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Northeast Passage: Saving the Arctic, one walrus at a time

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Geoff York

The winds have picked up overnight and the weather map shows we are heading into a small gale as a low pressure system slides up the Bering. This is very expected weather for this area in September. The good news is that the winds will be favourable for sailing and we are soon able to set the main and Genoa without losing any boat speed. The bad news is that the ride will be rough for at least the next 36 hours.

With the sails set for our south-easterly voyage, will now have a 10-20 degree lean to the starboard side, which is not the best for my bunk. The swells pick up all day and by the evening I get to feel several 35 degree rolls and one greater than that which really got my attention as a novice sailor! The Explorer is a good heavy steel boat and has sailed all over the world, including trips to Antarctica. Anders and Niklas are also experienced and capable sailors, so I feel at relative ease.

Just as we were departing Anadyr yesterday, I received some troubling and some promising news for Pacific walrus. The good news is that the US Fish and Wildlife recommended that walrus merit listing under the US Endangered Species Act, primarily due to the current and predicted loss of sea ice habitat and expected decline in the population size. At the same time, there have been reports in Alaska of thousands of walrus hauling out in large shore based aggregations in places and in numbers not seen before.

Photo of a Pacific walrus by Flickr user Beyond Neon, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial licence.Photo of a Pacific walrus by Flickr user Beyond Neon, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial licence.

This was witnessed last year as well and new research by the US Geological Survey is now documenting that walrus abandon their preferred sea ice habitat one it recedes beyond the shallow waters of the continental shelf. It is a combination of the sea ice ecosystem and these shallow waters that have allowed walrus to thrive in these waters. The sea ice not only distributes the walrus and prevents them from overgrazing, it is also the foundation for the benthic productivity as it prevents a more pelagic system from forming. This is all beginning to change as the sea ice pulls back and walrus will be an early indicator of things yet to come if we fail to address the situation.

The large haul outs in Ryrkaipiy and Vankarem also appear related to the changing sea ice, especially the dramatic loss of ice from the Chukchi sea. When you see so many animals in one place, it is clear that they will require huge amounts of prey to survive. More than is likely available for the current numbers. We also know, as I discussed earlier, that walrus are an almost certain attractant for bears and the associated problems that can bring with humans.

I return to my mantra: saving the Arctic one polar bear at a time. If we take the necessary actions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and live more sustainably, we not only help the polar bear, but we help each member of the arctic ecosystem, including the walrus. And while some walrus could successfully live from shore haul outs for the foreseeable future, they will be much fewer in number and much more prone to disturbance, disease, and mortalities.

I generally feel better in rough seas when I can look out, facing forward, so I am glad to come up for my watch. Problem is, its pitch black outside with heavy cloud cover. This is my first solo watch under sail, and I admit to being a little bit anxious as Niklas gave me a few final pointers and slipped down for his rest period. With each big roll of the boat, I checked the angle indicator and listened for and items falling from shelves or bunks down below. I am very relieved when midnight comes and Anders takes over. Sleeping will be an interesting exercise in bracing tonight!

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