SEWARD, Alaska (KTUU) - A two-week old walrus calf has been rescued from the Bering Sea and flown to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
Crew members on the AU Grabber, a gold mining dredge off the coast of Nome, discovered the walrus on board the barge.
Hank Schimschat told KTUU that the crew was digging for gold, creating waves and that the walrus washed right on deck.
"He took right to us," said Schimschat. "He was just like a little puppy dog following us around. We didn't try to pet him or feed him too much."
The crew returned to Nome for the night. When they woke up on Friday and went to work, they saw that the walrus was still on the dredge. They then decided to call the authorities.
That is when the Alaska SeaLife Center sprang into action to organize a flight for the walrus calf to Seward with Northern Air Cargo.
In the meantime, the walrus was taken to Nome. Schimschat met UAF Assistant Professor Gay Sheffield at the wharf and carried the 120-pound calf in a fish tote.
Sheffield said the walrus appeared "emaciated, dehydrated and had several skin sores."
She also said it’s very "unusual to have a mother separated from the calf."
Sheffield couldn’t be sure why the calf was alone, but said that the area is known to have killer whales. She also explained that "walruses are sometimes known to abandon their young."
Once on land, the logistics gained another level of complexity. Walruses, like polar bears and sea otters, are managed by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency needed to be informed of the plan.
They approved the decision to move walrus to Seward.
The Eskimo Walrus Commission, a body that represents Alaska’s coastal walrus hunting communities, was also informed and also approved of the plan.
As Sheffield explained, walruses are very important "nutritionally, culturally and economically" to local native Alaskans.
Sheffield was at pains to explain that this "is not a rescue or a feel-good story - it's a serious undertaking."
"Once a walrus is taken as a calf from the ocean, it will not be returned," she said.
Sheffield described that walruses are very social herd animals, and that it will simply not be possible to release this calf back into the wild.
"The calf will want to bond with people," Sheffield explained. "That’s why it’s not recommended for people to rescue marine mammals."
After a quick Northern Air Cargo flight, the walrus landed in Anchorage and was received by Dr, Carrie Goertz, a staff veterinarian from the Alaska SeaLIfe Center, and Brett Long, the center’s husbandry director.
They transported the young calf to Seward, where he was confirmed to be a male and estimated to be two-weeks old.
Tara Riemer, the CEO and President of the Alaska SeaLife Center, reported to KTUU that the calf "is doing well," and he has been bottle fed with a hydration fluid that is "basically walrus Gatorade."
Riemer said that he hasn’t quite figured out bottle feeding.
She also reported that the calf has been placed in a 15-by-20 foot tank.
"He's a pretty big guy, and it gives him some space to move around and be safe in the space," said Riemer.
She described the tank as a "very large playpen" and says anywhere "between two and four people are with him at any one time."
Riemer confirmed that the walrus calf will not be able to be released into the wild.
"Walruses typically stay with their mother for two years, and we can’t teach a two-week old how to be wild - how to find food and be safe. He will need to stay in a zoological institution," she said.
The center will start looking for institutions that he could be moved to, as they do not have the facilities to look after a fully-grown walrus.
Riemer stressed that there are "only a hand full of institutions in the U.S. that can house walruses."
She also emphasized that as walruses are very social, they will need to find an institution that already has walruses.
Finally, Riemer said that the center has not decided on a name for the walrus but they "were open to suggestions from the public."
Schimschat, with the AU grabber, said he had been calling the walrus Wally, but thought "it would be cool to call him Nugget," as it was a gold mining dredge he was discovered on.
The walrus is currently in a public viewing area in the Alaska SeaLife Center.