Thor the Walrus Takes a Break in Breiðdalsvík

Though no strangers to welcoming visitors to their picturesque hamlet, the residents of the East Iceland village of Breiðdalsvík received an entirely different kind of tourist on Friday morning. Austurfrétt reports that a walrus decided to sun itself on the village dock all day and rest up after what was, presumably, a very long swim. And, as the BBC later reported, the pooped-out pinniped was actually a celebrity on the sly: Thor the Walrus, who spent his winter traveling around the UK. So far this year, he’s visited the Netherlands and France and may have traveled from as far as the Canadian Arctic to get to Breiðdalsvík.

Walruses generally arrive on Icelandic shores from Greenland, which, depending on their point of departure, is a minimum of 300 km [186 mi] away. They are also known to regularly swim over from the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Over the last few years, East Iceland has received a handful of walruses in its fjords. One such sighting occurred last year, on June 17, Iceland’s National Day, when a walrus appeared in the town of Reyðarfjörður. The animal had previously been chipped with a GPS device and had swum over from the Faroe Islands. And in September, the walrus known as Wally appeared in Höfn in Southeast Iceland having swum from Cork, Ireland.

Image courtesy of Arnar Snær Sigurjónsson

Fully grown male walruses can weigh around 900 kgs [1984 lbs] and be up to three m [9.8 ft] long. From pictures showing the length of its tusks, local biologists were able to determine that the walrus was either a young male or a female. British Divers Marine Life Rescue, an organization that had encountered the animal in the UK, was eventually able to identify Thor from his markings, specifically “pale patches on the animal’s foreflippers.” They confirmed that Thor is between three and five years old.

Although no walruses live in Iceland today, these animals were likely prevalent in Iceland in the old days, says said Skarpheiðin G. Þórisson, a biologist at the East Iceland Research Centre.. However, they were probably hunted to extinction here by the Vikings, for whom they would have been an important food source.

See Also: The Disappearance of the Icelandic Walrus (September 2019)

It’s important that people take care around these animals when they appear in human habitations. Walruses may be particularly sensitive when tired or disoriented, and are prone to lash out if they feel threatened. These animals may appear to be slow-moving, but on land, they can actually move about as fast as a running person. And they are, of course, capable of inflicting a great deal of damage with their powerful tusks. Residents in the seaside resort of Scarborough in the UK were particularly gracious hosts when Thor was in their midst, opting to cancel the town’s New Year’s fireworks display so as not to disturb their guest.

Image courtesy of Arnar Snær Sigurjónsson

On Friday, police asked people in Breiðdalsvík to keep a minimum of 20 m [65 ft] away from Thor for the animal’s safety, as well as their own. Dockworkers did put frozen herring out for their guest, but it didn’t seem to have any appetite. Many people also wanted to take pictures of the walrus, but they had to do so from a distance.

“We closed the gangway so people didn’t get too close,” said Bjarni Stefán Vilhjálmsson, who works for the local municipality. “We got here around 10 to do some work on the dock and that’s when we noticed him. He’d just gotten here.”

The walrus was still in the village when Bjarni spoke to reporters and he was able to describe the animal’s current mood: “He sort of raises himself up and growls if you get too close, he’s still really disoriented. Hopefully, he’ll just stay calm until he leaves. I don’t expect anything will drive him away. It’s no real bother, there’s obviously enough room for the boats that are here now. It remains to be seen if he’ll leave once the weather gets worse, but as long as it’s sunny and mild, I think he’ll probably hang out all day.”

Hundreds of Dead Guillemots Found on East Iceland Beaches

Nearly three hundred guillemots were found dead along the coasts of Iceland’s East Fjords last week, RÚV reports. Based on their appearance, it’s assumed that the birds died of starvation.

The East Iceland Nature Research Centre searched from Berjufjörður to Reyðarfjörður and found 273 guillemot carcasses. However, this is most likely only a fraction of the total number of birds that have actually died of late, said ornithologist Hálfdán Helgi Helgason, as in cases like this, only a small number of carcasses tend to wash ashore.

Hálfdán Helgi noted that seabirds like guillemots often have trouble finding food in bad weather and Iceland’s been subjected to a spate of storms of late. It is also possible that some birds were injured by hunters, as a great deal of seabird hunting has taken place in the East Fjords since the fall. It’s unlikely that bird flu is behind the deaths, but this possibility has not been entirely ruled out.

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority has been sent samples for further investigation and Hálfdán said he will continue to monitor the situation locally. He encourages anyone who lives in the area and finds a dead or dying bird on a seashore to report it to the centre.

Electronic Collars Help Monitor Reindeer Population

A reindeer in East Iceland

The East Iceland Nature Research Centre recently put transmitter collars on 20 reindeer in East Iceland, RÚV reports. The catch-and-release operation is part of the Centre’s ongoing efforts to monitor the region’s reindeer population. The collars are fastened around the animals’ necks and then worn for several months.

Although safe for the animals, the collaring process presents a challenge for researchers as reindeer can run at speeds of up to 80km/h (50m/h). As such, researchers use snowmobiles to ride up alongside the reindeer and then net them with hand-held net launchers. The animals are held down to prevent injury while the collar is fastened around their necks and are then released back to their herd. The Centre has tagged a number of reindeer this season – about 20 animals in almost all sections of the reindeer grounds.

Screenshot via RÚV.

The Centre has used these electronic collars for nearly a decade. Prior to their introduction, researchers had to conduct visual population counts several times a year, says the Centre’s Skarphéðinn G. Þórisson, either by flying over or driving through the reindeer’s grazing areas. “But now, with these devices,” he remarks, “we get information about the animals every day.” With the collars’ data now available 24 hours a day, it is much easier for researchers to closely monitor the reindeer population’s distribution and condition, their foraging habits, and more. And the technology is becoming cheaper all the time, too, says Skarphéðin. “So you might say that this is a real revolution in wildlife monitoring.”

Screenshot via RÚV.

The data collected by the collars is now being made available on the Centre’s new ‘Reindeer Web’ (in Icelandic), which allows visitors to view the collared animals’ seasonal migration patterns and grazing habits as far back as 2010. It’s hoped that eventually, the website will become a useful tool for warning locals when reindeer are on roads.