Iceland’s Popularity Grows – Among Walruses

Köfunarþjónustan ehf. / Facebook. A walrus takes a break in Sauðárkrókur, Northwest Iceland

No fewer than four walruses have wandered over to Iceland so far this year. Walruses are not native to the country but since the start of this year, individuals have made stops in East Iceland, the Westfjords, Northwest Iceland, and the capital area. Walruses can be dangerous and readers are warned against approaching them.

Last Thursday, archaeologists working on a dig in Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords spotted a walrus out in the water. It was later spotted sunning itself on the shores of the fjord near Hrafnseyri, RÚV reports, and stayed on into the weekend. Just a few days earlier, a different walrus made himself at home on a floating dock in Sauðárkrókur harbour in Northwest Iceland. “It’s our new pet,” port security officer Ágúst Kárason told reporters. “He’s damn big and hefty, an adult with big tusks.”

Followed to work by walrus

In early June, a staff member of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area, was accompanied by a walrus on his morning commute. “I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street. There he turned around and swam out into the fjord,” Jón Sólmundsson told reporters. “He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too.”

Yet another walrus spotted in Breiðdalsvík, East Iceland in February turned out to be celebrity walrus Thor, who had spent the winter sightseeing around the UK with stops in the Netherlands and France. Walruses seen in Iceland generally arrive from the shores of Greenland or from northern Norway, but Thor may have travelled from the Canadian Arctic. There were no indications that any of the four walruses were the same animal.

Swam from Ireland to Iceland

More walrus visits have occurred in Iceland over the past few years. One was spotted on June 17, 2022 in the town of Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland. A GPS tag on the animal revealed that it had swum over from the Faroe Islands. In September 2021, a walrus spotted in Höfn, Southeast Iceland turned out to be Wally the Walrus, who had been previously spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast). Wally had last been seen in Cork, Ireland before being spotted in Iceland, meaning he had swum over 1,000 km [620 mi] to reach the island.

Icelandic subspecies went extinct after human settlement

Iceland used to be home to a special subspecies of walrus, but it became extinct around 1100 AD, most likely due to overhunting by humans. Walrus tusks were considered precious at the time and were sought-after by royalty in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Other factors, such as rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, may have been factors in the animals’ extinction as well.

Walrus Follows Man to Work in Iceland

Jón Sólmundsson rostungur

An employee of Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute had an unusual commute to work this morning. Jón Sólmundsson was biking to his office in the town of Hafnarfjörður when he spotted a walrus in the harbour. The walrus then accompanied Jón on his journey for a few blocks before swimming away from the coast. It has since come ashore on the coast of Álftanes in the Reykjavík capital area, Vísir reports.

Jón Sólmundsson.

“I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street,” Jón told reporters. “There he turned around and swam out into the fjord.” Walruses are not native to Iceland but have been spotted on its coast from time to time in recent years. A walrus dubbed Þór (Thor) delighted locals in Iceland earlier this year, stopping by Þórshöfn and Breiðdalsvík in East Iceland after being spotted in England. There are no indications that the one currently in the capital area is the same animal.

 

 

“He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too,” Jón added. While Jón works at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, he told reporters his area of specialty is fish, not walruses.

jón sólmundsson walrus rostungur

A live feed of the walrus is available on visir.is.

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.”

Wally the Walrus Swam from Ireland to Iceland

Wally the walrus Höfn

The walrus spotted on Sunday night in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, has been identified as Wally the Walrus, who was last seen in West Cork, Ireland. Wally, reportedly a young male, has made quite a journey of nearly 5,000km [2,485mi] this summer: and has been spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast).

Wally was identified by Seal Rescue Ireland thanks to scars on his front flippers. He was first seen in Iceland 22 days after his last sighting in West Cork. “We are absolutely over the moon that he’s not only still alive and well, but he is well on his way home to the Arctic,” a Facebook post from the organisation stated.

https://www.facebook.com/sealrescueireland/posts/4462552437101199

Iceland does not have a local walrus population, though a walrus does turn up in the country every few years or so, usually arriving from Greenland.

Walrus Makes Stop in Southeast Iceland

A small crowd gathered in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, when a walrus was spotted in the town harbour yesterday evening, RÚV reports. There are no walruses living on Iceland’s shores, but one is spotted on average every ten years or so, likely arriving from Greenland. The walrus spotted in Höfn swam out to sea last night and caused no damage to residents or the harbour.

Though Iceland does not have a local walrus population today, there is evidence it used to. 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. This confirmed Iceland was “home to a distinct, localised subspecies” of walrus, according to Dr. Hilmar Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History.

Read More: Walruses Fuelled the Viking Expansion

The subspecies lived on Iceland’s shores from at least 7000 BC but disappeared shortly after the arrival of settlers. The total population seems to have been relatively small (around 5,000 animals) and thus vulnerable to habitat changes. Iceland’s climate today is too warm to support a walrus population. The animals prefer colder temperatures as well as abundant sea ice, especially during breeding season.

While Hilmar says a warming climate and volcanic eruptions may have been factors in the animals’ disappearance, the most likely explanation is that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans. Walrus ivory was once traded as a luxury product in Europe and Vikings also used walrus hides to make rope and walrus blubber to make oil, used for waterproofing ship hulls. Some sources suggest Vikings also ate walrus meat.

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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Rare Walrus Sighting in East Iceland

A rare walrus sighting took place in East Iceland in Þvottárfjara in Álftafjörður, Austurfrétt reports. Djúpivogur resident Guðmundur Már Karlsson was on a promenade to Hvalnesvita when he decided to go down to the beach where he spotted the animal, which is rare in Iceland.

Walruses were quite common at one point in Iceland, and skeletons can be found all over the country, especially in West Iceland. There are also several place names which allude to walruses such as Rosmhvalanes in Reykjanes peninsula.

“I have never before seen a walrus in such proximity. I expected him to rise up and moo at me or that he would leave if I got close, at least considering what I have read about these animals, but he didn’t”, Guðmundur said.

Guðmundur explained the whole ordeal in detail. “I took close to a thousand photos. The battery on my phone was full when I arrived and empty when I left. I had walked about two kilometres when I walk up a hill and see into the cover. I immediately recognized what it was that was rolling around the tide line. He was in a groove between two rock ridges and was striving to make it up one of the ridges. The walrus took his time to settle himself, to find a comfortable position to lie in, as the rock was sharp and rough. I went down the cove, sat down and watched him. I started at a distance of 50 metres and creeped ever closer. I finally got within two metres from him. He was calm and gentle and didn’t heed to me. I was with him for two hours snapping photos. He raised himself every now and then to see where I was but then continued to sleep. He looked exhausted.”

Guðmundur went back the day after to look for the animal but it was gone. A marine biologist commented that the walrus is likely within three years old, as it is toothless. It is believed it arrived from Greenland.