Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

All About Walrus

Get to know a blubbery, moustachioed pinniped—the walrus! One of our favourite creatures to spot on an Arctic expedition cruise, you may see walrus either on the sea ice or on land in large haul-outs. Learn more fun facts in this short and sweet article.
Herd of walruses in water

© Pierre Richard

The large and gregarious walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is as unmistakable at sea as it is on land. The largest of the Arctic pinnipeds, it has a bulky head with two white tusks growing down from its upper jaw and a broad snout covered with stiff mustache hairs.

When they can find sea ice, walrus prefer to rest on floes and float over shallow seabed, where they like to forage for their prey. They feed mostly within waters less than eighty metres deep and primarily eat clams, whose flesh walrus suck out of the shell with a powerful suction from their jaws and tongue.

Walrus on ice floe

© Pierre Richard

Walrus on an ice floe at Buchanan Fiord, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut

When pack ice is scarce in summer, walrus form large aggregations called haul-outs, returning to the same islands each year. Inuit call walrus aiviq and these aggregations ulliit. The largest such aggregations are found in subarctic regions, particularly in northern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and South Baffin Island. They are spectacular sites to behold!

The joke is that you can tell you are approaching a walrus haul-out because the stench is perceptible well before you see it. Walrus dung smells like rotten fish and these large aggregations can be smelled from a long way off.

Herd of walrus fog light rocky shore

© Pierre Richard

Walrus at a haul-out near Monumental Island, Nunavut

Walruses are a golden brown on land, even pink at time when the sun is really hot. However, when a walrus has been in the water for a long time, it constricts its skin’s blood circulation to conserve heat and takes on a ghostly light grey colour.

Walrus on rocky shore

© Pierre Richard

An adult female walrus with slender tusks curved inward and a juvenile walrus with small tusks

Generally speaking, the longer the tusk, the older the walrus. Adult males tend to have tusks that are thicker, straighter, and often spread somewhat sideways in the shape of an inverted V when compared to adult female walruses.

Of course, differences in body size are also significant. Older males tend to have broad and thick-skinned shoulders that are covered in fibrous bumps and are often scarred from past challenges with other males. While these descriptions can be used as a rule of thumb, it is not always obvious to differentiate the two sexes, as there is much individual variation.

Want the chance to see walrus and other Arctic animals for yourself? Spend as much time out on deck as you can! Walrus can be skittish when approached, so it's best to be out on deck as often as possible, with warm cloths and a good pair of binoculars. See you there!

About the Author

Pierre Richard

Pierre Richard

Marine Biologist

Pierre is a north Atlantic and Arctic marine mammal specialist, an avid birder, and a naturalist. He was one of the first naturalists on board Saint Lawrence whale-watching cruises in the 1970s and has been an Adventure Canada marine biologist and guide for nearly twenty years.

For thirty years, Pierre was employed as a marine biologist and scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, during which time he conducted field research on beluga whales, narwhals, and walrus. He has authored many scientific publications and three nature guides on marine mammals.