Aiviq — Walrus

Aiviq, the walrus, is an enormous member of the puijiit, once hunted and feared by the Inuit. While a single walrus represents an immense amount of meat and hide, it is also a formidable opponent, powerful and agile in the water, and armed with impressive tusks easily able to penetrate a skin-covered kayak. In sacred and poetic language, it is known as tiqlaralik, "who has something to pierce with" and kauligjuaq, "the big one with thick skin" (Randa 1994). One hunter puts it succinctly: "Walrus are the most ferocious marine animals" (IOHP 136).

Inuit say that the life cycle of the walrus parallels those of the ringed seal and the caribou. During the dark period, bull walruses may live somewhat closer to shore, but females and young stay out amongst the moving floes. In the deep winter they are often found far out in the moving ice, only moving onto the land fast ice in qangattaasat (February) after the sun has lifted well above the horizon (IOHP 402, 162, 054). Mark Ijjangiaq of Igloolik explains, "What you would do is align the bottom of your mitten to the edge of tunguniq (water sky at the horizon) and if the sun appears on top of your mitten then… at this time the walruses are going to move towards the land fast ice" (IOHP 187). They are the third species to tulak – come in from the ocean – following the bearded and ringed seals. When they arrived, families moved out closer to the floe edge for ease of access to the hunting grounds. For several weeks hunters could concentrate on hunting walrus out on the moving ice, a hazardous occupation. When seals were scarce, walrus blubber could be used as fuel for soapstone lamps. In this case, hunters focused on pregnant female walruses or younger, fatter animals, as these had the best blubber for burning. The younger walruses and the females tended to stay farther out on the moving ice, while the bulls, which grew thin in the winter, were found closer to shore. The sound they made as they were feeding underwater could sometimes be heard through the ice, and was known as uuruttut (IOHP 023).

Like seals, walrus need to make holes in the ice in order to breathe and to come out on top of the ice. These holes are known as iniit, and often consist of the aglu (breathing hole) of a seal that the walrus has simply enlarged (IOHP 093). When the ice is thin, the walrus breaks through using only the strength of its back to lift and shatter it; with thicker ice, the animal must use its tusks to pierce through the frozen layer. Each of these types of holes has its own name. Furthermore, while a walrus is out on the ice, the hole or lead it came up through sometimes freezes over. In this case, it must crawl across the ice to the floe-edge. The tracks left by the slithering walrus are then known as pisungniit.

Over the course of the summer, walrus gain weight, so that, like caribou, they attain their greatest weight just before the fall breeding season. Later on they lose weight, especially the bulls, which – again like caribou – become quite thin in the wintertime (IOHP). There are so many parallels between the two species that Noah Piugaattuk of Igloolik remarked, "There are a lot of similarities between a caribou and a walrus, they in fact behave pretty well much the same and think the same" (IOHP 023).

The movements of walrus were used to judge future wind and weather conditions: "The movements of walrus and caribou are used to tell the weather changes. The walrus, even when the winds are not blowing, but when the clouds at this time are forming, will start to go in one direction when there is going to be strong winds blowing soon…" (IOHP 400). When the wind begins to blow from the south (niggiq) in Igloolik, the sea ice moves in close to the land fast ice, and it is time to hunt for walruses on the moving ice. If the animals are found near the edge of the moving ice, the south wind will last only a short time, while if they are deep in the moving ice, farther from the land, the wind can be expected to last for a longer period. One elder explained that, in winter, walruses prefer to be near open water, where it is easier for them to feed. A prolonged south wind at Igloolik blows the moving sea ice up against the land fast ice, closing up the open leads, so the walrus move away from this area towards the open ocean, where the ice still has plenty of openings (IOHP 355). Other winds affect the behaviour of the walruses too: when the wind blew from the kanangnaq (east), they would be "on the move", rarely stopping to eat for any long periods of time (IOHP 412, 276, 400).

When conditions were right, the walrus would stop to feed in large groups. Walrus are feeding if they kick up, exposing their hind flippers when they dive. These deep dives send them down to the bottom where they can search for food; shallower dives are made when the walrus are merely moving around, but not feeding (IOHP 410). The Inuit would wait until the walrus had been under water for a reasonable amount of time, before advancing to the edge of the ice. This is because the walrus have an acute sense of hearing, and if the hunters were to advance as soon as the animals went under, their footsteps would be easily audible and the walruses would swim away. Instead, the Inuit waited until the walruses had reached the ocean floor, where they were busy feeding on molluscs and would not hear the people above (IOHP 327).

Hunters had to watch the behaviour of walruses very carefully in order to be able to harpoon one successfully. When a walrus surfaces, particularly if its head is mostly exposed, it is "standing" vertically in the water with its eyes open, carefully surveying the scene for predators. Gradually, it will sink back down until only its snout and back are exposed. After it has taken two breaths, it often takes the third and then floats with its eyes closed, at which point the hunter can advance rapidly to attack (IOHP 412, 410). While it is breathing in, it is unable to hear clearly and this offers another opportunity for the predator.

Walruses are respected and feared for their strength and potential aggressiveness. As for bearded seals, hunters had to be very careful not to get their hands or garments tangled in the harpoon line, lest they lose fingers or be pulled into the water by an energetic walrus (IOHP 327). Kayaks used for walrus hunting were designed to be especially maneuverable, with the cockpit situated farther to the back of the boat (IOHP 183).

