The Atlantic walrus

The Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus Linnaeus, 1758) was extensively hunted for its tusks, its blubber, and its hide. You can find more information about the species on Worms (World Register of Marine Species), on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and on the websites of the Norwegian Polar Institute and MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring in Svalbad and Jan Mayen).

On our page, we provide you with a glimpse into the historical archives. What do the documents of old tell us about the Atlantic walruses around Svalbard?

Atlantic walrus male. Photo by Jek Persoons. Jun-2017

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31. July 1594

Zy quamen daer oock aen een vande selvighe Eylanden, daer vondense wel ontrent 200. Walrusschen, haer seven int sant baeckerende in de Son. Dit zijn wonderbaerlijcke stercke Zee-monsters, veel grooter als een Os, ende houden haer mede inde Zee, hebben huyden ghelijck Zee-robben, met seer cort hayr, haer muyl der Leeuwen muyl ghelijck, houden haer dickwils opt ys, men machse seer qualijck dooden, ten zy datmense slaet inden slach van thooft, theeft vier voeten: maer gheen ooren, zy brenghen een oft twee Ionghen voort. Ende alsde visschers haer op een schots ys betrapen met haer Ionghen, so werpense haer Ionghen voor haer int water, ende nemen die in haer armen, ende dompelen daer mede op ende neer, ende alsse haer aende schuyten willen wrecken, ofte haer te weer stellen, so werpense haer Ionghen weer wech, ende comen met ghewelt nae de schuijt toe, daer van ons volck eens op een tijt in gheen cleyne swaricheyt was: want de Wal-rusch bynaest haer tanden achter int boot gheslaghen hadde, om dat om te trecken: maer deurt groot ghekrijsch vant volck, verschrickte hy, ende swam weer wech, ende nam zijn Iongh weer in zijn armen. Zy hebben twee tanden op elcken zyde vanden mont uytsteeckende, lang ontrent een half elle, ende werden so waert gheacht als Yvoor of Oliphants tanden, sonderlinghe in Moscovia, Tartarien, ende daer ontrent daerse bekent zijn, want zy zijn soo wit, hardt ende effen als Yvoor. Dese hoop Wal-russchen die opt landt lagen blaeckeren, also het volck meende datse haer te lande niet verweeren mochten, so gingense haer bespringhen, ende vochten tegen haer, om de tanden die seer costelijck zijn te gecryghen: maer sloeghen alle haer bylen, cortelassen ende spietsen in stucken, ende condender niet een doot slaen, dan datse eenen een tandt uyt sloeghen diese mede namen.

De Veer, G. (1598). Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort. (V. Roeper & D. Wildeman, Eds.) (Facsimile 1997). Franeker: Van Wijnen

They also arrived at one of the same islands, where they found about 200 walruses baking in the sand in the sun. These are wonderfully strong sea monsters, much larger than a cow, and they live in the sea, their skins as thick as seals, with very short hair, their mouth the size of a Lion’s mouth, and they are often on the ice. They are found to be difficult to kill unless you hit them in the head. They have four flippers, but no ears, and they produce one or two young. When fishermen encounter them with their young on ice floes, they first throw their young and then themselves into the water. They take the calf in their arms and emerge above water and then go into hiding again. And if they want to avenge themselves on the barges, or defend themselves, they throw their young away and they come to the boat by force. That’s how our men got into big trouble once, because a walrus had put his teeth in the back of the boat to pull him over. But the screams of the men startled him, and he swam away and took his young in his arms again. They have two teeth that protrude from both sides of their mouth, half a cubit long, which are as valuable as ivory or elephant teeth, especially in Moscow and Tartary and other surrounding regions where they are known. This is because these teeth are as white and hard and even as ivory. This large herd that was sunbathing on the land, and therefore our men thought that they could not defend themselves on the land, jumped on the animals and fought with them to obtain the very valuable teeth. But they smashed all their axes, short welds, and strikers into pieces without knocking one to death, but managed to knock out some of the teeth they took with them.

 

Although De Veer describes a scene of Willem Barentsz’ first journey to the Russian island Novaya Zemlya, we learn alot about walruses and how people with no previous knowledge or skill have tried to hunt them – and failed. Some of the observations are accurate, some are not. This is why historians must take such reports with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, we logged this information as a relevant example of human-animal interactions.

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1625

We had not sailed past sixe miles, but we saw a sandie Bay, against which we came to an Anchor in nine fathomes. We had not furled our Sayles, but we saw many Morses swimming by our ship, and heard withal so huge a noyse of roaring, as if there had beene an hundred Lions. Immediately wee manned our Boate, wherein was Master Welden and sixe men more: we landed, and saw abundance of Morsses on the shoare, close by the Sea-side; and drawing neere vnto them, wee perceiued that they were all of the same company, which wee had seene before. It seemed very strange to vs to see such a multitude of Monsters of the Sea, lye like Hogges vpon heapes: In the end wee shot at them, not knowing whither they could runne swiftly or seize vpon vs or no. To be briefe, wee had but three Peeces, Master Welden a Fowling Peece, my selfe a Musket, and another a Musket. Their Peeces were spoyled instantly. For Master Welden was cloyed [?] the other man when hee had shot one by himselfe, thought to knocke him on the head with the stock, but split his Peece. I shot still, and some when they were wounded in the flesh, would but looke vp and lye downe againe. Some were killed with the first shot; and some would goe into the Sea with fiue or sixe shot: they are of such an incredible strength. When all our Poweder and shot was spent, wee would blow their eyes out with a little Pease shot, and then come on the blind side of them, and with our Carpenters Axe cleaue their heads. But for all that we could doe, of aboue a thousand we killed but fifteene. We tooke off their heads, and when we had done, we went stragling vp and downe to see what we could find. I found the first Tooth that was cast vpon the Iland, and going a little farther alone, I found as many Teeth more, as I and three men more could carrie, which filled an Hogshead: all which we did deliuer to Master welden.

Jonas Poole. Diuers voyages to Cherie Iland. In: S. Purchase (1625) Purchase his pilgrims. The third part. p. 557

The English Muscovy Co. first confirmed the Dutch sighting of Bjørnøya (1603) before Henry Hudson also reached the coast of Spitsbergen (1607). When the English observed a multitude of walrus, they immediately saw a commercial opportunity but (as the Dutch in the quote above) had no knowledge or skill of how to kill a walrus. Nonetheless, it only took a few years before the walrus haul-outs of Bjørnøya were depleted.

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1675

Die zwo langen Zähne werden höher geschätzt als Helffenbein wegen ohrer weisse / kosten auch mehr […] Ihre Zähne werden bereitet wie Helfanten Zähne / Messerschalen / Niesebüchsen und dergleichen zierliche Sachen darauß gemacht. Von den andern Zähn machen die Juten ihnen Knöpffe in den Kleidern

Martens, F. (1675). Spitzbergische oder Groenlandische Reise Beschreibung gethan im Jahr 1671. Hamburg: Gottfried Schultßen. P. 79

The two long teeth are valued higher than ivory because of their whiteness, they also cost more […] Their teeth are prepared like ivory and knife cases, snuff boxes and other delicate things are made of it. The Danes make their buttons on their clothes from their teeth.

Martens does not mention the blubber that could be won from walruses. Presumably, the whaling went so well that ships could be filled with whale blubber and walruses were predominantly hunted for their ivory, a luxury item that nonetheless led to their demise.

Last update: 18 Oct 2020