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.”

Sprat: New Fish Species Breeding Off Iceland’s Coast

Researchers have confirmed that the fish species sprat is spawning in Icelandic waters, according to a new report from Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute. Sprat has been found in significant numbers off the south and west coast and spawned near Ísafjarðardjúp fjord in the Westfjords last year. Sprat first appeared near the Icelandic coast in 2017, and its numbers have been increasing since. 

Probably originate from Faroese waters

As seen in the picture above, sprat is not dissimilar to herring, a commercial species important in Icelands fishing industry. It has likely reproduced in more locations than just near Ísafjarðardjúp, according to the report. Over the past few years, Icelandic vessels have fished the species in greater numbers.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of sprat is that sprat larvae were carried to Icelandic waters by ocean currents before hatching near the coast of Iceland. Approximately 1,000 tonnes of sprat was fished by Faroese vessels in 2020, and the larvae likely originated from Faroese waters; however, no eggs, larvae, or mature sprat have been found in the waters between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, says Jón Sólmundsson, an ichthyologist with the Marine & Freshwater Research Institute, and who recently authored an article on sprat in the magazine Náttúrufræðingurinn

Even though sprat was first fished near Iceland in 2017, Jón believes that the species had been fished by Icelandic fishing vessels earlier, given its similarity in appearance to young herring. 

Only time will tell

Sprat is the common name applied to a group of forage fish belonging to the genus Sprattus in the family Clupeidae. Sprat is a highly active, small, oily fish, which travels in sizeable schools with other fish and swims continuously throughout the day. According to Jón, it is unclear whether sprat will begin to breed near the Icelandic coast more permanently; water temperature and other environmental factors will determine whether sprat will become an important species within Icelandic fishing grounds.