By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Those two lovable Pacific walrus calves, who spent much of the summer here in Seward, have found new homes in the Lower 48. They were both on their way out Wednesday Oct 10, via FedEx airflights, along with their new handlers and veterinarians.
Pakak, the largest walrus calf, who arrived at the Alaska SeaLife Center first, is headed for the Indianapolis Zoo. He weighed just 257 pounds when admitted, but weighed a healthy 345 pounds on Monday. After a period of quarantine, he’s eventually going to meet the Zoo’s other walrus, a female.
Mitak, the smaller walrus, discovered stranded alongside another orphaned calf in Barrow soon after they rescued Pakak, is going to the New York Aquarium, just off the Coney Island boardwalk. When found, he was malnourished, and for a few weeks he continued to suffer from bladder problems, and refused a bottle. The other walrus he was with died within the first 24 hours of arriving in Seward. But Mitak has grown from 185 pounds when admitted, to 234 pounds by Monday, and was determined to be healthy, and able to be transported. His caretakers say he’s become an underdog scrapper, demanding of attention, a trait that that New Yorkers tend to admire. He will have Nuka, a 30-year old walrus, which is considered old for a walrus, and 17-year old female Kulu, as companions.
As walrus are sociable animals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determined where the two young walrus should go, took into account the social structure they would encounter once they got there, said ASLC President Tara Jones. One caretaker from each facility has spent the past three weeks at the center, getting to know the walrus, and each Lower 48 facility has AZA accreditation, signifying a high standard of animal-care, so ASLC Jones is certain they will be in good hands.
Caring for the two walrus calves this summer has been a huge undertaking for the center, and its marine mammal rescue program, which also looked after a stranded newborn Beluga whale, which passed away earlier in the summer, and 11 harbor seal pups, she said. Center staff and volunteers are sorry to see these friendly, overly sociable wrinkly babies with red eyes and mustaches go, however. It’s hard not to bond with an animal that wants nothing more than to sit on your lap, follow you around, nuzzle you, suck on your finger, or look over at you with enormous bloodshot eyes. Even if sitting beneath that kind of weight for hours on end, 24/7, might try anyone’s patience.
But there were happy diversions too.
Every four hours, the walrus scuffed down another large bottle of milk formula with great gusto as their suction ability is so strong for scooping up clams and mussels from the sea floor. They also enjoyed spending time in a small wading pool, playing with toys and a water hose.
“It’s been a challenge on the staffing side, but it’s also been a way of engaging some new volunteers, and engaging some of our staff in ways that they haven’t been engaged,” Jones said. The Pacific walrus calves provided training for the staff, interns and volunteers, who got the rare opportunity to interact with these amazingly friendly and intelligent creatures. There are only 17 other captive walrus in the U.S. currently, residing at just seven facilities, so this particular experience is generally hard to come by, she said.
The beluga and walrus calves also brought national media attention to the sea life center and its mission. The opening of the new I.Sea U. center in August, where visitors could view the walrus and their caretakers behind one-way glass windows, attracted an increased number of people to the center during the latter part of the summer, Jones said. As a result, the center was able to provide more education about a marine mammal that few people have ever seen.
This years’ rescues also helped forge stronger partnerships between ASLC and other marine-mammal institutions which helped out, including them Sea World, which sent its own experts to Seward to care not only for the beluga, but for the walrus as well, Jones said.
Although the amount of effort, and cost to the facility has yet to be tallied, Riemer Jones can say with certainty that it was a lot. Staffing for one. The walrus were accompanied by from two to four caretakers for each shift, with fewer caretakers needed by the time they were moved into the I.Sea. U. in August. The shifts were for a 24-hour period. Except for certain qualified staff members, the other caretakers were not paid for their shifts. The special milk matrix formula cost $14 per bottle, or $84 per day, so Pacak alone downed more than $6,500 worth of the formula during the 78 days he was there. The travel and FedEx flights out are estimated to cost up to $15,000.
The marine mammal rescue program almost didn’t take place this year, after the end to Congressional earmarks reduced the center’s federal funding for rescue to a single $150,000 grant, plus private donations, Jones said. The ASLC Board of Directors met the challenge to secure funding, however, and major oil companies, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips, and BP, each donated generous grants to both the stranding program, and the I.Sea.U center, which allowed the rescue program to continue.The center had some pretty amazing rescue stories this year, and hopes to be able to share them with the public, and prospective funding donors, in time for next year’s rescue program, Jones said
The oil companies are required to have trained personnel on contract to help rescue marine mammals, as part of their own oil spill response plans. So contributing to this summer’s rescue program was not only good PR for the companies, but also assures that an Alaska-based, experienced staff will be available if needed in the Arctic or elsewhere, Jones said.
The big question remaining is whether stranded walrus will start showing up with greater frequency now as a result of the melting sea ice, or disease, or whether this summer’s strandings were due to their proximity to Barrow, and the observation of residents there. All three calves are believed to have become separated from the same large group of Pacific walrus, seen by area residents floating past them on a piece of sea ice July 17. The last time ASLC cared for a stranded walrus calf was in 2007, five years ago. They also rescued a walrus in each of summers between 2003-2005.