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.”

Viking Age Excavation Could Rewrite the Story of Iceland’s Settlement

Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

A Viking Age excavation in East Iceland is revealing a more nuanced history of the settlement of Iceland, involving seasonal settlements, wealthy longhouses, and walrus hunting long before the island was settled permanently. The site, known as Stöð and located in Stöðvarfjörður fjord, shows human presence in Iceland decades before AD 874, the accepted date for when Iceland was permanently settled.

One of the Largest Longhouses Found in Iceland

Bjarni F. Einarsson, leader of the excavation at Stöð, took the first digs at the location in the autumn of 2015. The excavation is ongoing but has already produced findings that illuminate the early history of Iceland. “We are currently excavating what is certainly a Viking-Age farmstead, dating back to 860-870 AD according to my estimate.” The longhouse is among the largest found in Iceland, 31.4m (103ft) long. “It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle-Eastern coins.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

Older Longhouse Predates Settlement By Decades

Even more interestingly, the farm is built on the ruins of an even older longhouse. “It was built inside the fallen walls of the older structure that appears to have been huge, at least 40m (131ft) long.” To put this in context, the largest longhouses found in Scandinavia measure 50m (164ft). “It also appears to be at least as old as the oldest structures we have previously excavated in Iceland. Based on radiocarbon dating and other evidence, I estimate this structure dates to around 800 AD.”

Read More: Buried – Digging Deeper Into the Myth of Iceland’s Settlement

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Early Colonisers Likely Hunted Walrus

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

In 2019, DNA analyses and radiocarbon dating of walrus tusks found in Iceland revealed that they belonged to a previously unknown subspecies of the Atlantic walrus. The Icelandic walrus appears to have lived along Iceland’s shores for thousands of years, from at least 7000 BC, only to disappear shortly after the arrival of settlers.

Seasonal Settlements Propelled Westward Expansion

Seasonal hunting camps like the one in Stöðvarfjörður were a major feature of the westward expansion of the Viking world across the Atlantic, according to Bjarni. “The Viking settlement in Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows, was a camp of this type, very similar to the one at Stöð, operated by Icelandic or Greenlandic chiefs. The latest research shows it was in operation for 150 years before being abandoned.”

Buried

Stöð Stövarfjörður Viking Age longhouse excavation

Once upon a time, there was a brave Viking chief called Ingólfur Arnarson. He took to the open ocean along with his family and farmhands to seek out a land far across the sea that only a handful of explorers had visited. When Ingólfur saw this new, uninhabited land rise from the sea, knowing nothing of its opportunities or the challenges it presented, he asked the gods for direction on where to settle. Ingólfur threw his high-seat pillars overboard, swearing an oath to build his farm wherever they came ashore. The gods directed the pillars to Reykjavík, where Ingólfur made his home in the year 874.

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The Disappearance of the Icelandic Walrus

New research spearheaded by the Icelandic Museum of Natural History suggests that a special breed of walruses lived in and around Iceland millennia ago but became extinct around the year 1100, RÚV reports. The extinction has been suggested as being one of the earliest examples of overharvesting of marine life by humans.

According to Hilmar J. Malmquist, biologist and director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History, the mysterious breed of walruses were highly coveted by early settlers for their meat, tusks and hide.

Walrus hide was reportedly used for clothing and rope that was used to secure the sails of the settlers’ boat fleet, furthermore walrus oil was used as ship insulation and to ward off crustaceans that would burrow into ship hulls, causing damage.

Walrus tusks were called the ivory of the North and were considered quite precious. Artists would often carve intricate patterns into the tusks. “Kings were gifted walrus tusks and heads, such was the importance of these artefacts,” Hilmir says.

Other factors, like rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, could also have contributed to the eventual demise of the Icelandic walrus. According to Hilmir, Iceland was relatively warm during their heyday and had little ice. Furthermore, extreme volcanic activity is thought to have characterised the locations where the walrus lived.

“The newest theories, put forth by scientists studying Icelandic settlers and natural history, suggest that an interest for Iceland’s abundant marine and bird life might have been a driving force behind early settlements here, rather than hardship and political disputes in Norway,” Hilmar says.

The disappearance of walruses in Iceland has long been a puzzle to scientists, but the new research, spearheaded by the Icelandic Museum of Natural History and conducted by Icelandic, Danish and Dutch researchers has shed new light on the matter. The scientists studied walrus bone samples found in western and south-western parts of Iceland. Their findings were recently reported in the scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.