Careful observers can distinguish different types of walruses in the water. The older animals have lighter coloured skin, float with their bodies stretched out evenly at the water's surface, and are often more peaceful. A dark-skinned younger walrus, on the other hand, may be much harder to catch:

When they surface and float with their lower section elevated higher than others and their nuzzle [snout] is darker than the rest, we used to be told that we should leave these types of animals alone, even if they are old walruses… when you get close they will continue to attack you… You must pay attention to their breathing and you must know the characteristic of the walrus when it surfaces and floats around. You can tell whether it is going to be difficult to catch or whether it is ferocious (IOHP 136).

Another hunter described a problematic walrus as also having what appear to be sharp edges at the back of its shoulders, and more evident salt stains at the corners of its eyes (IOHP 183).

Although walruses normally feed on clams and other molluscs raked from the floor of the ocean, the Inuit explain how some animals occasionally become carnivorous and prey on ringed seals (IOHP 136; Randa 1994). It is thought that this is primarily the case for old walruses in areas of deep water where they may have trouble reaching the sea floor to feed. On occasion, a young walrus will acquire a habit of eating seals, which it then continues throughout its life. Seal-eating walruses can be distinguished from others by their breathing, which is very short and quiet, and allows them to come up to a seal silently and catch it unaware. Although a walrus could probably not outswim a seal, it can capture seals by hunting along the floe-edge. Carnivorous walruses also appear to surface for shorter periods of time, taking only one or two breaths before diving back underwater. One hunter told this story of encountering a seal-eating walrus:

We thought the walrus was sleeping as the only thing that was exposed was its back as it floated. Then we noticed that it was moving around… When it breathed we saw it spit out something black. At once I realized that it was feeding on a seal. After taking in some air again it only exposed its back on the surface and it moved around… it had the seal wrapped around its fore flippers as it fed on the seal. Whenever it needed air it would get air and sometimes it would breathe out black air which was blood. … It was a male walrus and it had a dark hide… When we butchered it we discovered that it was getting full and was almost done eating when we shot it. The stomach was almost full so I pulled it up to see what was in it. When I slashed it open, I discovered that there were round blubbers, with skin attached of course; the skin of a seal is really hard to tear so it must have just sucked it from the body of the seal, because the walruses do not have strong teeth, so it was feeding on the seal just by sucking on the seal. That was not the only incident that I have seen, there were others that I have seen, when they feed on seals you can see their stomach content which is blubber balls with skins still intact. That is the way they feed (IOHP 136).

Another account explains how to recognize nattiqturniq, a walrus that has becaome a seal killer.

…some male walruses, especially older males, will hunt seals and those walruses can be recognized by their yellow blubber-stained tusks. One of us was able to recognize a walrus successfully hunting seals by the seal oil slick which calmed the choppy sea around the walrus. The walrus used its tusks to stab the seal which was then grasped between the walrus's long and maneuverable fore flippers (Randa 1994).

Over the years, the habits of walruses have changed. With the advent of motor boats and other changes, fewer walruses are found around Igloolik than in past years. Some Inuit feel that they are frightened by the noise of motors, and note that walrus used to come close to the shoreline in the late autumn, whereas now they seldom do (IOHP 360). However, others also appreciate that population fluctuations are natural in any species. When asked if there were any explanations for the increases and decreases in the walrus population, one elder replied:

There does not seem to be a major reason but, as it is known, animals move around. When they move to another location, then it seems that there are less animals. In the summer, sometimes there are less and sometimes there are more walrus, it is because of the currents. Where the main herd is, that's where there are a lot of walrus (IOHP 355).

Walrus formed an important part of the diet and culture of the Inuit from Igloolik. Although in the past many walruses were hunted in the early spring, most walrus hunts nowadays are carried out in the summer, when the water is calm and boat travel to distant ice floes is possible (IOHP 356). The walrus were, and still are, prized for many uses. Tusks were carved into snow knives, parts for dog team harnesses, tools and weapons, and are now used for carvings. Skins could be made into winter linings for stone huts (IOHP 146), or frozen and used as simple sleds. The baculum (bone from the penis) of a walrus was used for many purposes, including tent poles and sled frames (IOHP 181). The membrane from the baculum was peeled off, inflated to stretch it, and later used as a translucent window to let light into huts or igloos (IOHP 146). The meat of the walrus is considered excellent, and good for long trips as it does not spoil easily (IOHP 132). A particular favourite is made by sewing up the meat inside the skin and burying it under a pile of gravel, where it is allowed to ferment for a few months. When it is dug up, the fermented walrus meat, ikunnaq, is a delicacy.

Walruses have their part in Inuit mythology. In one of the stories explaining the northern lights, the flickering patterns in the sky are thought to represent people who have died and travelled to the other world, where they engage in a game of soccer or football. As they dance across the sky, the sky-players use a walrus head as a ball, kicking it back and forth. If they kick it just right, the tusks get stuck in the snow and the head stands still (IOHP 266; Randa 1994). Another legend, the story of Arnakpaktuq or Arnaqtatuuq, tells how a shaman decided to be reborn as many different species of animals, in order to find out how they lived. At one point he lived as a walrus. He said that the walruses were friendly and pleasant to live with, except that they kissed a lot and their kiss (perhaps used to suck molluscs off the bottom of the ocean) was very powerful. A third myth, widespread across the whole Arctic, tells of how walruses were created from the third finger joints of Sedna, when her father cut them off.