Enter the world of walruses with the Alaska SeaLife Center offsite link as your guide! Learn about walrus' hierarchies, their amazing multi-use tusks, and their need for protection.
MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Octonauts, to your stations! Barnacles! Kwazii! Peso!
HOST: You’re listening to "NOAA & the Octonauts" — an episode-by-episode discussion of the children’s TV show The Octonauts, which features a crew of quirky and courageous undersea adventurers. Their mission: to explore the world’s ocean, rescue the creatures who live there, and protect their habitats.
MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Explore! Rescue! Protect! Octonauts!
HOST: Our monthly podcast brings together experts from inside and outside of NOAA to help you—and the children you care about—learn more about the real-life versions of the Octonauts sea creatures and the ocean they call home.
This podcast is hosted by NOAA’s Office of Education and the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network. Today, I’m your host, Lauren Gibson.
Today, we’re talking about Episode 4: The Octonauts and the Walrus Chief.
MUSIC: [Peso’s theme]
HOST: When a walrus steals Peso's medical bag, mistaking it for a funny-looking white clam, the Octonauts must travel inside a walrus colony to find it! But when the walruses don't let them enter, as it was a walrus-only zone, Captain Barnacles, Kwazii, and Peso come up with a plan to get the medical bag back.
MUSIC: [Peso’s theme]
HOST: Before we begin our chat, let’s set the stage for today’s deep dive. Walruses are the biggest seals on earth, with the biggest ones weighing in at about 4000 pounds—just about as much as the average car. Both male and female walruses sport the species’ trademark tusks, which help them defend against predators and search for meals of clams, sea cucumbers, and crabs on the ocean floor. They can also use these tusks like built-in ice picks. When a swimming walrus wants to get out to rest on an ice floe, it can dig its tusks into the ice and use that leverage to haul its blubbery body out of the water.
Although they aren’t currently listed as endangered, walruses still face many threats. Like polar bears, walruses rely on sea ice for their survival. As sea ice dwindles, more walruses are spending more time on land. Scientists at the Alaska SeaLife Center are studying how walruses use these land areas and how they might respond to the new challenges that the land brings.
Our guest today is Derek Woodie from the Alaska SeaLife Center offsite link. He’s joining us via phone all the way from Seward, Alaska, so you might notice a little difference in sound quality for today’s interview. Thank you, Derek, for joining us!
DEREK WOODIE: Thanks for inviting me. It’s quite the honor to be asked to participate in these.
HOST: We’re happy to have you. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your role at the Alaska SeaLife Center?
DEREK WOODIE: Yeah, I’m the curator of mammals here at the Alaska SeaLife Center. We have a small population of Steller sea lions, ice seals, and sea otters here that we look over, and also we have a rescue and rehabilitation program, which covers almost the entire state of Alaska.
HOST: That’s great. Well, thank you so much again for being on this episode to talk about the Octonauts adventure with the walrus. In this episode, the walruses don’t really like other animals near their colonies. So Captain Barnacles, Kwazii, and Peso have to disguise themselves as a fellow walrus to sneak into the colony and get Peso’s medical bag. In real life, do walruses actually not like to share space with other species?
DEREK WOODIE: Very much so. That part of the story is pretty real to life. They normally like to haul out on ice floes in small numbers out in the middle of the sea or the ocean and stay away from anything. If they are required to haul out on land because of the lack of sea ice, they’re very, very skittish, or easily spooked, so they don’t like anything else around them, whether it be a small Arctic fox up in the area or a polar bear. Those can cause stampedes and cause the walruses to try to get back to the water as soon as they can. They do not like to have anything unusual around them other than other walruses.
HOST: So is there a reason why they are...are they scared of other animals? Are they just uncomfortable?
DEREK WOODIE: They’re just out of their element when they are up on land. They are closer to predators, bears—polar bears or grizzly bears—and it’s just something where they would rather be out on an ice floe where they have more protection and feel more at home.
HOST: Okay, that makes sense. So thank you for that answering that part of our question about the episode. In the episode, the walruses also greet each other through blowing in each other’s faces. Is that accurate?
DEREK WOODIE: To a certain degree. I’ve seen walruses blow out a little bit of air into their faces. Most of the time, when I’ve been working with walruses, I see them more sniffing and will get very close to each other and use that sense of smell and their vibrissae, those whiskers on the front of their face...they can act almost like fingers. There are 400 of them on their face, and they can move them individually. Each one has their own little blood supply and nerve endings, so they’re very sensitive, and you’ll see them not only sniffing, but feeling around and greeting each other that way more often than blowing.
HOST: That’s really cool. What else are those whiskers used for?
DEREK WOODIE: Those whiskers are very, very tactile and can go through the mud and the muck down to the bottom of the ocean, and that is what they’ll use, a lot of times, to find the different types of food. There are a lot of things on the bottom—clams, worms, other benthic or bottom-dwelling animals—that they really, really enjoying eating, and they can use those to go through and feel through the mud and the muck, because it is really dark and cold, and hard to see anything down there. Once they stir up the sand and the silt, they can’t see anything, so they have to rely on that sense of touch and those whiskers are what will do that.
HOST: That’s really interesting. I remember in the episode it got cloudy where Peso was trying to look for his medical bag. I bet that was the walruses working up that sand into the water as they were looking for food.
DEREK WOODIE: Yeah, and that’s one of the cases where they are maybe not blowing, but they can, but they also will take water into their mouth and blow it out, almost like a hose, and stir it up so they can get a little bit lower in the mud and the muck, and see what is buried beneath the surface a little bit more, too.
