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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, May 24, 1999



Walrus wins her
heart with a wave

I recently went on a business trip to Orlando, where I looked forward to seeing the sights. I'm not big on rollercoaster rides, but I figured that a city attracting more than 30 million visitors a year surely had something for me.

So when my work was finished, I went to the hotel activities desk and collected a handful of brochures. But none seemed appealing.

Why would I go on a simulated safari or visit a replicated village when I had seen the real thing?

My Hawaii friend's words echoed in my ears: "Orlando? I don't care for it much. It's too artificial."

I discarded the pamphlets and went across the street to check out a big building constructed completely upside down.

"What is this place?" I asked.

"You can be in a simulated hurricane or simulated tornado here," the man told me. "Ticket prices are . . . "

But I was already leaving. I had been too close to these windstorms in real life to consider paying for one.

The only thing left for me was Sea World, but even then, I was doubtful. I had seen killer whale shows and the much-advertised Lost Atlantis ride didn't do a thing for me.

Still, I usually enjoy marine parks, so I paid the whopping $45 entrance fee and went in.

And there I fell in love.

The object of my affection was at the end of my Sea World tour in an exhibit about the Arctic. You fly in a pretend plane to a pretend field camp where real beluga whales and polar bears live in manufactured ice and snow. But as wonderful as these animals were, they ran a far second to the marine mammal of my dreams: A big, friendly walrus.

I had just stepped in front of the walrus tank when an enormous male swam over and waved a front flipper at me.

Speechless, I stared at the tusked, whiskery face, and the walrus stared back, waving like crazy. What could I do? I waved back.

"He was in a show before we got him," the guide told me. "They taught him to wave."

The walrus soon waved good-bye, then swam gracefully about its big tank, no small feat for an animal carrying at least a ton of blubber.

Among pinnipeds, animals with finlike feet or flippers, the walrus is second in size to the elephant seal, but that doesn't mean it's small. One male walrus weighed 3,432 pounds. A female reached about 1,500 pounds.

Walruses are famous for their tusks, which are actually big canine teeth. Male tusks can measure up to 39 inches and weigh 12 pounds each.

Females have tusks too, but slimmer and lighter ones. These big teeth help walruses haul themselves out of the water and onto pack ice, where they sleep, molt and give birth to their young.

Tusks are also useful to walruses for feeding. The walrus glides along the ocean floor using its tusks like sled runners while searching for clams with its whiskers.

When it finds clams, the walrus separates the meat from the shell with its unusual tongue and oddly-shaped mouth.

Walruses are protected under federal law, but they are still illegally pursued in a practice called head hunting.

Bodies of headless walruses sometimes wash up on Alaska and northern island coasts, victims of tusk hunters who cut the heads off and discard the bodies.

I watched the big, friendly walrus swoop, swim and wave until the park closed. Now, I'm determined to find out where I can go see these magnificent animals in the wild.

Yes, many of Orlando's attractions are artificial. But there was nothing artificial about that walrus or the interest it sparked in me.



Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.



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