The nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll in ‘Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice Found There’ called The Walrus and the Carpenter is a somewhat gruesome story of a walrus and a carpenter who meet and go for a walk. They come across a group of oysters, and the walrus persuades them to join them. The Walrus intends to deceive the oysters into thinking they are going to have a pleasant chat, and out of breath after a long walk, the oysters ask them to wait. They then realise that they were going to be eaten.

What do we know about The Walrus?

Well, don’t go snorkelling in Portugal and fear you might bump into one of these alien and ungainly cinnamon-brown mammoths, as they only inhabit much chillier waters, and are more at home on the ice than on the beach. Looking like something from dinosaur times, they are the only species within its family, Odobenidae, that still exists today. Around 10 million years ago, a distant relation of the modern walrus patrolled the shores of what is now Japan, this ancient walrus didn't have tusks, instead made do with large canine teeth.

There are only two species left: The Atlantic Walrus lives in the northern waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The Pacific Walrus has a wide range between Russia and Alaska, from the Bering to the Chukchi Seas, as well as the Laptev Sea.

They gather together in the hundreds, and during mating season, these numbers can go up into the thousands. With enormous tusks, sparse facial whiskers, thick rough skin and hairless flippers to provide traction on land and ice, their Latin name translates as ‘tooth-walking sea horse’, and you can understand why. Quite pale in the water after a sustained period in very cold water, they turn pink in warm weather when blood vessels in the skin dilate and circulation increases.

Big is beautiful

These chunky creatures live in chilly waters, and a thick padding of blubber acts as insulation to protect their inner organs. Their huge size comes from a steady diet collected from the sea floor – crustaceans, shellfish, clams, worms, sea cucumbers and molluscs (and obviously oysters if they will stop for a breather). Adults will sometimes hunt fish, while some huge adult males have even been recorded stalking seals.

Tusks Keep on Growing

Both male and female walruses have two enormous tusks that grow continuously throughout their lives. They are symbols of age, sex, and social status, and aid them in hauling themselves onto ice floes from the water. Tusks from the males are much longer than those of the females and are used to show dominance, using them during fierce fights during breeding seasons, often gouging each other while ‘slamming’ their weight around.

What are the whiskers for?

The walrus uses those whiskers for foraging for food within 80m of the surface and can stay submerged for around 10 minutes. If the water is too murky, those sensitive whiskers act as food detectors, and once they’ve found molluscs, for example, walruses clear away any debris with their front flippers, then suck the meat out of their shells. Adults may eat as many as 3,000 to 6,000 clams in a single meal!

Biggest threat

Sea ice deterioration due to global climate change is thought to be the biggest threat to ice-associated marine mammals, including walruses. Identified as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife determined in October of 2017 that the Pacific walrus did not warrant listing following a comprehensive review. In Canada however, the Atlantic walrus has been now listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Yet another species in danger due to historic slaughter by poachers, and for the ongoing legality of trade in walrus ivory - and climate change - a vulnerable species facing an uncertain future.

But getting back to the poem - perhaps the tale is interpreted as a cautionary one about the consequences of trusting those who may not have one's best interests at heart – maybe survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan