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.”

Rescued Seal Pup Recovering in Reykjavík

A seal pup that was hardly alive when it was found in Reykjavík harbour earlier this week is recovering well at Reykjavík Zoo, RÚV reports. Reykjavík Animal Services are treating the pup and plan to release it back into the wild.

“It was in really bad condition. It was exhausted and hungry. It didn’t come to until I bent over it,” said Veigar Friðgeirsson, a Reykjavík Animal Services staff member.

Asked what caused the seal pup’s poor condition, Veigar stated: “What is most likely is that its mother simply stopped breastfeeding it and giving it food. The proportion of young seals that die in this way is actually fairly high.”

Veigar says the seal pup is recovering well. “We started by pumping water into it, and vitamins. It responded well to that. Now, in consultation with a veterinarian, it gets a fish shake four to five times a day. Then we’re going to try to give it a whole fish soon. I’m very optimistic.”

The rescued seal pup’s sex is not known, but it will be named Veiga or Veigar after its caretaker, who expects it to make a full recovery. “We want wild animals to live in the wild, so we’ll try to return it to the sea if that’s possible,” he stated.

Bigger and Deeper Pool for Seals at Reykjavík Zoo

seal

A new seal enclosure will greatly expand the space seals have for swimming at Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo. Reykjavík City Council approved a motion today to being the construction of a new pool and service building at the zoo. There are four seals currently in the enclosure, which is also used to rehabilitate wild animals in distress.

The new pool will connect to the older one, where the seals are currently kept. It will be significantly deeper, allowing the seals to dive to a depth of four metres [13 feet]. It will include large windows along one side that will allow park visitors to see the seals from a new perspective.

Reykjavíkurborg. The current seal pool (bottom right) and the planned extension and service building.

“This addition will greatly improve the zoo’s ability to provide educational services in addition to taking better care of the animals, including reception of wild animals in distress in connection with Reykjavík Animal Services,” a notice from the City of Reykjavík states. The pool is expected to be completed by November 2022 and will cost an estimated ISK 125 million [$955 million; €904,000].

Most of the animals at Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo are domestic animals such as sheep and goats. Keeping seals at the park has been controversial. In 2019, Marine biologist and Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo division head Þorkell Heiðarsson argued that pups born in the enclosure should be released into the wild. Icelandic law, however, does not allow seals to be released from captivity.