An Angry Walrus Mother Derailed a Russian Naval Expedition

The hulking marine mammal was likely trying to protect her calves

Mother walruses like this one on a waterfront near Svalbard, Norway, are very protective of their young. Matthias Graben/Getty Images

Last week, a Russian scientific expedition set off through icy Arctic waters in a Naval landing boat, heading toward the shores of Cape Geller amidst the remote Franz Joseph Land archipelago. But one very angry walrus had other plans for them.

According to Rory Sullivan and Darya Tarasova of CNN, a tusked creature attacked the landing vessel, which had been dispatched from the rescue tugboat Altai, part of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. The Russian Geographical Society, which is a partner in the expedition, said that the boat sank, while the Ministry of Defense reported that “Northern Fleet servicemen ... were able to take the boat away from the animals without harming them,” per a translation by CNN. At any rate, in spite of the tussle, all of the crew members made it safely to shore.

The walrus was a female and was likely striking out over fears for her calves, according to the Russian Geographical Society, which also notes that the incident offers further proof that “the polar latitudes are fraught with many dangers.” Walruses can grow up to 11 feet and weigh up to 1.5 tons; males are typically larger than females, but both boast fearsome tusks and both are known to act aggressively towards humans.

“We have to be careful during research not to get surrounded by ice and walruses without an escape route,” Lori Quakenbush, a biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic Marine Mammal Program, tells Gizmodo’s Ryan F. Mandelbaum. “Calves are curious and will approach a boat, which makes the mother aggressive to defend the calf. Groups of young males can also be aggressive and dangerous to small boats.”

And while the animals might lumber on land, they can be swift and sneaky in the water. In 2012, the National Geographic adventurer Erik Boomer was kayaking around Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and observing walruses from what he thought was a safe distance. But “all of a sudden,” Boomer told the CBC at the time, “a walrus came up out of the water literally right underneath and beside me."

“I saw the walrus' face and it was pushing me and I was getting spun around, and I planted my paddle right between his eyes and held my distance and kept pushing off and kind of whacking him,” he recalled.

The Russian crew has been studying the flora and fauna of Franz Joseph Land, a cluster of nearly 200 islands that are occupied only by military personnel. The members of the team, according to Sullivan and Tarasova, is following the paths of 19th century expeditions, including those of the Austro-Hungarian military officer Julius von Payer and the American explorer Walter Wellman. They are also looking for the remains of Georgy Sedov, a Russian explorer who died in Franz Joseph Land in 1914.

According to the Russian Geographical Society, the Altai crew is continuing to carry out their work—in spite of the walrus-induced setback.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.