HOST: Once they find these really hard food substances, like clams, how do they get the soft, juicy part of the clam that they are trying to eat out of the shell?
DEREK WOODIE: That’s a good question, and you would think that they would use their teeth or something to crack those open, or, like a sea otter, use a tool or something, but they don’t. They actually can put the clam right up to their mouth, and they have such incredible suction that they can just spread that shell apart a little bit and pull that meat or the foot of the clam and everything out, and spit out the shell and go on to the next one.
HOST: That’s quite impressive. It seems like they have a full toolkit on their face then. You have the whiskers that are kind of those fingers and move independently and can sense food, and those tusks that can help them dig around, a hose in their mouth that can help stir up the sand, and then suck the part of the clam that they want to eat out of the shell.
DEREK WOODIE: Very much so. They kind of come with their own toolkit, especially built into how they are designed and everything, and those tusks—we haven’t even touched on them yet! And they can pull themselves up using those tusks right onto the ice floes, or they can use them to defend themselves from other walruses or predators, or even maybe mucking around down at the bottom, sort of like a farmer would be using a rake or different tools, down there as well.
HOST: Wow. In the Octonauts episode, we also hear the walruses make a lot of sounds with their mouths. What sort of sounds do walruses make in the wild?
DEREK WOODIE: They are very, very vocal creatures. They can make a whistling sound, just like you or I when we would purse our lips together and blow out air, and then they can make clicking sounds. They can take their teeth and clasp them together, where it sounds almost like a woodblock. They also have these air sacs in their neck. They are called the “pharyngeal air sacs,” and when they are underwater, they can make this bell sound. It’s really, really incredible to hear, and they even make some sounds that are so low that we can’t hear, but if you’re close enough, you can actually feel it.
HOST: Fascinating. All right, so is there such a thing as a walrus chief? What is the hierarchy like in that walrus colony?
DEREK WOODIE: They don’t really have a walrus chief. They’re continually changing hierarchy, and they will challenge each other, especially during the breeding season. The males will want the prime breeding real estate, the area closest to where the females are going to come out of the water. So the largest, strongest walrus will want that area, but after a few days or a week or something, he might get tired and get challenged to move out to another area, so it’s constantly changing amongst the herd of walruses.
HOST: So, for example, if the walrus chief had an injured flipper and wasn’t able to challenge other walruses, he would probably not have stayed the walrus chief.
DEREK WOODIE: No, I think some of his other cohorts would have probably challenged him and pushed him out a little bit.
HOST: So what sort of threats are walruses facing right now?
DEREK WOODIE: I’d have to say the major threat that I can recognize would be climate change. The lack of sea ice is really starting to affect them. They rely on that to be able to haul out and go to sleep. If they don’t have any sea ice, they have to swim a lot further to be able to go back to land and take a nap. These guys normally can swim and dive and look for food for several days, and then they like to haul out on a piece of ice that is floating by, and go to sleep. When they do that, they sleep for two or three days, and when they roll off that piece of ice, they are in a completely different area, because that ice was floating that whole time. They may be 10-15 miles away from where they got onto it, and then they are in a totally different feeding ground, and they didn’t have to use any energy whatsoever to do that. If that ice isn’t there, they have to swim 40-50 miles to shore and then 40-50 miles back out to a different feeding ground. That is a lot more energy they are having to use just to be able to get to their feeding grounds.
HOST: That sounds like a pretty serious threat. So what can Octonauts fans and their families do to help this situation?
DEREK WOODIE: Simple things like turning down the temperature in your house so you are not using too much energy, or turning off the lights in a room that you are not going to be in. Reduce, reuse, and recycle, trying to use as much recycled products and things that you can, so that we are not using more petroleum products to build all of these different things. Cut down on your single-use plastics and overall, just be better stewards of our environment. We have to take care of this place. It’s the only place that we call home, and they do as well.
HOST: That’s fantastic advice, and we really appreciate all of your work for walruses and other sea creatures in Alaska, and thank you for taking the time to taking the time to talk with us.
DEREK WOODIE: Thank you very much.
MUSIC: [Captain Barnacles’ theme] [Octo-Alert]
HOST: That’s the Octo-Alert! That means it’s time to reveal the answer and the winner to last month’s fan trivia question. The question was: “How do the Octonauts manage to sneak into the walrus colony?” The answer: They disguise themselves as a walrus! The randomly selected winner this month is: Ella B.! Congratulations, you’ve won an Octonauts toy set. For those you entered but didn’t win, don’t worry. We’ll have next month’s fan trivia question posted on our social media sites very soon.
MUSIC: [Captain Barnacles’ theme]
HOST: Well, that’s it for today’s show. Be sure to check out our website, where you can find more resources on walruses from both NOAA and the Alaska SeaLife Center.
HOST: This is Lauren Gibson signing off for NOAA & the Octonauts. Here’s Captain Barnacles to wrap things up with the Creature Report:
MUSIC: [Creature Report]
Kwazii, activate creature report!
Creature report, creature report, creature report!
Walruses live in colonies.
You’ll find them in the Arctic seas.
They are always challenging each other
To find which one of them is tougher
It’s the walruses’ belief
That whoever has the biggest tusks is the chief
Dance break! Go walrus! Go walrus! Go walrus!
Creature report, creature report, creature report!
We’re done with our mission. Octonauts, at ease, until the next adventure!