Marine Mammals | Polar Unbound

Marine Mammals

Walrus

WALRUS 

The blubbery, tusked, mustachioed walrus can often be seen lounging around on the Arctic ice. When it’s not mating season, walruses are incredibly affable creatures who enjoy loudly barking and snorting to their friends. 

Their long white tusks aren’t just for show, and walruses use them to handle the unique Arctic habitat. They’ve gained a reputation for “tooth-walking” as they use the tusks to pull their massive bodies up out of the water and break through the ice from below to create breathing holes. Bulls also use their tusks to defend their territory or protect their harem of cows during breeding season. 

Walruses have another set of Arctic adaptations. Their mustache isn’t just for panache, as their sensitive whiskers are helpful in detecting their favorite shellfish on the sea floor. Their heavily blubbered bodies also help them survive the chilly polar temperatures. 

Bearded Seal

BEARDED SEALS

The largest of all the Arctic seals, the bearded seal can grow up to 8 feet and weigh up to 575-800 pounds. Adult bearded seals usually stay near shallower bays, where it’s easier to for the benthic feeders to forage for fish and other invertebrates such as clams and crabs. 

Harp Seal

MIGRANT HARP SEALS 

Harp seals are migrant visitors to the Arctic ocean, a feat served by their sleek swimming bodies. You might best recognize the fluffy white harp seal pups, who keep their wooly white fur for 2-3 weeks to blend into the wintry environment. Meanwhile, adult harp seals are covered in a light grey fur marked with a black face and a black, horseshoe-shaped “saddle” resembling a harp—a marking which gives the seals their name. 

Adults take good care of the fat, fuzzy pups, feeding them up to 5 times a day to build up baby blubber. But such good care is short lived, as the pups are left alone after only 12 days. Once they’ve gone solo, pups spend much of the next couple of weeks conserving energy and lying low—and losing their whitecoats. They also begin to venture closer to the ice sheet’s edge as they become accustomed to the water. At this stage, the pups are known as beaters due to the way they beat the water with their flippers as a form of swim practice.

Practice must serve harp seals well, as later in life they spend very little time on land and instead prefer to swim in the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans. They can even remain submerged underwater for up to 15 minutes at a time—quite a feet for these earless seals. 

Ringed Seal

RINGED SEALS

The most widely distributed and common seal in the Arctic, ringed seals can be found throughout the northern circumpolar oceans. They get their name from the lightly-colored circular markings lining their dark gray backs. The pattern can appear more splattered than circular, however, due to its dense nature. 

Ringed seals—the smallest of the seal species—mainly stay near shore ice, but they are able to swim out much farther from the ice’s edge due to their ability to make and maintain breathing holes. The seals burrow out the cone-shaped breathing holes with the claws lining their front flippers. The breathing holes serve another purpose as the ringed seals are known to blow bubbles up it from below to check for the presence of polar bears, their primary predator. 

Polar Bears

POLAR BEAR 

You might be wondering if we’ve messed up placing polar bears under “marine life,” but these bears are definitely marine mammals and a half-aquatic animal. Even their latin name, Ursus maritimus, translates to “maritime bear.” They are indeed well-adapted for surviving not just the Arctic’s ice sheets but the Arctic Ocean. With a thick layer of blubber provides both insulation and buoyancy, water-repelling fur, and oar-like and webbed front paws, polar bears are incredibly strong swimmers sometimes seen swimming hundreds of miles from land masses (though, they most likely hopped on a floating ice sheet to traverse some of that distance). To make it on the chilly surface, polar bears are also equipped with fur on the bottom of their paws to better grip the ice as well as black skin to better soak up the warm sun. 

Polar bears are impressively powerful predators with no natural enemies in the Arctic. They enjoy preying on seals who pop up for a bit of fresh air in cracks of ice, breathing holes or the edges of ice fields. 

Stellar Sea Lion

STELLAR SEA LION 

Weighing in up to 2,500 pounds, the Stellar may be the biggest sea lion out there. The bull males really take the weight cake, however, as they can reach up to three times the size of an average female Stellar. And unlike other “true seals”—looking at you, elephant seals and harbor seals—sea lions have rotating hind flippers and longer front flippers, allowing them to better move on land. 

Stellar sea lions congregate en masse to breed, and it’s definitely a thundering spectacle. Bulls become so focused on gaining territory to impress a mate, young Stellar pups can be trampled in the throng. 

Social animals, Stellar sea lions don’t simply gather together to breed; rather, they enjoy some reunions throughout the year. 

FUN FACT: While sea lions largely feast on octopus, squid, and fish, they have been known to indulge in some cannibalism and snack on some smaller seals. 

HOODED SEALS

HOODED SEALS 

Hooded seals get their name from the inflatable hood, or crest, that sits on an adult male’s forehead. Of course, this inflatable hood generally resembles a hot-pink balloon used by the males to demonstrate their manliness to available females—and scare off other males. With most adult males hitting around 9 feet, 900 pounds, skirmishes could do quite a bit of damage. So males flaunt their big, rosy balloons as a way to outmatch their competitors and win the lady. 

Unlike bearded seals who prefer shallow waters, hooded seals favor the deeper waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. However, they’ve been known to make it as far south as the Caribbean when it’s not breeding season.