that flight is all about sighting wildlife.

There is scant baseline data for how marine mammal populations are distributed in the highest parts of the Canadian Arctic, so Yurkowski and a team of Department of Fisheries and Oceans researchers flew over ice floes around Archer Fjord and Lady Franklin Bay last August, watching out for wildlife—gulls, narwhals, belugas, seals—and taking aerial shots of the animals using a super high-resolution camera attached to the belly of their Twin Otter.

What they didn’t expect to see were walrus—some lounging on an ice floe, others diving into the water.

“It’s the farthest North that they’ve been observed in Canadian waters,” says Yurkowski. “It’s 250 kilometres north of what their distribution is for the high Arctic population.”

In a co-authored study published last fall, he calls the sightings a “novel observation.” But the sighting also suggests that distribution maps based on the research of early polar explorers might need some updating.

“It was something that we didn’t expect. It hasn’t been noted in the literature before,” he says, adding, “There hasn’t been much research to say that they weren’t always there. It’s such a little-studied area, there are a lot of unknowns [because] it’s so difficult to get to.”

The water around Alert—the most northerly permanent community in Canada—and Ellesmere Island is known as the area of last ice, where thick multi-year ice is still plentiful. It’s likely that these spotted walrus came from a Canadian high Arctic population and not from west Greenland, largely because in August walrus spend more time hanging out and hunting molluscs near the shoreline than they do surfing the open seas.

The walrus photo project is set to carry on this summer.