A WWF-led research team, a Canon photographer, and crew are traveling to Siberia’s Arctic coast on the Laptev Sea, to help solve a scientific mystery. The Laptev Linkages expedition is sponsored by Canon.
Today, the crew collected genetic samples from walruses on the Laptev shore. These samples will help us understand if the Laptev’s walruses are genetically unique. Sampling a walrus requires skill, patience… and sneakiness. The crew describe the experience.
Fifteen feet from us, a curious female walrus has come into the shallows with a few others right behind.
We sight around 75 walruses, and quickly drop anchor. The boat is a whirlwind of activity: crew preparing small boats, scientists gathering gear, and the photography crew packing their kits. I feel very fortunate to accompany Anatoly Kochnev on the first sampling effort. Many of my colleagues who study walruses would gladly trade places with me right now and Anatoly himself has been dreaming of these walruses for nearly 30 years. The two of us are dropped off a few kilometers down the spit and slowly make our way towards the herd. Walruses spook easily and can stampede into the water- the last thing we want to happen. Winds are favorable and carry our scent out to sea and away from the haul out allowing us to eventually creep within 30 meters.
As we prepare our sampling gear (more on that in the next post), we keep an eye on the main herd. We are sitting about a meter from the surf and on a sloping gravel berm that partially shields us from view. Anatoly dictates a final count along with the sex and age composition of the animals onshore.
Others swim near us and I finally tap Anatoly on the shoulder and say, “Should we sample her?” Fifteen feet from us, a curious female walrus has come into the shallows with a few others right behind. This becomes our sampling plan as group after group pays us a visit allowing us to take samples from where we sit. What a day!
After landing on the beach, we walked very slowly, trying to blend with the landscape. Anatoly and Geoff were able to take samples from seven of them. For those who do not know how we take samples, I will explain.
Scientists fire special little arrows from a crossbow, which grab a tiny piece of the animal’s fat. Then, using a special piece of string attached to the arrow, they pull the sample back in. The samples go in special containers and are frozen.
The walruses of the Laptev Sea were very docile patients of Dr. Kochnev – literally lined up to pass medical examinations.
Today, I’m assisting Anatoly in sampling DNA from these gigantic seals. Walruses are seals, but belong to a group of their own. You need patience to approach them. As soon one of them looks up at the suspicious crawling group, we stay put until all calms down again.
At ten metres distance we stop.
The smell from the “lovely” animals strikes my nose. I guess they smell more than we do, no shower for a week. But it depends on whose point of view you have.
One by one we collect the DNA samples. As a bird watcher, I had a conflict. Within a metre from me a flock of phalaropes, small Arctic waders, plunged down to feed. I could not reach for the camera, while my attention was needed 100% to get the arrow back from the walrus. A little bit later, it happens again, this time five Sabine’s gulls checked me out. It is a life-time bird for a twitcher. Once again, expedition priority goes first walrus, then polar bear and then the rest. Who can ask for more, walrus together with Sabine’s gull?